How the Web Melts Distinctions

I finally got a chance to listen to Bruce Sterling’s rant for SXSW 2007 via podcast as I was driving between PA and NC last week.

There were a lot of great things in it. A number of people have taken great notes and posted them (here’s one example). It’s worth a listen either way — as are all of his talks. I like how Bruce is at a point where he’s allowed to just spin whatever comes to mind for an hour to a group of people. Not because all of it is gold — but because the dross is just as interesting as the gold, and just as necessary.

A lot of this year’s talk was on several books he’s reading, one of which is Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. It’s fascinating stuff — and makes me want to actually read this thing. (It’s available online for free — as are some excellent summaries of it, and a giant wiki he set up.)

In the midst of many great lines, one of the things Sterling said that stuck with me was this (likely a paraphrase):

“The distinctions just go away if you’re given powerful-enough compositing tools.”

He was talking about commons-based peer production — things like mashups and remixes, fan art, etc. and how the distinctions between various media (photography, painting, particular instruments, sculpture, etc) blur when you can just cram things together so easily. He said that it used to be you’d work in one medium or genre or another, but now “Digital tools are melting media down into a slum gully.”

First, I think he’s being a little too harsh here. There have always been amateurs who create stuff for and with their peers, and they all think it’s great in a way that has more to do with their own bubble of mutual appreciation than any “universal” measure of “greatness.” It just wasn’t available for everyone to see online across the globe. I’ve been in enough neighborhood writer’s circles and seen enough neighborhood art club “gallery shows” to know this. I’m sure he has too. This is stuff that gives a lot of people a great deal of satisfaction and joy (and drama, but what doesn’t?). It’s hard to fault it — it’s not like it’s going to really take over the world somehow.

I think his pique has more to do with how the “Wired Culture” at large (the SXSW-attending afficianados and pundits) seem to be enamored with it, lauding it as some kind of great democratizing force for creative freedom. But that’s just hype — so all you really have to do is say “we’ll get over it” and move on.

Second, though, is the larger implication: a blurring between long-standing assumptions and cultural norms in communities of creative and design practice. Until recently, media have changed so slowly in human history that we could take for granted the distinctions between photography, design, architecture, painting, writing, and even things like information science, human factors and programming.

But if you think of the Web as the most powerful “compositing tool” ever invented, it starts to be more clear why so many professions / practices / disciplines are struggling to maintain a sense of identity — of distinction between themselves and everyone else. It’s even happening in corporations, where Marketing, Technical Writing, Programming and these wacky start-up User-Experience Design people are all having to figure each other out. The Web is indeed a digital tool that is “melting” things down, but not just media.

The Glider as Hacker Emblem

glider emblem

This is delightful. A sort of logo for hacker culture. Not hackers as in criminals (hacker culture calls those people ‘crackers’ among other things) but hackers as in lateral-thinking technology heads.

The graphic … is called a glider. It’s a pattern from a mathematical simulation called the Game of Life. In this simulation, very simple rules about the behavior of dots on a grid give rise to wonderfully complex emergent phenomena. The glider is the simplest Life pattern that moves, and the most instantly recognizable of all Life patterns.

I love this emblem because it really does reference so many things I adore about the internet, what’s happening on it, and the culture that I believe to be the beating heart of it.

Here’s some of the explanation from Frequently Asked Questions about the Glider Emblem

The glider is an appropriate emblem on many levels. Start with history: the Game of Life was first publicly described in Scientific American in 1970. It was born at almost the same time as the Internet and Unix. It has fascinated hackers ever since.
In the Game of Life, simple rules of cooperation with what’s nearby lead to unexpected, even startling complexities that you could not have predicted from the rules (emergent phenomena). This is a neat parallel to the way that startling and unexpected phenomena like open-source development emerge in the hacker community… The glider fulfils the criteria for a good logo. It’s simple, bold, hard to mistake for anything else, and easy to print on a mug or T-shirt. It could be varied, combined with other emblems, or modified and infinitely repeated for use as a background

I’ve been going on and on about how the internet has given rise to a “game layer” to the world we live in: a sort of subcutaenous skin of data that connects everything, and mirrors the logic of our world. (Hence the number of friends you have on MySpace; the location you’re twittering from in Twitter; which songs you listen to the most on your iPod; the ability to track a UPS package at every turn; and on and on). Everything we attach to the network becomes more data, and if it’s data, it’s game-able.

Hacking itself is a kind of game, and the culture is very playful. I can’t get enough of this idea that “play” and “game,” once expanded some in their meaning and context, show us entirely new frames of reference that help explain what’s happening in the world.

Teens not as stupid as we think. (Pew/Internet)

Yeah, I modified the title a bit… but that’s the gist of what I’ve scanned so far. Basically, all this worry over teens naively posting all their personal information for predators to poach may be somewhat overblown. The kids are alright, and savvier than we think.

Pew Internet: Teens, Privacy and SNS

Some 55% of online teens have profiles and most of them restrict access to their profile in some way. Of those with profiles, 66% say their profile is not visible to all internet users. Of those whose profile can be accessed by anyone online, nearly half (46%) say they give at least some false information. Teens post fake information to protect themselves and also to be playful or silly.

Sensible definition of wiki vs blog

I wasn’t aware there was such debate over what makes a blog a blog, and a wiki a wiki. But Jordan Frank over at Traction Software makes a sensible distinction, one that I could’ve sworn everybody took for granted?

What is a Blog? A Wiki?

And that, finally, brings me to a baseline definition for both blogs and wikis:
A system for posting, editing, and managing a collection of hypertext pages (generally pertaining to a certain topic or purpose)…
Blog: …displayed as a set of pages in time order…
Wiki: …displayed by page as a set of linked pages…
…and optionally including comments, tags or categories or labels, permalinks, and RSS (or other notification mechanisms) among other features.
Both “blog” and “wiki” style presentations can make pages editable by a single individual or editable by a group (where group can include the general public, people who register, or a selected group). In the enterprise context, more advanced version control, audit trail, display flexibility, search, permission controls, and IT integration hooks may also be present.

He goes into the history of various debates over the terms, which I found enlightening. Mainly because they show that people invest the idea of “blog” or “wiki” with lots of philosophical and political baggage and emotional resonance.

Evidently some folks believed “A BLOG is what it is because it allows comments and conversation!” But that seems silly to me, since to some degree the grandfather of blogs was “Robot Wisdom” where a slightly obsessive polymath simply posted quick links (a “log” — like a ship captain’s log — of his travels on the web, hence “web log”) and little one-line comments on them. I’m happy to see that, as of this moment, he’s still at it. And it doesn’t have any comment capability whatsoever.

In fact, it’s very lean on opinion or exposition of any kind! But it is, in essence, what Jordan defines above — a system for posting a collection of pages (or, I would actually say, ‘entries’) in time order. Quintessential “weblogness.”

Now, I suppose some could argue that somewhere between “weblog” and the truncated nickname “blog” things shift, and blogs are properly understood as something more discursive? But I don’t think so. I think the DNA of a blog means it’s essentially a series of posts giving snapshots of what is on the mind of the blog’s writer, both posted and presented in chronological order. That might be a ‘collective’ writer — a group blog. But it’s what it is, nonetheless.

But that doesn’t mean the emotional attachment, philosophical significance and political impact aren’t just as important — they’re just not part of the definition. ๐Ÿ™‚

[Edited to add: while it’s true that a wiki & blog *can* both make pages editable by one author or a group, in *practice* a blog tends to be about individual voices writing “posts” identified with author bylines, while a wiki tends to be about multiple authors writing each “article” through aggregated effort. Blogs & wikis started with these uses in their DNA, and the vast majority of them follow this pattern. Fore example, most blog platforms display the name of a post’s author by default, while most wikis don’t bother displaying author names on articles, because there’s an assumption the articles will be written & refined over time by multiple users.]