Monday, 29 October 2007

Seeing the wood for the trees

Caught up with an interesting two and a half year old piece by David Weinberger today: Trees and tags - Introduction. As so often, Weinberger's creative - almost poetic - use of analogies brings into focus a topic that had only been in my peripheral vision up to now. This time it was social bookmarking.

I've been using for about six weeks, mainly as a practical, personal solution to an out-of-control collection of miscellaneous bookmarks that I never quite got round to tidying into nice sensible folders. It works, on that level, & I've happily integrated it into my Facebook profile, & even been aware (in a peripheral vision sort of way) that this was Doing Web 2.0.

Weinberger puts the significance of social bookmarking like this: "autumn has come to the forest of knowledge". He doesn't mean that information is gracefully declining into old age, but that the old models of knowledge as tree-like structures are giving way to "piles of leaves". The old way of categorising knowledge is linear, static, inflexible: information lives in one place only. If I want to find out about Paris, for instance, I follow a path through Geography, to Europe, to France & finally Paris. That's how libraries of physical books are organised, & how the first web directories worked. It's what Weinberger calls a "traditional taxonomic tree". The problem with this way of organising knowledge is that it requires prior familiarity with the subject. It's like the dictionary paradox, that you have to know how a word is spelled before you can look it up to find its spelling.

A newer way involves "faceted classification" where there are several possible routes to a piece of information: I could reach Paris by choosing between places/people/activities in three different ways - 'places' most closely resembles the previous route, but 'people' would also work if I was looking for famous Parisians & 'activities' would work if I was planning a holiday. This is the classification system used by many e-commerce websites, where users can locate a product by drilling down through various options - price, brand, features & so on. It still involves a branching, tree-like hierarchy of information - a taxonomy.

Social bookmarking, by contrast, implies a model of knowledge that doesn't start from the trunk or the branches, but from the individual leaves. Suppose I type 'Paris fountains' into a search engine & find this website. I can then add it to my collection & tag (label) it as "travel" & "Paris". Any other user looking for information on Paris will find that site & by searching for "Paris" I will find what other users have tagged. My own Paris collection includes a blog with daily photos of the city, which is also tagged by other people as "blog" or "photo"/"photography". If this was a book, somebody would have to decide if it belonged on the Paris shelf or the photography shelf. In a non-hierarchical classification system, it can live on both.

What's more, the classification process is entirely democratic. No experts need to judge whether each website is worthy, or how it ought to be categorised. Users themselves decide. We can kick aside the pile of leaves, or toss it in the air, or pick out individual leaves & stick them on paper to make a picture, or even hang them on a traditional tree of knowledge. The decisions we make will in turn influence other users. These are no longer taxonomies but folksonomies: knowledge systems organised by "folk" - you, me, ordinary people. As Weinberger puts it, tags & social bookmarking are "an inexpensive, easy way of using the wisdom of the crowd to make resources visible and sortable".

Just as an aside, it struck me that that the TV show "Who wants to be a millionaire?" draws on the three orders of knowledge summarised by Weinbberger. Contestants have three 'lifelines' to assist them in choosing the correct answers to quiz questions. One is "phone a friend" - this amounts to consulting an expert, so fits well with the professionally controlled tree model of information. Then there's "50-50" where half the possible answers are eliminated, to increase the contestant's chances of choosing the correct one. This approximates closely to the faceted model, where users choose between successive options to narrow down their route to the right information destination. Finally, there's "ask the audience" where the studio guests are asked to vote on what they believe the right answer to be, to guide the contestant's response. This, surely, is Web 2.0, the "wisdom of the crowd".

Monday, 8 October 2007

This one doesn't exist yet

I like Martin Weller's suggestion of a meta web 2.0 service ("We do web 2.0 so you don't have to")
what I need is a meta web 2.0 service, one which finds the web 2.o services I need because I can't keep up with them all. I can't even be bothered to work out which fine niche each service is targeting, and whether that is in fact a service I need.
I have a long list of web 2.0 applications to explore, but there aren't enough hours in a day to go on safari, let alone send back deep & insightful blog posts from the field.

There's also a faint echo of some half-learned economics - the distinction between needs & wants, & capitalism's survival on the back of creating wants we didn't know we wanted & needs we didn't know we needed - making me suspicious of web 2.0's proliferation. Perhaps this is all pascalian diversion from What Really Matters.....

Even so, Martin's startup proposal might be the solution. Would it be a 'Rough Guide to Web 2.0' or something far more sophisticated & personalised? Would I be prepared to accept the degree of self-exposure it requires to function usefully? As Martin explains, such a service could only operate if it was primed with detailed knowledge of my preferences, routines, habits, like a sort of online PA.

Given the rather crude attempts of Amazon to tell me what kind of books & CDs my previous browsing/purchasing history suggests I would like to "consider", or the OU Courses & Qualifications website's hopeful listings of courses that 'students who studied this course have also studied at some time' I'm a little dubious about how much information I would need to provide, for a meta Web 2.0 service to achieve greater efficiency than I could myself.

I'm also curious as to how it would search the available options, which change daily. I don't think automated searching could come anywhere near capturing what each service offers, unless there was an agreed set of searchable metadata available (don't get me started on metadata: I encountered them once before & came off worse).

Despite these reservations, I still think it has promise, if only as an expression of our sense of helplessness watching something unfold that we cannot hope to grasp in its entirety.

Saturday, 15 September 2007


I've been spending a lot of time on Facebook recently. I'm confident & comfortable enough there now to admit publicly that I'd steered clear of it for ages because I had it confused with Faceparty, controversial hangout of teens & thrill-seekers with money to spend on its more, um, interesting features.

One big attraction of Facebook for me is the way it lets me combine different real-world networks: my Facebook "Friends" are primarily OU colleagues, but also fellow students & family members. Another appealing feature is the "status updates" where I can post short & trivial comments about what I'm doing right now, & read the same from my friends. I don't always feel like writing a mini-essay for a blog entry, but there's always time for a quick Facebook post.

There's no doubt that Facebook is becoming increasingly pervasive. Just two illustrations, one positive & one negative:

1. A personal anecdote...

I look after several FirstClass forums for (mostly new) OU students. This week, for the first time, one of the new arrivals announced - within hours of the forum opening - that she had created a Facebook group for fellow students on that presentation of her course. She didn't need to explain what Facebook was, & within a day, over 20 members had signed up.

2. Two news stories this week...

Tuesday saw hysterical reports of the 233 million hours a month spent on Facebook & similar social networking sites by UK workers, along with calls for such access to be banned.

Then on Wednesday, we were 'reassured' (ie alarmed) about the risks of loss of privacy & even identity theft associated with Facebook.

I'm not yet convinced of Facebook's potential as a pedagogical (rather than social) aid to learning, but I don't think it's just a fad, & I certainly don't think it marks the End Of Civilisation As We Know It.

Friday, 14 September 2007

What is Web 2.0 anyway?

Good question, & I'm only bluffing my way around the topic myself!

Here's Wikipedia's current take on it:

"the phrase Web 2.0 refers to a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services — such as social-networking sites, wikis and folksonomies — which aim to facilitate collaboration and sharing between users."
My own view has been slightly simpler - I see Web 2.0 as a development where the previous boundaries between writers & readers have become blurred.

The original World Wide Web was, & still is, a democratising & empowering phenomenon because it allowed anyone (well, almost anyone) to become a writer, a producer of content. But it was still very much one-way: a single person, or a small team of people, creates a web page, & the rest of us are merely visitors. In Web 2.0, although there's still a place for passing visitors, the point is to get involved - to produce, as well as consuming.

I see blogs as a transitional stage; not all allow readers to comment, & even those that do, have the comments tucked away, requiring an extra click to access them, & un-searchable. Nevertheless, blogging is a significant advance - Web 1.5, perhaps - because it generally treats readers as almost equal particiapants in the process. I'm a hesitant explorer of new territories compared with many of my colleagues, yet even I've had a blog for almost four years, which suggests it's hardly cutting edge any more!

As far as social networking is concerned, my MySpace page is more recent (June 2005) & I only joined Facebook this year. The proliferation of new Web 2.0 stuff with funny names shy of a few vowels (Flickr) or idiosyncratically punctuated ( only just starting to impinge on my day to day activities. This blog will partly be a record of my journey into Web 2.0, though given my caution, it's quite likely to be Web 3.0 by the time I get there!


...I'd been thinking it was time to split off my OU/techie blogging from the "What I did on my holidays" stuff. Keeping them apart worked well when I was blogging for H806, but I'd left that behind when the course ended. Then today I watched Martin's slidecast & was intrigued both professionally & personally.

On a professional level, for the reasons I outlined in a comment on Martin's OU blog. Basically, a slidecast strikes me as an ideal compromise between uploading a set of Powerpoint slides after a presentation (if the presenter is any good, the slides alone will fail to capture more than a tiny fraction of what was actually delivered - I often find them frustratingly cryptic)& full-on webcasting, which is heavy on resources, unsuited to desktop PC screens (especially for those of us with less than perfect vision)& more inhibiting for a presenter than simply having their voice recorded. A slidecast is also - as Martin's post demonstrates - great for embedding in other forms of online media.

At a personal level, I was amused by Martin's "rules" for blogging, which included the "I'm not interested in your cat" line. Now, I don't have a cat - I'm not even particularly fond of them - but if I did, Bluefluff would certainly have blogged about it! This reminded me about my vague intentions to Do Something about sorting out my own blogging.

Hence Bluefluff 2.0 - not only Bluefluff's second incarnation, but one that will be (loosely) focused on what are (loosely) referred to as Web 2.0 phenomena, the second generation web. Slidecasting seems as good a place as any to start.

Thursday, 13 September 2007