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First published in Internet Media Labs Blog – 27th October 2012

We are amassing data at an unprecedented rate.  In the course of a day the internet handles more than 1,000 Petabytes of data (2011 figures) and is projected to double in less than three years.  That’s a million terabytes or a billion gigabytes  just on the public internet alone.   Granted there is a lot of duplication and the amount of image and video content is greatly contributing to the accelerated growth. Furthermore our growing dependency on mobility demands even greater participation and production that further magnifies digital traffic.

That is a lot of data and a very large amount of noise carrying a decreasing ratio of signal.  How do we operate in such an environment and meet our objectives for education, career, parenting, healthcare, community participation, consumerism and entertainment? How do we locate and recognize the availability and qualities of resources that will help us live our lives productively and successfully?

A complex question no doubt, but one that highlights the current capabilities and shortcomings of the network today.

The short and most common answer would be search engines.  To a degree that is a reasonable response, but given the immensity of available data it is woefully short of satisfying anything but the last two on my list of objectives (consumerism and entertainment).

The issue starts with search engines and the demands of commercialism.  Commerce sustains our civilization and provides the impetus for innovation and discovery.  But it also dominates the way we create and prepare content, and the way we search for information.  We are also largely dependent on a single search engine, which is still evolving though firmly rooted in textual analysis. Yes there are other search options but the majority of us use Google.

Search technology is beginning to branch out as witnessed by Google’s goal of producing a knowledge graph. Currently it has the ability to determine sentiment which is the first step in semantic analysis.  Yet there is a long way to go before search can provide an accurate return on how, what and who we are searching for.

Google spends a lot of capital on developing and improving search algorithms, which are obscured to prevent gaming the system. Those algorithms perform a large number of calculations that include the analysis and synthesis of web content, structure and performance.

Providers of content and information are aware that they can improve the ranking of their published material by optimizing their web site  through Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) or improving the quality and attractiveness of their content. In addition the search engine vendor(s) provide consulting services to assist content providers in achieving approved “white hat” SEO status as opposed to “black hat” SEO which is risky, unapproved, and has the potential to be banned.

Any search results in an index of entries ranked by how well they have been produced and optimized.  The more content humankind produces the more commercial entities will spend in order to ensure high ranking so that we consume their products or services, after all few consumers go beyond the first page of search results.  Hence my assertion above that consumerism and entertainment (which for sake of argument includes news and events) are the principal beneficiaries of the current solutions. And that’s great if you are catching up on news, wish to be entertained or shopping either actively or casually.  The ranking system will give you the most up to date, the most popular and the most advertised consumables.

However the ranking system doesn’t scale down for the individual, the community or small businesses or enterprises, unless predetermined keywords are used in the content and search.  A small voice cannot be heard where shouting is encouraged even demanded.  The more we use search engines the louder that shouting becomes.  Furthermore the ranking system doesn’t really scale economically for SEO content as globalization will introduce more competition for the coveted top ranked entries, demanding increased effort and optimization.

But this post is not about search engines and optimization of content.  It’s about locating resource and identifying quality and relevancy that will help in collaboration; finding people, ideas, material, skills and availability so the other objectives on my list can be fulfilled.

We need something more than simple signposts or lists, valuable as they are.  We need a capability that will not only locate a resource, but one that will also provide us with much needed information about the resource, its properties, location, status, history and relationships to other resources. In short we need directories, repositories of resources and their attributes that are easily accessible and extensible.

Directory databases have been around for a long time and are currently in operation in most large enterprises,  most commonly behind corporate firewalls.  They meet many of the requirements outlined above, although their use has been necessarily constrained to a management and security function. In most implementations they perform that function well.  That style of directory is also appropriate beyond the firewall, especially when authentication amongst diverse communities and populations needs to be supported.

Yet we can do so much more with directories, especially if we liberate their extensibility and open them up to collaborative contributions and housekeeping.  Today we keep our own lists and collaborate on those in communities of interest. There are several listing applications on Social Media such as list.ly, Twitchimp or the late lamented Formulists.  These are great applications and no social media maven can exist without one.  But they are only lists and they only carry a small number of entries and attributes.

Open collaborative directories will be able to scale to support large numbers of entries and attributes, including attributes that are determined by the participants and their communities. In other words directories will carry the hard facts about a resource as well as attributes that are determined by those who use and collaborate with those resources.

This is very similar to Facebook’s like, (and imaginary don’t like), but applied to the performance or quality of resource as experienced in collaboration.  Such peer review and measurement lies at the heart of Open Source development, a meritocracy where your contributions are evaluated by peers to determine your value and position within the group.  Such information will prove invaluable to those seeking knowledge and the resources to get things done.

And why stop at people? Open Collaborative Directories can support any resource be it curated knowledge bases, dictionaries, almanacs and compendiums.

As long as they are open and accessible they will serve and be served by the communities that need them. Because directory searches have little need for ranking they will be the first port of call for those who want more than the latest news or consumable.

Data image via Tom Woodward in Flickr Creative Commons

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ellis-island-arrival

New arrivals at Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Changing social platforms is like moving to live in a new country.

How do I know?  Because I have done the latter three times and met the same hurdles to a settled existence as I now detect in moving to a new platform on social media.

The largest of those hurdles is collateral.  When I came to live in the US, for example, I had no credit rating, because there was no record stateside of my economic conduct.  I had no guarantors other than my employer because friends and family lived in Europe.  Slowly I established myself, connecting with the economy and communities until my rating facilitated the more desirable loan rates.

The second of the major hurdles is equity or net worth.  Equity comprises assets, liquid and fixed.  Liquidity or cash is necessary for every day living, the small transactions that allow us to commute, feed ourselves and be entertained. Fixed assets are a little more problematic, because they are usually hard to convert to liquid status.  Furthermore they tend to be anchored in the environment from which you have departed, and have little value in the new environment.  Owning a house in Europe has no weight when trying to buy a house in the US, and vice versa.

The same holds true when one considers investing effort in an additional or alternate social platform.  While you may have a generic social score aggregated across active platforms, your credit rating on a new, or seldom used platform is non-existent.  Collateral in this case is not about your financial credit rating, it is your trustworthiness as a social participant.  Just as in immigration that rating has to be built gradually  and cannot be transferred from the old to the new.

The analogy is consistent for equity as well.  Equity in social terms is the value of contributions.  These most commonly are the status updates, messages, tweets, replies, mentions that make up the social media conversations of each second, hour and day of our lives.  It is also the knowledge base and territorial familiarity of that platform, knowing who does or knows what, where expertise lies, or when particular events occur, or what time is best to capture the attention of your networking collaborators.

All this is platform equity.  Not surprisingly very little, if any, of that equity is transferable.  Those contacts, the followers and those followed, like the friends and relations in the old world, belong and remain on that platform.  Those contributions and the manner in which you supplied them is also tied to the platform.  Unlike property or disposable assets these cannot be liquidated into cash.

The new platform requires new equity and collateral, it cannot easily be bought, at least not without compromising trustworthiness. The only alternative is to invest a similar amount of time and effort in building equity on the new platform, thus forcing a decision on whether to build and then maintain multiple platform equity and collateral.  That factorial investment might be too high a price to pay, especially for those individuals whose roles do not include 100%  social engagement.

There is one positive to this situation and it is somewhat paradoxical in the fact that the fixed social equity  is more versatile than the liquid.  I refer to blogs.  The platform that best supports communicating complexity, rationale and clarification.  Blog posts like this one allow ideas and insights to be expanded, formatted and packaged for distribution through any social media platform.   However they do only offer the foundational piece; the interactions, connections and short communications still have to be performed.

There are several implications of the above, especially as we consider scale:

Consistency: Equity and collateral are both affected by inconsistency.  And we all know that consistency is more than desirable in social media, it is almost obligatory.  However context can vary and what might be considered consistent in one platform could be seen as inconsistent even contradictory in another.  Furthermore maintaining dialogues and connections across multiple platforms can easily foster miscommunications, especially if the connections themselves participate on multiple platforms.  Since we cannot easily store our contributions, we cannot easily reference our interlocutors’ or our own previous conversations.  The more platforms we engage with the higher the likelihood of miscommunication and inconsistency.

Social Marketing Investment: It would be fair to assume that few social-media active consumers will engage heavily on a large number of platforms and will more likely inhabit and contribute on a manageable handful (2-4).  It is also unlikely that consumers of specific brands will inhabit the same platforms.   This is not dissimilar to the position industry faced with the proliferation of television channels in the latter part of last century.  The answer then as now is to promote on the most popular channels or platforms. Unlike television however marketing organizations would be cautioned against abandoning platforms that drop in popularity, since their collateral and equity will remain, albeit diminished over time.  The danger is of course that the least attended platform then becomes the greatest liability.  Such platforms are more prone to negative activity that could fester unaddressed.

Social Collaboration:  Perhaps the biggest challenge for industry will be in the requirements for and selection of collaborative services, especially if the components and resources have preferred social platforms of participation that are different. Ideally a common platform solves this problem, one where context integrity is assured.  Multiple platforms dilute that integrity unless all contributors and contributions are consistent across all platforms, though such purity would inevitably be  strained by diversity of geography and culture.  This suggests that established collaborative groups and activities will be more conservative and less exploratory of new platforms.  It also suggests that new collaborative groups and activities can explore new platforms, especially those that offer better functionality or efficiencies.  But these organizations also warrant caution in deciding for a new platform, for it may well exclude them from collaborating  with resources and communities on the older platforms.

I am sure there are many other points to consider, but one thing is certain: adding or moving to a new social platform is a non-trivial event, and one that demands a lot of adjustment and effort.  This post is my attempt to bridge the increasing number of platforms to which I contribute as I will distribute it on all. Hopefully it will spark further discussions on the challenges as well as progress on removing the walled garden barriers to the preferred open environment.

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Twitter Updates

  • RT @ScottEganhouse: A7 Interesting question, If I made less mistakes I'd be a lot dumber #printchat 6 days ago
  • A7 start pushing open source/standards sooner, more achievable in collaboration than competition. Collective vs individual smarts #printchat 6 days ago
  • A6 most businesses r intellectual silos well versed in own disciplines. Learning their language is only 1 of print's disciplines #printchat 6 days ago
  • + Swiftest RT @davekrawczuk Being the "smartest" isn't always the best. Be a good team player. Teams make the biggest changes. #printchat 6 days ago
  • A5 Emphasizes the 6 degrees of separation rule, even suggests it might be smaller. We're all interconnected, directly/indirectly #printchat 6 days ago