Are Twitter lists the new blogrolls?

Twitter is gradually rolling out lists, which let individuals create sets of twitter users they follow, and allow others to follow lists. I’m looking forward to the adoption of twitter lists, to all users and to clients, because they will help manage attention when following lots of people and find other interesting folk to follow. But I wonder how long the “lists” will last as a social game- will they stay interesting, or will they become 2010’s version of the blogroll?

In the early days of blogging, bloggers developed a practice of listing their favorite blogs in the sidebar of their own. This was a practice that fostered recognition, making visible community ties (political bloggers would link to those of like persuasion; tech bloggers to other tech blogs, etc) and reinforce emerging status hierarchy relationship (as smaller blogs linked to bigger blogs, but bigger blogs didn’t link down). For a time, blogrolls were the subject of social contention and squabbles about who linked to whom.

But over time, the attention to blogrolls died down. To some extent, this may be due to the weakening of blogs and their linkages as a (very loose) social network with the rise of explicit social networking services, and social messaging which weaves realtime lightweight social links among bloggers perhaps better than anything on the blog.

But I suspect that blogrolls may have died before and regardless of these other trends, because there was another problem – the information was static. A blogger carefully composed a list of their favorite blogs, and then stopped paying attention, while blogs moved, bloggers retired, changed subjects, and the world otherwise moved on. There were tools that made it easier to update blogrolls, but they didn’t help – the fundamental problem is that people don’t update lists.

Today, as Twitter gradually rolls out the feature, early users are making lists to highlight the top people to follow in various categories. Like blogrolls, there are social dynamics – lists reinforce and help create prestige hierarchies. Presumably there will be preferencial attachment, as users who appear on lists will gain more followers, who will put them on their own lists. Lists are a competitive social game, with users competing for attention. The question is whether they will remain and grow in value, or fade like blogrolls did.

Twitter lists have a major potential advantage over blogrolls. If users use them actively to manage their own attention, then they will be motivated to keep the lists current, since non-interesting people will clutter the followers own stream. It will be interesting to see how lists will continue serve those dual roles: managing attention and curating lists for public audiences. Will the criteria for display be the same as the criteria for personal use? Will the very early adopters, who are using lists for display, keep them up?

Also, how will the asymmetry of Twitter lists affect use over time? A list is very different from a group, which establishes mutual visibility among its members – lists don’t seem to foster connection. A user can subscribe to another user’s list, and there is nothing mutual about that gesture. Now, the asymmetry of Twitter’s social model has had wonderful social results, in that it enables the gradual creation of social linkages without the obligation of mutual friending, and therefore helps the network grow and helps people discover others. The asymmetry of lists seems odder – people are seen in each other’s company without any relation.

As I mentioned, I’m eagerly looking forward to the broad rollout of lists – I’ve been “dunbarred” for a while – I see interesting new people often, but it’s hard to follow new people without better tools for managing my own attention. Just personally, I’m less eager for another status game. I care about who’s interesting, not who’s famous, and don’t find it intrinsically interesting to pursue fame. Will there be new social games for lists, or will it be primarily a fame game? (which is compelling for lots of people, just not me so much).

Profile-based social networks hit a wall, because there’s a limited amount of interest in static information, and people tend not to keep them up to date (perhaps more interesting to teenagers who need social self-definition). Streams are much more interesting because the now is always changing.

Will Twitter’s list pass the Delicious Test test of successful social software ecosystems, that it has value for the individual and gains more value with more users? Will it be temporarily interesting, like a blogroll or a profile, or have ongoing interest, like a stream?

Time will tell.

Update: several people have observed in Friday Twitter conversation that the lists people use to manage their own attention are more likely to be private, and the subject-matter focused lists that people use for display will be more likely to be public. If this trend plays out, this makes it less likely that the feature will pass the Delicious test over time, since people will be more likely to maintain the private lists that they need for their own use than the public ones.

Oh for more good social usage research

Pew recently released its study of Twitter usage showing that 19% of internet users currently use Twitter or a similar social messaging service. The study has some intriguing results, including a statistic showing that cyborgs love twitter best – the more internet connected devices someone owns, the more likely to use Twitter – with 39% of respondents with four or more devices. And that Twitter users often come from the population that already uses social networking: “Internet users who already use social network sites such as MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn are also likely to use Twitter (35%), compared with just 6% of internet users who do not use such social network sites.”

danah boyd compares the social use of Facebook status update and Twitter posts in an interesting blog post with an even more interesting comment thread in which people share personal stories about how they use each service differently. There are some common patterns, and also some differences in personal style and social comfort – some find Facebook a more congenial place for private, and Twitter for public/professional posts, while others find Twitter’s open network more socially congenial.

The data from the Pew study is interesting but “thin” – the information about mobile and connected use says very little about how people actually incorporate these tools into their mobile, connected social lives. The stories in danah’s post are richer, but they are they are anecdotes from people who read danah boyd – surely not a representative sample of social network users 🙂

The discussion on danah’s site raises questions about individual temperament, about the social structure of people’s personal and professional lives, about preferences for conversation with known people and new people, about the affect on the use of the tools on networks of relationships in the world. It would be great to have more information than the fascinating comments conversation.

Oh for more good research on the social use of social software, that asks good questions about how people integrate and perceive social tools in life and work, and that reveals more interesting patterns than simple stereotypes (often a sign of not such good questions).

What are your favorite social software studies? Favorite researchers? References welcome.

Michael Chabon: Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends is Michael Chabon’s love letter to the genres and works of popular, non-realistic fiction that he’s loved all his life – Sherlock Holmes, comic books, Norse myths, ghost stories. Chabon is the Pulitzer prize-winning writer of novels including The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

The wonderful thing about book is hearing Chabon read his favorite tales, with the enjoyment of a fan, the perspective of an attentive reader of the narrative forms, and the technical eye of a good professional writer. Chabon unpacks the rhetoric of ghost and horror stories, where the narrator tone is confessional, testimonial – telling the reader in confidence that the story they are about to hear, and the shocking fact they are about to discover, is observed truth. He demonstrates these techniques later on in the book, in a tour de force “memoir” disclosing his personal encounters with golems in Flushing, LA and Seattle. He reads Cormac McCarthy’s The Road against the traditions of post-apocalyptic science fiction; the blasted landscape, the brutalized survivors, the ambivalence toward technology; and against the genres of Jack London, Robinson Crusoe survivalist adventure and Gothic horror, in which things get progressively more horrific in increasingly shocking ways.

He writes nicely, and occasionally can’t restrain himself from using his decorative chops – this is how he describes the world of Norse myths, which “begins in darkness, and ends in darkness, and is veined like a fire with darkness that forks and branches. Everything that is beautiful, in the Norse world, is something that glints, sparks from ringing hammers, stars, gold and gems, the aurora boealis, tooled swords and helmets and armbands, fire, a woman’s hair, wine and mead in a golden cup.” And this on a comic book distopia by Howard Chayken: “above all with its accumulated history of stale, outmoded, and rotting bright futures, the comic book was perfectly suited not mearly to adapting but in some measure to embodying the hybridized, trashy, garish future of simulacra and ad copy that comics had been hinting out over the past decade.”

Chabon makes it clear that he experiences these works of popular genre fiction as a fan. The introductory quote for the book is Melville writing about his love for whaling, and the attribution reads “Herman Melville, on the writing of fan fiction.” This is the book’s point of view throughout. One example among many – Chabon describes the attraction of the believability of ghost stories: “We love [ghost stories], if we love them, from the depth and antiquity of our willingness to believe them.” He uses the second person plural pronoun – he includes himself among the fans.

Chabon writes interestingly about how the Sherlock Holmes stories served as an early catalyst for a culture of fan fiction. For nearly a century, Holmes has gathered an army of pseudo-scholarly fans who assiduously fill in the backstory and the gaps of the arch-detectives universe. The genres and traditions of contemporary fan fiction communities, which use internet forums and wikis to elaborate upon the fictional worlds of television shows, movies, and books, have been popularized and facilitated by the internet, but preceded the internet.

The pre-socialmedia, pre-blog genres of review and critique pretended to objectivity – the professional reviewer has an obligation to deliver his informed opinion to consumers in need of guidance; the academic critic provides a purportedly objective reading of a text, in the service of advancing some greater esthetic, theoretical, or historical argument. Even (one might argue) critics who demolish claims of objectivity still purport to do so in a manner that pretends disinterest in the text itself – a politically oriented critic, or a literary theorist would not pretend to take on the text out of love.

By declaring his love for works of genre fiction, Chabon joins the post-Cluetrain throng, carrying the banner saying “transparency is the new objectivity.” In this cultural norm, one’s voice is more credible if one discloses one’s point of view, than if one pretends to have a neutral point of view. But unlike the cultural followers of David Weinberger, who carry the banner proudly, Chabon is reluctant to admit to being a fan.

Instead, the book is a long apology for the author’s fandom. As a defense, it gives the presumed attackers more power than they deserve, and reveals much about Chabon’s cultural identity in the high-culture literary establishment. The first chapter of the book is a defense of artwork that comes from the domain of popular entertainment. It identifies pleasure and passivity among the attributes that taint works of entertainment. Chabon agonizes about his attraction to these declasse forms, using the language of class – “Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop preferring the traditional, bourgeois, narrative form.”

Chabon’s esthetic superego is partly the academic establishment, and partly the publishing establishment. He writes about internalizing the esthetic hierarchy of literary academia. “As a young man, an English major, and a regular participant in undergraduate fiction-writing workshops, I was taught– or perhaps in fairness it would be more accurate to say I learned–that science fiction was not serious fiction, that a writer of mystery novels might be loved but not revered, that if I meant to get serious about the art of fiction I might set a novel in Pittsburgh but never on Pluto.” His point of view in part internalizes the point of view of the literary publishing establishment: “over the course of the twentieth century the desire of writers and critics alike to strip away the sticky compound of Orange Crush and Raisinets that encrusts the idea of entertainment, and thus of literature as entertainment, radically reduced our understanding of the kinds of short stories that belong in prestigious magazines or yearly anthologies of the best American short stories.” Chabon resists the prejudice, but accepts the established hierarchy of prestige. He cites his own Pulitzer prize as the thing that gives him the courage to publicly discuss his love of genre fiction.

Another sign of Chabon’s establishment identification – in an article on comic books, Chabon laments the fact that publishers have cultivated the market for graphic fiction for adults, while abandoning comic books for kids. He encourages publishers to once again publish well-done comic books for children. In his plea to the publishing industry, Chabon has the demeanor of a musician who was signed by a major label before the industry imploded – he is looking to the industry to create something, instead of acting as an artist or impresario and doing it himself. One wants to urge Chabon to DIY! – and have dinner with Cory Doctorow sometime.

In the way that it frames the disclosure of the author’s love of genre fiction, Maps and Legends is also a coming out story. Michael Chabon comes out of the closet with his unacceptable loves and shameful predilections. I’m not making up this analogy between gender & sexual preferences and genre, Chabon goes there himself. “A detective novelist or a horror writer who made claims to artistry sat in the same chair at the table of literature as did a transvestite cousin at a family Thanksgiving…” “A lonely business, transgressing”.

Chabon’s discomfort with the esthetic “coming out” process is paralleled with discomfort with sexual identity. When he wrote “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”, which includes a love affair between men (disclosure, I haven’t yet read that novel) he was acutely self-conscious that people would think he was gay. And in “Maps”, he discloses that he had a sexual relationship with a guy, though he’s currently on his second (and longterm, and presented credibly as happy) marriage with a woman.

Now, Chabon is well within his rights to self-identify as not gay. And I can very easily how one might notice and need to negotiate a non-gay identity. Personally, I’ve been politically active for gay rights, keep my hair short, don’t paint my nails or wear heels, and my circle of friends is diverse in sexual and gender identity. People sometimes think I’m gay (which would be very cool, but I’m not.) I need to politely and gently give them accurate information. It’s a little awkward, but not that big a deal to come out as not gay. As someone involved in an artistic subculture in the Bay Area – of all places, here! – why is Chabon so uncomfortable with the fact that some people might think he is gay?

In “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union“, Chabon commits the now-obsolete homophobic cliche in which the characters who are gay or gay-seeming die alone, their identities unrevealed, their love lives stymied – a cliche that has been out of style for 30+ years now. I wondered, in a blog post on that book, how Chabon could be quite that dense. Unfortunately, based on this book, he really is that obtuse – he hasn’t quite got the point that people with identities off the center of the bell curve aren’t doomed or shameful – he lives in Berkeley – it doesn’t take much!

The political obtuseness regarding sexuality carries over into other sociopolitical domains. Chabon reads Sherlock Holmes in the context of adventure fiction, and adventure fiction in the context of empire, without regard for the seemingly obvious impact of colonialism.

Empires are built, however, by laying the groundwork for their own destruction. Subject peoples are educated, organized, given national identities. Any colony made strong enough to survive and flourish becomes too strong to remain a colony

I doubt there’s a South Asian who could read that paragraph without blood pressure medication.

The paragraph in the Holmes chapter proceeds to lament the diminishment of undiscovered territory. “The great explorations undertaken by the Empire, the surveys and royal expeditions of the previous few centuries, had done grave harm to the atlas of adventure.” Ulp. Chabon is not seeing how much the perspective of this “adventure fiction” comes from the viewpoint of the colonizer – the territories being “explored” were plenty familiar to the people who happened to live there, and the perspective of “savage wilderness” comes from the insular perspective of the explorers who saw their own culture as the only possibility for civilization. There is post-colonial speculative fiction where Chabon could learn perspectives about “exploration” and “adventure” from the perspective of people whose cultures were being “explored.”

In summary: I enjoyed this book, and recommend it, mostly for Chabon’s readings of his favorite works, and also in part for the biographical chapters that shed light on the author’s creative process and artistic identity. Unfortunately, “Maps and Legend” also reveals Chabon to be un-admirably obtuse about the social/political/economic contexts of his writing and esthetic preferences. I wish he would take advantage of the wealth of role models around him to gain more comfort with sexual and gender diversity, worry less about status hierarchy of the academic/publishing establishment, and realize the cultural biases of the colonialism-influenced “tale of adventure.”

Now, as a fan of literary interpretation, I enjoy readings that dive into the work, and have theory and politics as background not foreground. There’s a reason I got a degree in English, where classes read literature, rather than in Comp Lit, where the classes focused on theory and political analysis, and barely read any literature itself – I loved the literature and wanted to read it – I took theory classes as icing on the cake. But the meta-analysis has its lessons to teach.

Search the conversation

Now that Microsoft and Google are going to search Twitter, how to make that useful? Social search is clearly part of the answer – filtering results based on social proximity, based on friend/follow lists. There’s another piece that is missing – the context of the conversation. In Twitter, conversations are represented implicitly by a series of replies between users. Twitter itself does not show that explicitly, though there are clients that do so.

The thing is, in Twitter, each message is very short, and often depends for context on a poster’s previous tweet, and on her replies to other correspondents. So in order to deliver meaningful results, it would be useful to algorithmically reconstitute the conversation.

The border of a conversation is fuzzy. In the recent conversation between Howard Rheingold and his Twitter followers on multi-tasking, there were a series of back and forth exchanges, that interspersed a bit with other topics. An algorithm would approximate the cutoff points where the topic changes, and the conversation ends.

Then, the search result could be shown in the context of the conversation, and make more sense.

The spark for this post is a conversation between me, Thomas Vander Wal and Alan Lepofsky on Twitter.

How Facebook integrates FriendFeed – Discovery vs. Privacy

This week, FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit popped up on FriendFeed to let folk know that developers are quietly at work on a couple of longer-term projects that will help bring FriendFeedy goodness to the larger world. There has been a lot of discussion about the dropoff in FriendFeed traffic since the Facebook acquisition, and the appearance was intended to reassure the community. People weren’t reassured, not only because Buchheit didn’t share any details about what they’re actually working on, but because there is a fundamental questions about how that integration would work, because of a fundamental difference in the social model of the services.

Facebook is designed to to share things only with one’s friends, and FriendFeed is designed to make things discoverable through the social network. These social models look superficially similar – a user shares content through a friend list, but are deeply different.

Facebook’s default today is private/symmetric. You need to be mutual friends to see each others content, and if you are not friends with someone, you have access to very limited information. There is a “fan page” model but it is oriented toward “publishing/celebrity” rather than information sharing. By contract, FriendFeed has a public/asymmetric model like Twitter. Information is public by default, you can easily discover someone’s content without any “friend” gesture whatsoever, and you can follow someone’s stream without a mutual friend commitment. Information and conversation is discoverable. FriendFeed has strong searching and filtering capabilities that let you find things and people you’re interested in.

These two social models reflect very different values. With Facebook, the value is to share things in confidence with one’s friends, and to conversations in confidence. The deviations in the model that result from diverse friend networks, from disclosure through 3rd party applications, and other sorts of “information leakage” are seen as problems, “privacy violations” that need to be controlled through configuration, through restricting information, through policies that restrict information sharing.

With FriendFeed, the value is to share things publicly. On FriendFeed, the value is to make things discoverable and sharable, in one’s social network and with others who may find it, and to have conversations that attract interested people. Communities that gravitated to FriendFeed included scientists, journalists, and educators – communities that explicitly valued the discoverability.

In the discussion on FriendFeed, the community was not mollified, because they fundamentally value the discoverable model of FriendFeed. For FriendFeed users, simply adding FriendFeed-style service integration into the symmetric/private Facebook model, it will be much less useful. A user will able to more easily share updates from Delicious or Youtube or to their friend network, but be unable to discover new people and information.

This difference is often put with a value judgement shortcut, Facebook is closed=bad. This judgement is too simple – the problem is that as Facebook gains more and more power to share information, and the defaults remain private, then actions like discussing news stories won’t be in the public domain, even if people would prefer them to be. But if the initial use case for many users is privacy, then changing defaults to increase sharing will have negative consequences.

For the community in the FriendFeed discussion – disclosure, myself included – the integration will have value if it brings more of the FriendFeed public/asymmetric discoverable model to Facebook, and will not have value if it doesn’t. Simply promising to bring FriendFeed features into Facebook is worthless without making that information discoverable.

How to create a social network that enables privacy but promotes and rewards discovery? That is a challenge. and the way that Facebook integrates FriendFeed will show whether Facebook is interested in discovery and so, are they up to the challenge.

Update: Questions about Facebook’s direction were short-lived. Later yesterday, Facebook announced that public updates would be searchable on Bing. Clearly Facebook is headed for more discoverability. The question is now how this will play out in terms of Facebook user expectations and user experience.

A time for focus, a time for distraction

Social messaging can quick way for a traveller to find a friend’s recommendation for dinner in a strange city, for a salesperson to get a quick answer to a question when a customer’s on the phone. Realtime communication can enable rapid response, but a constant stream of chatter can be a time-consuming distraction.

In a Psychology Today article posted by Linda Stone and retweeted by Tim O’Reilly, a recent study by two MIT neurosciencentists shows that multitasking and distraction make people less efficient at getting tasks done.

In response to O’Reilly’s post, pioneering internet educator Howard Rheingold questioned the assumptions around the research and its interpretation: “Regarding neuroscience abt attention, distraction, multitasking – is efficiency highest & only goal? What about discovery? Pattern-finding?” If multitasking makes us inefficient, is efficiency always desirable?

In response to Rheingold’s question, I shared an article I read this weekend, contrasting the efficiency-oriented mindset of web developers with the focus of game developers. In a game context, the focus is on fun, story, character, not efficiency. There are also some salient differences differences between social media and traditional games: “Of course the game world thinks of games as built by game designers & the games we play in social media are often nomic [i.e. players make up the rules]. Also what efficiency misses is that in social media we’re often paying attention to people not tasks.” Rheingold took this one step further “Which leads me to wonder how much of the dreaded multitasking we do online is social discovery and relationship maintenance/repair.”

Efficiency isn’t necessarily the goal in social media. People are making social contact, developing patterns of social gestures that maintain relationships. When a colleague in Canada posts about tasty mango sushi, and a colleague in Portland, Oregon empathizes with turn toward fall weather favoring warm soup, we’re not just spewing pointless trivia, we’re sharing a personal connection that otherwise doesn’t happen separated by many hundreds of miles. Mark Drapeau makes this point with typical good-humored provocativeness: “I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.”

Rheingold proposes, based on his own experience that multi-tasking may also help find meaning in diverse information: “I surf and task switch constantly, store and forward what I find, make notes, often find overarching patterns. Rheingold believes that students sometimes need to learn to be less focused: “Focus has its place, but many of my students who are adept at it need to unlearn dependence on it to zoom out to big picture questions.”

Jim Pivonka agrees that that multi-tasking is useful for young people learning, but brings evidence that it is otherwisecounterproductive for getting things done: “Other than the learning task, multitasking & high performance task execution suspected pretty much mutually exclusive.

In addition to learning, Rheingold posits art as an activity that is valuable, but not about efficiency. “To me, making art is an activity that is valuable for it’s own sake, not for the artifact or its utility, so efficiency is orthogonal… To paraphrase Kierkegaard, for me, making art “is a reality to be experienced, not a problem to be solved,” or artifact 2 B displayed.. dl willson suggests that art may be efficient in a different way, “@hrheingold I would argue that art is efficient…because art is a spark. “Art” is not the object but the spark.”

To be honest, I am not sure that I am correctly representing the dialog between Rheingold and Willson; they may be able to correct my mis-reading. Regardless of the respective understandings of art, it is clear that whichever definition would not meet the tests of the neuroscientists for task-based efficiency!!

Several others suggest alternative models for focus. Brad Ovnell cites a different type of focus needed in Karate: “Loved sparring in karate b/c it developed ability to focus & look wide at once.” Gregory McNish suggests that perhaps focus should have a rhythm, in and out, like breathing.

Jonathan Pratt, an educator with neuroscience background, suggests that the neuroscience research is looking at task efficiency since that is easy to research: “I think it’s a matter of tackling the easier/more quantifiable questions first…brain’s very complex & neuro’s a young field.”

For Rheingold, the hyper-focus on efficiency calls to mind his earlier reading of work by Jacques Ellul, who articulated in the 1950s a grim vision of society being taken over by “technique” – technologies and highly structured activities that eat away at human autonomy and community.

A summary of the conversation: there are goals and values for multi-tasking and social media, other than task-based efficiency. Social gestures, learning, pattern-finding, art – these are all very different from the task completion that is shown to be hampered by multi-tasking. Findings about the impact of multi-tasking on task completion is useful but limited. Hopefully future research will broaden focus to examine the relationship between the experiences of multi-tasking and ambient sociality and other dimensions of life.

Salmon – re-assembling distributed conversations

Salmon is a brand new protocol proposal that promises to solve a problem that’s gotten worse with social media, and has been around since the early days of blogging – the problem of distributed and disconnected conversation. People engage in conversation across multiple tools, and there’s no good way of assembling a coherent view of that conversation.

The problem has gotten significantly worse with social messaging and social RSS readers. Twitter doesn’t even have evident threading (although the reply target is in the metadata). The brief nature of Twitter and FB posts means that a conversation is even more broken up, and conversations often segue back and forth between shorter Twitter messages and longer posts elsewhere. Services such as Disqus provide a workaround for the fundamental problem with the architecture of web conversation.

When a user makes a comment at an aggregator (such as Friendfeed/Facebook or Google Reader), the comment is fed back to the source, and the comment can be re-assembled at the original blog post. Crosspost sharing (the common situation where a user shares a video or song from Youtube or or Blip to Twitter or Facebook) is handled by a crosspost reference to the source. Oauth is used to authenticate users and help prevent spam and flooding.

While the use cases underlying the spec appear to be distributed comments on a single blog post, and distributed comments on a single shared object (a photo, video, song, presentation), I wonder whether the same method could even be used to coalesce distributed conversations in social messaging services themselves, where conversations are scattered and organizing them takes significant effort.

Social network visibility
In backchannel conversation about the need to make streaming conversations visible, Adrian Chan had this insight: “til posts refer to other posts there’s no communication system.” Salmon can potentially add the post references, and create a communication system out of today’s disconnected scattering of posts and comments.

If Salmon is adopted in tools and comes into common use, when posts link to posts, there will be a powerful consequence. Not only will the conversation will be visible. The conversationalists will be visible. The conversation flow will be visible. The social dynamic of conversation, which has been hidden in the bounces between services, suddenly becomes traceable. This has consequences for participants – it gives participants a more coherent sense of who’s talking to whom, and enables our primate-evolved senses of trust and reputation to work. It could also enable a new level of social network analysis across services, potentially facilitating content recommendations, search, and consumer marketing analysis.

Conversational curation
One of the things that we’ll find, when the decentralized conversation is suddenly more visible, that aggregation hasn’t solved the problem of sense-making. When the conversation is pulled back together, the result will often be a hairball of inter-related threads. The art, then, will be a process of curating the artifacts of conversation into something that does make sense for participants at the time and in the future. I suspect we will see the re-creation of some editorial techniques developed in some very old instances conversational discourse represented in text, from talmudic and confucian traditions. Just as conversations need “tummlers” to facilitate civil and congenial experiences, the artifacts of conversations will need curators, and curators’ tools to pull them together.

Here’s an example of a Twitter conversationsummarized and curated for folk to share later. The tools for this are very awkward today – manual gathering of each post, poster, and quote. It would be much easier to gather the thread with a gesture and then prune it. Wave on its own, as it is, won’t address the need yet either – replay is time-consuming for the reader, and Wave does’t yet have the curation affordances.

Looking forward to what’s coming next

One of my favorite quotes is Paul Saffo’s “never mistake a clear view from a short distance” – I wrote this post in 2002 and the problem is still unsolved, and has gotten worse. Salmon appears to be a promising approach. There are open questions, including how the approach will scale, the viability of the authentication process, and the adoption by tool vendors. I look forward to reading architectural analysis about how this might work in practice, and look forward to attempts to prove the model out. This could be another powerful step toward the decentralized social network of the future.

The Eternal Frontier

As a kid I was transfixed by the remote worlds illustrated in the Peabody Museum’s murals of prehistoric creatures, and learned the skill of getting lost in the Museum of Natural History. With the scientific developments in the decades since those exhibits, I continue to find a well-told natural history an awe-inspiring tale; the stories of evolution, population dynamics, continental drift and climate change play out with accidents, contingencies, and deep patterns.

Tim Flannery’s Eternal Frontier is a big picture ecological history of North America, from the demise of the dinosaurs til yesterday. From a basic following of science news, I’d heard the theory that dinosaur extinction was caused by an asteroid impact. The book assembles a wide swath of evidence to pull together the big picture of massive destruction – the impact caused fire that burned most of North America; probably even more deadly was the dispersal of debris into the atmosphere, disrupting photosynthesis for months, causing ecosystems depending on land plants and plankton to die off. The result was massive extinctions on land and ocean. The stratigraphic evidence around the world shows a layer of sediment containing iridium, an element characteristic of asteroid material. In what is now North Dakota, 80% of all species disappeared above the iridium layer. According the fossil record, more species survived in fresh water, where the ecosystem is more dependent on detritus, than on dry land or ocean, where the ecosystem depends on photosynthesizing plants and plankton.

Many more deciduous plant species survived than evergreens, because they can “shut down” in times of stress, and for ten million years after the impact, decidious trees dominated in areas where evergreens would be otherwise favored by the climate. The anomalies caused by the asteroid impact serve to illustrate the more typical, longer-term patterns in North American ecology.

One of the strengths of the book is the way that Flannery illustrates large-scale patterns that play out over deep evolutionary time. One such pattern is North America’s distinctive sensitivity to climate change. The continent is shaped like wedge shape, with mountain chains running north/south. This geography results in causing in dramatic seasonal changes in temperature during the year than in other parts of the world and also magnifies the effects of global change in temperature. During two periods of global cooling at 50 and 38 million years ago, the deep sea temperature fell 4-5 degrees Celsius overall, but fell by about 9 degrees Celsius on the gulf coast.

Another deep pattern Flannery illustrates is the characteristic constellations of species in ecosystems. The African Seregeti has several major species: elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion. A similar ecosystem in North America was populated by mastodons, and later gomphotheres. The rhino role was played by Aphelops and Teleoceras. The big cat role was played by nimravids, and later on “barbourofelis” (illustration by the amazing natural history illustrator Carl Buell, aka Olduvai George.)

After major disruptions, Flannery shows that the ecosystem tends to repopulate with creatures of similar size, playing similar roles. This leads Flannery to leads to a recommendation (that he has supported for many years in his native Australia as well) to re-introduce species of megafauna such as elephants and camels that are missing in today’s ecosystem.

Speaking of missing species, Flannery reviews the evidence and finds the case compelling that humans caused the extinction of megafauna – sabre toothed tigers, mammoths, camels, sloths that roamed North America before humans arrived 13,000 years ago. The pattern isn’t just found in North America – humans arrived 50,000 years ago in Australia, and 6000 years ago in Cuba, and the megafauna disappeared at the time the humans arrived. Flannery makes that case that the species that flowed into North America after the arrival of humans had behavior that enabled them to survive predation – buffalo lived in large protective herds, and wolves had evolved near humans in Eurasia and had evolutionary time to learn fear. These behaviors worked until humans upgraded from knives to guns.

One of Flannery’s strengths is bringing together the evidence to tell big stories and illustrate big patterns. Two of the biggest patterns Flannery discusses also seems to me to be the most problematic.

The question with which Flannery frames the book is which continent originates the most species. Continents – largely isolated large landmasses – are biologically meaningful units in which evolution proceeds largely in isolation, so; examining the relative direction of population flow reveals interesting patterns. This lens also reveals interesting factoids – squirrels, dogs and camels all originated in North America. I don’t know about you, but I always wondered about species that seemed common to North American and Europe – what originated where? This book answers those questions. In addition to the question about population flow, there is also a real “history of science” question – the early dominance of North American evidence in paleolontology appears to be be a historical accident of caused by early enthusiasm and progress in North America; when you assemble paleontological results from other parts of the world you get a more balanced picture. And yet, aside from the real scientific and social history issues, the book is also replete with metaphorical language speculating about which continent will prove to be the “winner” in the global contest for originating the most species. This competitive framing sounds a bit too suspiciously like human geopolitics for comfort; the continental competition narrative reads like the Olympic television coverage of paleontology.

An even more problematic thesis is that of the frontier. There is a scientific element to it, in that North America has historically drawn influxes of species from Eurasia when the Bering crossing was open, and from South America when migration was possible; North America is a “frontier” into which new species spill and spread. Flannery sees the history of the immigration and diffusion of human cultures into North America in modern times as an instance of the same pattern. But the economic circumstances that have driven human migration to North America seem very weakly analogous to the geographic patterns that drove animal migration; the weakness of the hypothesis can be seen by looking at migrations that have nothing to do with geographical access – African Americans travelling North for manufacturing jobs; workers fleeing the rust belt for other parts of North America when manufacturing jobs move south and overseas. The reasons people move have everything to do with with human culture and financial resources.

Flannery draws his picture of the frontier from Turner – a historian who drew a romantic picture of a rough-and-ready, independent settler whose mindset is shaped by geographical expansion. There have been strong historical critiques of Turner – I’m most familiar William Cronon from his course in the American West and his book on the history of Chicago. Cronon shows how the exploitation of timber, mineral, and other resources were always closely tied to urban cultures and urban financial structures. More than that, the myth of frontier was shaped very early by theater and advertising; that Romantic self-image was heavily colored by fiction. And Turner’s focus on the white, Anglo frontiersman reflects his bias -there were African-Americans, Mexicans, ethnic Europeans; women and men. Turner’s Frontier is an important cultural myth, but a much weaker base for scientific comparison.

As a cultural myth, the Frontier and the death of the Frontier is a compelling narrative to explain the relentless exploitation of natural resources and the terrifying awareness — much later than the crisscrossing of the continent by railroads and telegraphs — that natural resources are limited and humans have the power to destroy our own civilization by mis-utilizing resources. The connection to the the flows of animal populations based on climate and geology is most tenuous. It would be better if Flannery drew a distinction but he doesn’t; the book tries to draw a seamless analogy between the population flows into North America across millions of years, and the cultural mythologies of manifest destiny and environmental exploitation, but the seams show.

Despite the weakness of the title argument, I really liked the book. if you are already deeply familiar with the scientific literature and have been following the topics closely across recent decades, this book may not have much new for you. If you are generally interested in the topic but not as familiar with the details, the book is fascinating. It is a strong entry in a genre of environmental history that weaves together paper-level detail to an accessible big picture story that shows the larger patterns across deep time.

Synchronic and diachronic readings of activity streams

The meme of the moment is that online world is moving more realtime. Same conversation, played like Chipmonks Christmas. The anxious worry that Twitter and Facebook will kill cultural depth. Cheerier observers of the same trend see a bubbling flow of friendly social banter, where the compressed time-intensity gives people a sense of shared memorable experience that generates social bonding.

There’s more going on than what’s on the surface. Activity streams are surfacing conversations and information that weren’t seen as easily or as broadly – the much-maligned sandwich tweets that help friends feel connected and let fans see their heroes are human – and serious stuff like earthquake news and updates about critical business facts. With seismic activity on the brain, it’s like volcanic activity is raising an underwater mountain chain so the tops are above the water. You can see peaks above the waves, but the mountains are still there.

There are several important consequences.
* First is the observation that Twitter doesn’t replace long-form blogging but complements it. Twitter headlines draw attention to longer, more thoughtful exposition.
* Second is the related observation that what is surfaced doesn’t need to be something brand new, as Kevin Marks points out. Kevin uses this principle on a regular basis when he cites on Twitter blog posts that were written 3 months, 3 years, 8 years ago. Or for that matter when Carl Malamud quotes Jefferson on Twitter in the context of contemporary policy debate. So, what’s going on is banter, grooming, fire, flood and Michael Jackson, to be sure, but also potentially surface connections to underlying network of much longer-lasting conversations.
* Third is the idea that what’s under the surface can be measured, and the words and relationships that can be measured have economic value.

The most visible time axis in the world of streaming is what’s on the surface. But what’s under the surface is also meaningful and increasingly valuable.

At the one formal class in literary theory I took as an undergrad at Yale – I say one formal class; the ideas of lit theory flowed through the place like the smoke wafting from the cigarettes of undergrads and grad students as they tossed their scarves over their shoulders, and flipped their asymmetric hair, but I digress – the instructor introduced us to the concept of “synchronic” and “diachronic” analysis from the field of lingustics, often pictured as a 2d graph.

Synchronic readings focus on what’s going on at a fixed moment of time. Diachronic readings compare what happens and develops across time. In the world of streaming social media, people are fixating on the synchronic axis, but the diachronic axis is also worth watching.

The tact of social media monitoring

In context of ongoing commentary about social media and branding, Adrian Chan observed on Twitter that “metrics analyze individ[ual] tweets for brand mentions and sentiment, losing context of talk and user’s relationships.” Follow-on conversation with Thomas Vander Wal and Chris Baum focused on opportunities for network conversation analysis to elicit valuable information about the social context of brand mentions.

The challenge for marketers lies in how to use this information in a way that preserves trust with customers. Trust is a leading indicator, and, as proposed by Chris Heuer, an important metric to assess a company’s relationship with its customers. Even though a company may have this information – and it is publicly available – doesn’t mean that using it well is easy.

Privacy is over, said Scott McNealy in a famous speech a number of years ago. The topic about the amount and richness of public information is often cast in terms of surveillance, privacy violation, individuals vulnerability, the need to protect against threats, and the futility of doing so. But for many sorts of information and in many contexts, privacy isn’t the salient concept.

There is another important concept from city and village living – the concept of tact. In coffee shops and restaurants every day, people converse about the matter of their lives – their kids schools, weekend plans, sports injuries. This doesn’t mean that it’s socially appropriate for the person at the next table to jump in and express an opinion about how to treat tendonitis. The participants aren’t trying to keep the information confidential – they know that what they’re saying can be overheard. But they take advantage of social norms of tact to assume that other people are choosing to politely ignore their conversation.

Similarly marketers may observe groups of people who discuss travel, or shopping, or gadgets, or heath. Some marketers search for broad keywords and auto-follow anyone who mentions the keyword. Additional social analysis would let them auto-follow others in the conversation, too. The marketer now has the power to jump in and start promoting themselves to everyone in the conversation. These crass activities violate the trust of the people in the conversation.

More sophisticated tactics entail longer-term listening, engaging in conversation when it’s sought and called for, using lower-touch gestures like retweets to engage recognition when appropriate. Employees participating as themselves act as community members and are community members. With an understanding of the culture, marketers can participate in and catalyze welcome public conversations. Within this context, it becomes valuable to know key conversational clusters to help spread information of shared interest, in a way that builds on shared interest instead of violating the sphere of ignoring. When participating with a business identity, tact is key to protect one’s reputation and customers’ trust.