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. 🙂

[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.]

What Mashups Mean?

I’ve been thinking a lot about mashups recently. I’ve been asking myself the question: as a user-experience designer, what happens when the experience I’ve designed gets usurped, or disintermediated, by people taking what they want of it and leaving the rest behind? What does that mean to me as a designer: i.e. what is it, then, that I should be designing??

I’ve half-started several blog posts about this, and then stopped when some distraction came up.

And then today, a day or two after everybody else, I hear about this:

O’Reilly Radar > Pipes and Filters for the Internet

Yahoo!’s new Pipes service is a milestone in the history of the internet. It’s a service that generalizes the idea of the mashup, providing a drag and drop editor that allows you to connect internet data sources, process them, and redirect the output. Yahoo! describes it as “an interactive feed aggregator and manipulator” that allows you to “create feeds that are more powerful, useful and relevant.” While it’s still a bit rough around the edges, it has enormous promise in turning the web into a programmable environment for everyone.

Yeah. Yahoo’s new service called Pipes.

I know there’s tons of buzz about this, and I feel silly jumping on the Internet obsession of the week. But this really is big. I agree with Tim O’Reilly: it’s a milestone. It may not be the mashup service that ends up leader of the pack, just like Mosaic (or even Netscape) didn’t end up being the de facto browser.

But it underlines a key truth that’s becoming more and more clear. And it’s a bit of a paradox: in order to keep your audience’s interest, you have to relinquish control of that interest.

Are you “somebody?”
Let me start at 1997: I remember getting out of grad school and how it dawned on me in my first web-related job, that in the post-web world, not having a website was like not having your name in the phonebook. Remember Steve Martin in The Jerk? When he saw his name in the phonebook, he ran around screaming, “I’m somebody!” It wasn’t far from the truth: if you were a business, especially, the Yellow Pages essentially had an extortion scheme — if you weren’t paying to be in there, you might as well not exist. And as a private individual, you were essentially a hermit if you had no phone book listing. Why? Because it was how people found you… your phone number, address, everything.

So, by the late 90s, the web was turning into the same thing. Everybody knew, by about 1999 at the latest, that if they didn’t have a significant presence online, they were out of the conversation. The marketplace would just move along without them.

Staying in the Conversation

Another similar thing has happened with open standards and APIs. Now it’s not enough to just have a web site. If you want to have a part in the larger conversation, you need to open up your content and even your tools, whatever they may be, to be syndicated and reconstituted in other contexts. When Google first saw someone doing a mashup with their maps API, they considered suing them. But, being the new-paradigm-aware folks they often are, they realized they were much better off helping mashup makers create fabulous things with their tools and content.

It only increased their prominence and value in the marketplace — and with a viral swiftness, they’re everywhere, not just at their own domain. You literally can’t get away from Google. I know it’s more complicated than that: they have to make money with advertising, and if someone uses their API without directing traffic that sees Google’s ads, then they lose money… but look at the most successful Google API mashups, and you’ll see Google adwords right there. Why? Because Google made it super easy to use adwords, just as easy as their other APIs, and if I made a mashup that gets millions of hits a day, I want to make money on it… so I up Adwords, and Google and I both share the spoils. (Yeah, if only! Why didn’t I stick with learning XML back in 2000?)

Designing for Survival of the Species

As Dick Hardt said a year or more ago: “Simple and open wins, always.” I suggest we call it Hardt’s Law. The idea is that, just like in the natural selection of organic species, the ecosystem of the Web rewards openness and simplicity. Object-oriented, elegant, universally pluggable… all qualities that help one species thrive over another.

So, what happens when, in 10-15 years (I may be overshooting that; lately, stuff that I thought was going to take a decade happens in the next week… ) Yahoo! Pipes isn’t the exception, but the rule? When everyone (or most people actively engaged in the ‘net) has not only the tools available, but the language — the literacy — of programming their own info-aggregation? If you don’t have something out there for them to aggregate, structured in such a way that they can filter it and parse it however they please, you might as well not exist.

That’s not even touching on the fact that you have to have content or value that they give a damn about. But that’s a whole other challenge.

As a designer, I now see my job as not only to create the best self-contained user experience I can. Now it’s also to think in terms of objects — modular components — and how well they break apart. How well do they carry their own context with them? How might they be useful in other contexts I haven’t thought of? Will that even be OK? (Gut reaction: it had better be — every tool or paragraph that isn’t remixable by someone I’ve never even met is one more chance lost to ‘infect’ the global conversation.)

It’s no longer about whether something is open or not, or if it has a feed or not. Assuming the content is something people want, it’s also about understanding how my users may want to filter or mash what I’m making available. Or how well it might fit into another format that doesn’t even exist in the original context. For example, my blog has an RSS feed, so other people can read it in things like Bloglines. Luckily, the software I use already puts things like comments and such in an open standard so that Bloglines can also syndicate how many comments were made on any given post. It also picks up on category metadata. But what else, in the near future, might readers want to be able to filter for? I don’t have any metadata that says if my post contains a photograph or not, or if it’s an “article” versus just a “check out this link” post. Those are just the first things that come to mind.

For me, and my modest little blog here, it’s not that big of a deal. But if I’m the New York Times, or Forrester Research, or even some low-cost provider of mutual funds that’s wanting to get market information out to millions of financial advisors — it might be very very important.

Design is as much about the remixability of what we make as it is the primary intended experience. Even beyond just content, if I design a tool that helps people count their calories, or keep up with their checking account, the old-school thinking would be: make it great so they’ll come to you and stick with you as long as possible. But the new thinking is going to have to be: make it so elegant and self-contained, and openly compatible with everything else, that people can use it on their MySpace pages and their cell phones.

Simple, open, and letting go. It’s starting to sound downright spiritual.

OmniShrine Wiki

Using the wonderful tools available over at WetPaint, I have now set up the OmniShrine Wiki
For years I’ve had a post here about Omni Magazine, something I used to love to read when I was growing up. Over those years, many people have added comments on that post, explaining particular stories or art they had enjoyed, asking if people remembered or had available particular issues or excerpts, and even offering back-issues for sale. Since then I nicknamed it the Omni Magazine Shrine.
But nobody ever answers those comments because it’s not set up for discussion or sharing, just commenting. So I figured I’d make a community spot for people to share. Who knows, it could turn into something?
Do you have a personal remembrance about the magazine in general? A question? A topic to discuss? Maybe you have a favorite story, article or illustration you want to share with others or ask about? Go for it.