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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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One of the things I like about the social media is electronic serendipity, especially when it comes to finding new books and articles to read.

Before the rise of Twitter, Google+ and Facebook I was a frequent visitor to bookstores where I could browse the titles, pick them up and read a few paragraphs or pages according to the patience or generosity of the shop staff.

I would also take recommendations from book reviews and frequently from colleagues and friends.  Finding a hidden treasure was both rare and pleasurable.  Which is why I have to thank the social network for introducing me to The New Instability by Peter Evans-Greenwood.

New Instability Book Cover

Evans-Greenwood

One day I just happened to catch a conversation on Twitter between two enterprise architecture mavens, one I knew and admired and the other a complete unknown who had recently published his first book.  The discussion was about whether enterprise architecture would be needed in the evolving world of virtual services, globalization and crowd sourcing. I was unable refrain from entering the conversation.  One week later Amazon delivered Peter’s book.

“The New Instability” is an important contribution to our embryonic understanding of the challenges to industry and the changes necessary to compete in the new world of ubiquitous connectivity, virtual services and social activity.

It is unlike books like Nicholas Carr ‘s “The Shallows” and Thomas Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum‘s  “That Used to Be Us” which have gently and persuasively indicated the path on which we are traveling, where we have come from, our current position, the perils that surround us, and our likely destination.  Such tomes have identified the challenges and behaviors that this new world order evokes.

Evans-Greenwood goes much further.  His book challenges the scalability and structure of the current industrial model, based as it is on an imbalanced focus on asset ownership and process improvement through extreme measurement (the current though Victorian approach to manufacturing efficiency devised by Frederick W. Taylor). In order to survive and grow these concepts have to be more than just revised, they have to be rejected. Businesses will have to be deconstructed with many of the functions distributed and externally resourced.  “The New Instability” provides grist for the mill, it forces the reader to think as the author confronts established wisdom and illustrates its redundancy.

But the author is more than just a detractor of modern practices,  he also suggests the nature of successful navigation in the developing new business environment.  This is not a silver bullet, they simply don’t exist, or even a recipe that can be easily followed.  It is a paradigm that is evocative and immediately understandable, based on the experiences and keen insight of an American pilot by the name of  John Boyd.

Boyd offered a bet  that he could beat any other pilot in a dogfight in less than 40 seconds, even with the other pilot sitting close on his tail.  He never lost that bet.  According to Boyd “…success in a rapidly changing environment depends on your ability to orient yourself and decide on and execute a course of action, faster than the environment (or your competition) is changing.”

“The New Instability” explains what this means and what it infers for both individuals and organizations.  Evans-Greenwood devotes a chapter to the topic of Labor, starting with how technology has enable workers to address and execute greater complexity.  His model is equally applicable to knowledge and knowledge working, since the ability to manage information complexity may well provide the greatest competitive advantage.  Equally importantly he understands the nature of the new work environment with its close similarities to Massive Player Online Role-Playing Games (MPORG) such as the World of Warcraft.

“The New Instability” is a challenging book, not in the sense that it is hard to read or comprehend, but challenging to one’s preconceptions and understanding of structure and stability.

It is a book that should be read slowly, because its value lies beyond the page within the mind and cogitations of the reader.  There are many points that cry out for discussion and progression and some that prompt resistance, all commendable especially if they compel others to online debate.  It is a brave book and one that deserves an appreciative and responsive audience.  May serendipity lead you there too.

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“Who wants yesterday’s papers?

Who wants yesterday’s girl?

Who wants yesterday’s paper ?

Nobody in the world” 

Rolling Stones 1967

We are besieged by information, knee deep and beyond.  If you have a smart mobile device it comes at you from all directions, in almost all circumstances.  Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice we are drowning in a flood of communications freed by the spell of inexpensive ubiquitous technology, and try as we might we know of no counter spell to stem the tide.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Farsi Wikipedia for the 13th week, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The consequences of this growing tsunami are multifold, many as yet unsuspected or undetected, but the only sure thing is that life now is very different from what is was before.

The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr provides an insightful examination of some of the effects. One of his most important points is that we are becoming increasingly distracted.  Our attention span is decreasing, as is our ability to digest information and commit  information to long term memory.  Since the well of known information, the internet, is always available, recovering information that we have consumed but not digested is only a simple search string away.

There is an argument that suggests that this frees up our brains for different and possibly more productive activities, and there is some evidence that this may be the case.

But the issue remains that we are constantly encouraged to deal more and more with the present and less and less with the future and past.  Brevity is key, as any person on Twitter will attest; yet it seems to apply to all of our communications.  Short, pithy soundbites or images, moving or otherwise, are the order of the day. Content is king, or so I am told; and those that excel at amplifying these messages, whether their own or others, are quickly harnessed by marketeers to prime the pump for their brand(s) content.

Over the last year there has been a sea change in this approach, and while content seemingly remains supreme, some are beginning to recognize the value of context.  Now it’s not just content, but related content that brings value.  Sites that “curate” content,  that is collecting and displaying additional content that augments the value of the original content, are seeing factorial increases in year on year traffic, see Greg Bardwell’s post on Content Curation Sweetspot.  Content remains king, and though context is queen, curation has become a pawn close to being promoted to queen as well.

But that is not exactly the way I see it.  I have a slightly different perspective:

Firstly information has value beyond the present, depending on its relevancy.  Over time that value can and will change according to the quality of the information; the lower the quality the lower the value. Information created in the past can be critical to knowledge and understanding in both the present and future.  At the same time ephemeral information will only have transient value, usually its 15 seconds in the spotlight.

Secondly the role of curation is not just to assemble topical and stylish content.  While that may be the purpose and goals of stimulating appetites for fashion and consumables, greater depth is required by those in search of deeper knowledge, usually provided by a context made wider with the dimension of time.  My definition of curation more closely resembles the profession as practiced in museums and galleries.  It requires a knowledge of history and an understanding of influences, qualities and intentions that produced the thoughts and artifacts under custody.

We have a duty to future generations to ensure that quality content is preserved, including the context that contributed to and proceeded from its publication.  In the face of the rising flood we need to curate responsibly, identifying the quality contributions and marking the relationships to authors and content that define their contexts.  And we have to do this is a uniform and open manner so that we have common access to riches of the past that help navigate our present and future.

Open Linked Data might be one of the more viable approaches afforded by technology, however it is in our interests to collaborate on the framework and standards that will enables us to preserve contextual relationships in content. Making curated content consistent and optimally shareable helps us all.

Nobody wants yesterday’s papers, but yesterday’s girls grew up to become Joan of Arc, Hidlegard of Bingen, Marie Curie and Marie Stopes, and the world would be a poorer place without them.

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Taking the Plunge into the Social Media Swim

Image: vorakorn kanokpipat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It takes about 6 months of immersion and splashing about  in the waters of Social Media  to feel  comfortable and confident enough to not just tread water but make strokes that might lead to reaching one of the other sides.  That is of course if any of the other sides are visible, as the social network is far larger than any public amenity previously encountered by a an order of magnitude.  For those about to jump in for the first time – do not be afraid – the temperature is fine and its predominantly shallow water.  You wont get into difficulties and the worst thing that can happen is a little bit of personal embarrassment, but then nobody is really watching that closely.

During those months of familiarization, learning how to engage with Facebook, posting to your wall, writing up your “resume on steroids” aka Linkedin, pinning your curated content on Pinterest or taking the bolder step of blogging or tweeting you may have wondered a little bit about this medium, the proximity of millions of people all swimming about much the same as you.  What is it?  Rushing through the list of possible descriptors it’s a club, a hangout, its a place to share your thoughts and life with friends , it’s a knowledge pool, it’s the maker and breaker of news. it’s the university of life, the crucible of change even revolution, it’s a marketing paradise.  Finally a reliable source on how commercial brands can track the public success of and reaction to their products and identity.  And that is how it is viewed today.   At a recent Social Media Week event in New York the main topic of conversation was how to use the social network for competitive advantage, with the focus almost exclusively on the marketing advantage.   One of the biggest discussions of the week was who owned Social Media – marketing or PR, and ancillary to that was the often expressed sentiment that CMOs owned Social Media and the strategy around it.  Furthermore that ownership and the technical budget that accompanies it indicates that the CIO should now report to the CMO.

Social Media spoils, Marketing versus PR, or Google versus Facebook or Apple

But before anyone stakes a claim on Social Media, shouldn’t we first understand more about Social Media, what it is, how it is structured (or non-structured) and what are the economics of the model(s), who are the principle players, what are the constituent parts, and what are the appropriate standards and rights that should attend the use and access to this massive data universe.  And the questions do not end here.   Most importantly what is the value of the Social Network to the individual, the private citizen, the corporate or public sector employee, the community, the enterprise, the nation, mankind?  Without doubt it is worth far more than the sum of its parts, but the largest opportunity of all lies in collaboration.  Being able to reach out and share is the fundamental behavior of the social network, and millions upon millions of people do so every day.  They participate, contribute and collaborate freely and willingly, and it is manna from heaven for the marketing profession, who understandably have sharpened their knives to capture the likes and dislikes of the masses.  But if that energy and effort is properly channeled, if tasks can be performed by social network teams, if thoughts and ideas can be evolved and extended to stimulate innovation then marketing will be just the tip of the value iceberg.

In the end no-one can or should own the social network, money will be made from it, reputations will be won or lost, but ultimately the social network benefits and belongs to all of us, to Everyman.  We are all contributors, we are all curators, we are all custodians, and our first task as stewards is to define and describe the infant that is our charge, so that we may nurture and care for its health and growth.  This blog will attempt to start that process, and with a lot of help from others (both a plea and an invitation)  hope to bring some focus and understanding to the ever expanding pool of knowledge and resource that is the social network.

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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