Archive for the ‘social_navigation’ Category



April 11, 2008

I’ve had a fair amount of time to investigate some things as I’ve been lying around recuperating from having my ankle screwed back together (actually, I suppose that I’ve been recuperating from breaking my ankle …). Twitter ( was first described as a “micro-blog”, and I guess that more or less makes sense.  You have 140 characters on Twitter to describe what you are currently doing. You can find people and then follow them (so that you see their posts), and people can follow you. It all sounds quite stupid, no?    

Well, I’ve tried Twitter a number of times and recently got a little more into it. Being laid up gave me some time to really play with the thing, however, and I’m starting to like it. If all one does is constantly post “I’m eating lunch”, and such, and hope that will actually somehow contribute to the social network, Twitter will get boring very fast.  When it gets interesting is when one starts to find people to follow who actually have things to share.  More often than not these are brief descriptions and links to websites … once these things start coming in on a regular basis Twitter starts to pick up some momentum. Posts arrive instantaneously, so the news is always up-to-date and if smart and interesting people are continually firing good stuff at you it can be fun.  

The whole thing reminds me of earlier days of the web, when the world of possible content to browse was much smaller and it seemed to be possible to keep up.  I stopped really “surfing” years ago in favour of aggregators, but now I find myself going to the far corners of the web for fun again.  Some people become far too self-important or preachy for me and fill my screen with stuff that I don’t care about … with Twitter, I can quite easily adjust the incoming information just by knocking off that one person from my following list. Strangely (to me), there’s continual trickle of new people who have decided to follow me.  I have no idea how they have found me, or what has possessed them, but it’s fun to try to be interesting, and connected, enough for someone to take notice. With some tweaking and searching the lists of interesting people for more people to follow, the flow of info can become quite satisfying. Extremely simple, but strangely functional.

Twitter is definitely not for everyone.  I’m one of those people, though, who likes to be able to hear the unedited thoughts of those I find interesting and click on the stuff that stands out in that flow of info.  I can just imagine people complaining about the volume of info and the lack of organization of the whole thing but to me, that’s part of the appeal. This is very pure social networking. 


A few things brewing …

April 25, 2007

Went to a library event called “Digital Odyssey” last week to hear a number of people speak. I was quite interested in just hearing what the relatively new Chief from MacMaster had to say, and that was quite interesting. (on a completely different topic … to write this I just switched over to my Powerbook from a PC … the keyboard on this thing is beautiful after the PC … it just feels so perfect!) Anyway, I went in thinking about a recent webby application I’d become interested in, and a number of topics merged. There was one talk on putting web 2.0 features into a library catalogue and something about it was really rubbing me the wrong way … it was good work, but there was just something wrong. It struck me that this project, by implementing rating systems, comments, and such was focusing too much on the discreet end points of searching. i.e. – they were collecting searches, and they were collecting the items (and reactions to them) at the other end. This is all fine and good, but I’ve been focusing lately a lot on the idea that research is not just entering a search and receiving results. It’s also more than just matching like people with like results and preferences. Research, in fact, is a process, and it’s a complex and often social process. The bit that’s missing in this focus on search beginnings and endings, is the “trail” that takes up the middle, and the trail is extremely important to the person seeking information.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit and discussed it with scholars. The most obvious manifestation of the trail is following citations. Once a person reaches a certain point in their education, they realize that the endnotes and bibliography of any article can be almost as important as the content. These elements of a paper show you who is an influence on the author, and how the author has constructed his or her argument. Many times I have followed citations and created a “trail”, and I know that my research is nearly complete when I begin to see the same sources being mentioned repeatedly … at that point I begin to feel like I have a grip on the community of people working on this topic and that I have “covered the ground”. The trail can also certainly be a social circle of actual people, and I suspect that people utilize these trails without even realizing that they are utilizing a technique (you know that the guy down the street has had some great work done on his house, so you ask him about the process of getting renovations done, he tells you to contact so and so, etc).

Anyway … trails. As I mentioned some posts ago, this fellow Vannevar Bush undertsood the importance of trails way back in 1945 when he speculated about information technology. I think that we have gone through a period in digital information use that has lost the utility of the trail to a certain degree, as we each do discreet searches, find some stuff, and then exit Google or whatever, our search history more or less lost forever. The current library catalogue most definitely has no memory, and does nothing to tie together all of the bazillion people who use it … and there’s a lot of information being lost there. Remembering their searches, their results, and their ratings would be something, but to remember their “trails”, and the networks that they create as they move through information would really be something.

There is actually at least one product attempting to put the idea of “trails” into use. the folks at trailfire get the concept and are trying to create a tool to allow one to keep track of trails. They are in the early stages, but it’s quite interesting. They offer a tool that allow you to mark and annotate websites as you search for information and to save these collections as “trails”, and to share them with others (just as Vannevar Bush envisioned). It almost works, and the ability to save collections of websites in clusters with annotations is useful in itself. The “trail” thing isn’t quite there, though, as most of the examples seem to be just collections of un-connected sites … the potential is there, perhaps as they develop this thing it will develop some true power.


E-mail is outta style. Immediacy is in.

March 20, 2007

It had to happen sooner or later. Apparently email is going to be the realm of old people starting any day now. Email had a very long run and will likely take a while yet to die out, but soon it will be as unusual for your average tech-savvy person as the payphone is now. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not too wildly. Seems that people (particularly young ones) like text-messaging so much that email seems awfully formal, demanding a lot of time and overhead (like having to sit at a computer and open a piece of software and all). This ties to my experience with the 15-yr olds … clearly, they’d rather clutch the stylish and darn convenient cell-phone than attempt to hunt down a computer, compose something, then wait for a reply. These people seem to be remarkably social, like to make themselves accessible as much as possible, and to really value immediacy. The same thing seems to be true of MySpace (apparently now replaced by “virb“, a pretty nifty kind of persoanl space thingy), where people are just around all of the time, ready to be be-friended, or chatted with, or whatever. Virb seems to add the latest trend of immediacy to this business … “I updated my page 47 seconds ago”, and you’re a loser if you haven’t updated in the last hour. Perhaps the most extreme example of this (that this old guy knows about), is twitter, which allows you to let the world know what you’re doing RIGHT NOW (and now, and now …). I’m quite serious … on twitter, people just post what they’re doing at that moment, and they make friends with other people who are doing … stuff. Posts might read: “Drinking coffee”, and everyone who lists you as a friend, gets a message (by reading the page, RSS, or text-message) to let them know that you’re drinking coffee. It makes no sense, but a bazillion people (including presidential candidate John Edwards) are doing it. Some of these people have thousands of friends, and they continually receive updates … “So what?”, you, quite reasonably, say. I’m not sure what this all means, but while this micro-reporting on one’s life seems very silly, it also seems to be drawing in lots of participants. (and making email seem downright pre-historic … and rational).




2.0 = Reprioritizing the Qualitative

February 23, 2007

It took me a while to come up with the subject for this post, and it’s still meaningless (and sounds like the name of a bad blog) .

There are many ways in which all things “2.0” (or the semantic web, or the new web, or whatever) are significantly different from previous versions (like 1.0, I guess). It seems that the pace of change, and the degree to which this particular change is simply embedded in the way people behave, has meant that not too many people are really sitting back and pondering what’s going on here. I also think the fact that 2.0 has simply happened rather than being talked about first, and marketed, and forecast, and put in a box so that everyone can see it, has meant that it has really snuck up on people, and most users don’t even realize (or care) that something new is happening. In fact, why should they care? They’re just using things that work … leave the philosophizing to someone else.

Like I said, people point to many different things that make the “new web” different. The social aspect of it seems to be a popular choice, the participative nature of it is another (and there are more). As a librarian, however, it strikes me that there is something else about all of this that is the most significant, and ties all of these technologies together. I was at a demo by a library vendor recently, and I was trying to think of what it is that these people are fundamentally missing when they think about human/computer interaction. They produce large /huge databases of material, and they provide people with the ability to search through immense amounts of metadata and retrieve things. They realize that what they are providing is just matching one’s search terms to identical things in the metadata … this, of course, is not much more advanced than hitting Cntrl+F and finding words in a web page (which is about as old as computers in terms of technology). In order to become more “web 2.0 – ish” these folks most often say “we’ll add the ability to insert comments on records, then we’ll be like Amazon” (I’m being a little harsh, but this is basically what is going on). I then groan inside ….

What is being missed here is more than just comment boxes, or the ability to put a star beside a title that you like (although those are examples of useful 2.o-ish tools). All of the characteristics of 2.0 sites are really, in my mind, trying to accomplish the same thing. That is, they are attempting to reintroduce the dimension of qualitative assessment into the search for information. All of the techniques of collecting comments, allowing for rating systems, analyzing patterns of use, letting people chat with each other, are shooting for the goal of inserting qualitative assessment into search. Currently, the vast majority of library systems have no ability to allow for qualitative assessment of items in the database … they match text-strings with other text-strings, and they bring back lists of like objects. Oddly, the subject heading system may have been the closest thing that we had to assessment of the items, as that did insert an element of analysis of the content of the material into its organization … but I’m not sure how many people ever even glance at the subject headings anymore. (mind you … this being a blog, I haven’t thought this through too carefully!)

Thinking about this was interesting to me because it finally made clear to me why Google is truly in the web 2.0 camp. Most people just think of Google as a search engine … you type in a string and it returns things that should have that string somewhere in it. As I mentioned in realtion to medical libraries (below), Google also utilizes qualitative assessment of web pages when its pagerank algorithm looks at how people link pages together. Linking to something in a web page is a qualitative assessment of the page … you are suggesting that another page is worth looking at. This is extremely 2.0, as the real magic of 2.0 sites is their apparent ability to suggest to you what else you might find interesting.

There’s something else really important … library systems are strictly in the business of organizing information. This seems like a trivial statement. 2.0 sites organize information as well, but the most important aspect of that organization is the fact that they also organize the characteristics of the users of the system and link the two together (seems trivial as well, I suppose). The idea that we need to think about the characteristics of our users and link that to the characteristics of our information is not there yet in our systems, however, and we seem to be very hesitant to take that step. We need to link up like with like when it comes to data, but there is a huge amount of potential being wasted by not linking up like with like when it comes to our users.


Medical libraries

February 20, 2007

Back to business. I’ve been meaning to post this for some time, but I’ve simply been unable to do so (I’ve been willing, it just wasn’t possible). Several weeks ago, I spoke at the University Health Network in Toronto on the rather general topic of “Emerging Trends in Libraries”. Quite remarkably, the organizers of a strategic planning exercise had found me through my web page at the U of Guelph … this seemed extremely unlikely, as I have a fair amount of difficulty finding that page myself. However, I made my way down there, and found the entire experience to be fascinating.

I’ve always loved hospitals (I’m not implying that I want to be a patient, I just love hospitals). I love hospitals in just about the same way that I love airports. Neither of them are all that great if you’re there for the standard reasons. If you’re sick, that’s no good, if you’re visiting someone sick that’s not so good either. If you’re flying, you’re usually tired and/or bored and somewhat stressed about getting everything worked out. I love being at either of these places, though, when I’m not a customer. I love the busy-ness, and the huge number of people who seem to have very important yet mysterious things to do (I always try to imagine what they’re up to). Needless to say, both places are also full of constant drama … people coming and going, being reunited, saying goodbye … hugging, crying, kissing, living out some of the most intense times of their lives (not all of them, just a bunch of them).

So, I got to be in the crazy environment of a huge downtown hospital complex without having to worry about any of the usual hospital stuff. I was able to observe everything, without having to go through the hard parts. In the middle of all of this, I spoke to hospital people about information. Their environment has very clear qualities about it … doctors ask very important, time-sensitive questions and librarians perform research and get them the information that they need. This is very much an environment of demand and response, and while most librarians would suggest that they are in the same type of environment, the intensity here was fairly unique. I very much appreciated what these people do and their expertise is appreciated by the medical staff.

There was one rather huge thing that struck me, however. Each transaction was a discrete event. The question was answered and then everyone moved on to the next question. It was as though there was no institutional memory, and anything that might have been learned by answering the one question, would only be known to the two parties involved. My talk was on web 2.0 with a particular focus on social navigation … in particular indirect social navigation. This is a type of social navigation in which those receiving advice get it from a community of people and that community doesn’t necessarily know that they are giving advice. Google is a fine example of this. Google ranks articles based on how web pages link together. By linking to other pages, people generally suggest that those other pages are somehow significant and worth linking to. By looking at all of the link patterns out there, google analyzes all of these suggestions of value, and decides which pages are important by how many people point to them. By doing this, the collective value judgements of the community are used to suggest to you which pages are most important to your search. This is going on all over … Amazon tells you which books you might like based on what others “like you” have bought, Netflicks or the equivalent tells you what others like you like in the way of movies.

It seemed to me that doctors could benefit from the same type of thing (in fact, almost anyone can). If a database was created of the questions and answers generated daily in the hospital, a recommender system sould be built. This doesn’t mean that the system would answer questions for people based on previous answers. This means that if a document was found in an answer to a specific query, that one would also be pointed to documents that tend to be used when that document is used (get it?). This isn’t artificial intelligence (and it doesn’t take away anyone’s job), but it begins to provide linking not only between people, but between documents as well. Interestingly, this type of practice is far from new to academics. They have always looked at citations to detect patterns of document use. The best way to research a topic is to find someone who has done that topic, or one like it, before and to see what they read. By then going to those documents and seeing what others have read one eventually builds up a network of use (and you can feel comfortable that you’re on the right track when you start seeing the same documents repeatedly). This is nothing new … it’s just a lot easier now.