Wednesday, September 27, 2006

It's What's Not There That Matters

After reading the rosy pictures painted by Luke Rosenburger, and Steven Cohen, I'm concerned that we're not approaching RSS in as critical a fashion as we should be. Even Robin Good's article, while more balanced, wasn't particularly critical. RSS is a new medium in the same way that the telephone, television, and telegraph were once new. Each radically changed the way we interact with each other, the way we think and even the way organize ourselves. I think that a recognition of this has begun to ingrain itself in our culture, for which we are in great debt to Marshal McLuhan, and for that reason we approach most new mediums critically. Blog are a great example of this, as much time and print is spent analyzing the medium of blogging as is spent addressing any particular aspect of its content. The same, I don't think, can be said of RSS. Perhaps because of its ultimate simplicity, many fail to recognize RSS as something new, or at least as a medium all its own.

I haven't given this as much thought as I would have liked to, but I do have some initial thoughts on RSS the medium. RSS is minimalist in the information it distributes; headlines, summaries, mere suggestions of the whole story. The intent, obviously, is to draw people to the full text, the totality of what is available, but is that what really happens? What I fear is equally likely is that rather then drill down into the story, article, post, or update, RSS readers will increasingly rely on the feed itself as their source of information. In the past a person might not have experienced information of such diversity, at such speed, but because they were required to actually seek it out they experienced it in its entirety. If I'm right, this only becomes more of a problem as the popularity of RSS grows. The more feeds to which a person subscribes, the less time they will ultimately have to dedicate to each of the items in the feeds. In the end we will have traded immediacy for completeness. My really concern is that this RSS overload will further the Fox News, talk radio effect, ignorance of ignorance. People reading hundreds of RSS feeds a day will feel as though they are in the know, when in fact they've garnered very little from their efforts.

Anyway, because of the above RSS worries me and I think it should be approach with care . Libraries want potential patrons to visit their site and I'm not sure RSS is the way to do it. The key, I believe, may be in treating the RSS feed not as a headline, but simply as advertising; summaries out, catch phrases in. The headline works for the newspaper because the article is underneath, the same cannot be siad of RSS. Finally, if it's something that can't or shouldn't be advertised then leave it out, let them come to the site.

Friday, September 22, 2006

This blog is still not fact checked

It has been pointed out to me that it might be unwise to follow the precepts of my last post whilst blogging for an organisation of any kind, a library for example. To be honest this is probably quite true. To make rash personal and potentially inaccurate statements on an organisation's official website is obviously both wrong and unwise. This is precisely why, and I alluded to this in my post on the New Republic, blogs on behalf of organisations are in fact not blogs at all. They may look as though they are blogs, appear so in form, but they are not. A blog sponsored by an organisation is no more a blog then an infomercial is a documentary.

In writing this, I'm not suggesting that organisations like libraries shouldn't run blog like web sites, they have and do, occationally with some success. And if organisations are going to run blog like sites it would only be prudent to have a code of some sort for the employee they mislabel a blogger follow. However, to suggest this is not to suggest a code for bloggers, but a code for employees. I am not an employee and as a blogger I thus, for the form to operate as is suggested it does, should not have to follow the ethical code of any particular organisation.

As for future employment, from what I have heard, it's true; employers occasionally do examine the blogs or past blogs of potential hires. Does this mean that bloggers that feel that at some point their blog might influence their job prospects should be ethical, no. What it suggests is that they should be prudent. However, to be prudent is certainly not to be ethical. To be ethical would be to whistle blow on the organisation by which you are employed, to be prudent would be to remain silent. The difference, while in the abstract is quite grey, is stark in reality.

If I might add one additional point to the ethical implications of employment. To suggest that we behave ethically because we fear reprisal from employers, future or current, is to suggest that some how are ethics are a function of this economic relationship. While some might agree, many, I think, would not. I am of the latter. The thought that our employer defines our ethics is a scary thought, it is to suggest that those with money, thus free from the bonds of traditional employment are also free from traditional, or at least conventional, ethical restraint. This may at times seem true in our society, but that certainly does not mean that it is right.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

This blog is not fact checked

I'm frustrated by Blood's Weblog Ethics. My frustration stems from a number of her individual points as well as the piece as a whole.

On the whole the first thing that came to my mind in reading both her piece and that of Karen Schneider was that they're missing the point. Blogs are about speed, indavidual preference and, as is mentioned all to often, conversation. Are they about fact checked information, written with the lofty goal of unbias dissemination to the public, no! To insist that bloggers adhere to some code of ethics, particularly one constructed as a sort of journalism ethic light, is to eliminate the form altogether. A blogger that would painstaking conform to the code Blood describes ceases to be a blogger and instead becomes a underpaid journalist with low ethical standards. Perhaps I'm wrong in this, and I can say for certain that my information has not been fact checked, but no one ever seriously suggested that newsletter publishers back in the early days of desktop publishing adhere to a common code, a blog is no different. Blood and others confuse the issue by suggesting blogging is a form of journalism, when in fact its best considered a form all its own.

More specifically I have difficulty with a number of Blood's individual points. Firstly, the issue of truth and authority. Blood suggests that fact checking and the validity of a blogs assertions are the sole responsibility of the blogger, and to some extent I agree. To make a statement in full knowledge of its falsity is lying and is unquestionably unethical, not however because it was written and record on a blog, but because to make false statements in any circumstance is unethical. This is not part of my code as a blogger, but as a person. Where my difficulty arises is in her suggestion that the ultimate authority of the blog should rest in the ethical motivations of the author. This is similar to the suggestion that the imposition of a code of ethics is what insure the accuracy of the science and history we read in academic journals. This is simply not the case, the authority academic journals carry is derived from the system of peer review they employ. Similarly, any authority that blogs have or will have is derived from the system of immediate comment and feedback they employ.

While codes of ethics are positive in that they suggest that some at least are taking the form seriously, they also confuse the issue of authority. Bloggers should focus their efforts in promoting blogs on the merits of their unique systems of authority not on those of any other form and not on some ethereal notion of ethics.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Blogging The Symptom Not The Problem

At this point some must be asking what's wrong at the New Republic ? The magazine has been a staple of American Journalism since 1914, but in the last few decades has suffered from one humiliation after another. The most recent in the magazines long string of troubles is the suspension of one of its senior writers, Lee Siegel, after he began posting increasingly outrageous comments to his blog under a pseudonym. However, little has been made over the fact that yet another New Republic writer has found himself at the center of scandal. The response to this latest journalistic failing has been to suggest that real journalists can't handle the bidirectional nature of the blog medium. The give and take the blogosphere is to much for the pride filled professional writer. This is a convenient explanation for the magazine as it allows for the old ghosts of its past failings, Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit, to remain buried. But is the blog really to blame? It's hard to look at the publication and not wonder if this most recent debacle couldn't be part of a larger problem one that has reared its head more then once in the past. Perhaps the blog itself isn't the problem, but rather merely a symptom.

The Ruth Shalit affair was the publications first major modern misstep. Shalit as it turned out had not only plagiarised pieces of a number of her works, but had also, on occasion, manufactured some of the more critical facts, this is of course before Fox made it fashionable. After the affair, the magazine instituted an official fact checking department to exercise the control its editors seemed unable or unwilling to .This response seemed reasonable both at the time and even now in hindsight. Plagiarism is bound to occur in any endeavor that relies on the intellectual product of the human mind. So when engaged in such endeavors it seems only reasonable to guard against such human failings. However, one question might have been why the editors were guarding against this already, but that was lost in magazines efficient response to the crises.

The same question should have been asked during the Stephen Glass affair. Glass young and pressed for time, increasingly resorted to fabrication, and not of the minimal sort of which Shalit was guilty. Glass constructed not only the facts, but also often the context. As a New York Times writer pointed out after the public revelation of Glass's fraud, one is prepared for the interview to be falsified or misconstrued, even the interviewee to be nothing more then mere character, but not the institution of which the article was about. The suggestion then was that Glass had not been found out because of his audacity and the scale of his fictions. However, while audacity may explain a lack of popular scepticism it fails to explain just what happened to the fact checking and the guiding authority of editorial control. In many instances Glass was only one phone call from being found out. One can't hide the nonexistence of entire corporations for very long. The problem was the phone call was never made and Glass remained, for quite some time undiscovered.

Given this history it seems that the most recent failings of the publication might be better explained from a editorial perspective then a technological one. Siegal's blog is not an isolated incident, but part of the much larger pattern outlined above. In the case of Ruth Shalit the New Republic lacked the editorial controls necessary to guard against her mistakes. In the instance of Stephen Glass it failed to use them. Now in giving Siegal a blog the New Republic removed any pretense of editorial control. Having always and often erred on the side of carelessness in creating official blogs, the magazine chose to institutionalised the practice.

The New Republic has for some time relied on the passioned and unbridled expression of its writers. To foster this image the magazine hires young fresh writers, often newly graduated from the countries finest schools. The use of the raw medium of the blog was simply another tool to keep the publications image alive, but as in the past, with Glass and Shalit, the strategy backfired. The only difference between then and now is that it happened online.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How Easy is Too Easy ?

I just finished reading Meg Hourihan 2002 piece "What We're Doing When We Blog". I think anyone who has read my previous posts know that I disagree in principle with her highly positive assessment of the bloggers and their readers. I won't belabor the points I've already elaborated in the past few days. I also don't have any quarrel with the more descriptive elements of her post. However, I will briefly make one point though.

As anyone reading this blog will have noticed I've been quite caught up in the recent controversy. As each day seems to bring an endless commentary on the situation , something of which I am a party to, much of my morning surfing has been dedicated to keeping just up with the debate. This morning I was reading a particularly well written article entitled "Digg's Design Dilemma". While I can't say that I agree with the authors overall conclusion, for reasons which I will spare you, he did have a number of interesting things to say. Particularly relevant to Hourihan's article was his comment on diggs ease of use.

specifically he points out that a creditable argument exists that the more difficult it is to comment on something the better the comments themselves tend to be. This is not the first time I have heard the case made for making individual participation more difficult. In political science their is a substantial school of thought that views the ease of use problem as the strongest argument against the use of phone, mail or internet voting systems in elections or referenda. Make things too easy and people stop thinking about them, be it the comments they leave on blogs or the votes they cast in an election.

Houriham's suggestion that comments allow for a dialog to emerge on a blog is indubitably true. What isn't so clean cut is whether the dialog created by a blogs comment feature actually lends itself to a better intellectual product in the end? What might have begun as a potentially valuable protothought on a blog could easily devolve rather then develop when contorted in response to a series of thoughtless comments.

Surowiecki agrees with blogger

Or at least that's what the title of this USA Today article should have been, as I beat Surowiecki to the punch with my post Monday entitled "The Wisdom of Digg from Crowd to Mob". As it happens, in an interview with USA Today Surowiecki agreed with my assessment that the changes made by to its algorithm should result in a system that better reflex's the principles of good group decision making outlined in the "Wisdom of Crowds".

The proof just keeps rolling in

I know my last post may have sounded a little harsh, and perhaps it was. However, in my defense the evidence just keeps rolling in. In an ironic twist of fate I came across this post in my web wanderings this morning, "It's all a farce, anyway". In it the author is more interested in the effects of web surfer apathy as it applies to ad revenue, then blog quality, but she does begin with a very interesting anecdote. She apparently had been speaking with a number of Mac programmers, during which they reveled that they were party to a bloggers successful attempts to game the social bookmarking site For anyone who follows Digg that's not a big shock, gaming seems to have been a problem for some time on the site. However, the bloggers next statement is significantly more interesting. He revels that his gaming strategy depends largely on the fact that after a point Digg users cease to read the articles themselves and simply Digg anything that catches their fancy. This behavior suggests that Digg users are less interested in the content then they are the activity of "digging", in effect, "killing time". I must admit, this comes as less of a revelation to me then it appears to have the author of the post, but it is nice to hear it from the horses mouth. As a student first and blogger second, evidence still trumps opinion.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Where did all the links go

Reading Rebecca Blood's "Hammer, Nail: How Blogging Software Reshaped The Online Community", I can't help but long for the times when a blog post almost always contained a link of some kind. Perhaps I failed to play enough Nintendo as a child and my attention span has thus remained at a level now uncommon, but I rarely ever want to only read a sentence or two on a topic of interest to me. Even three hundred words, the length of originality indicated by Blood, seems to short to truly communicate anything of substance.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for headlines and teasers (movie trailers often proving better then the movie). I like to know what I'm getting into before I start to read. Frankly, I don't have time to read everything and a good title\summary makes separating the wheat from the chaff all the easier. That's why the link was there, if your interested, go read more. Now sadly without the link, my attention caught by a witty title and that smashing first line displayed in the Google results I'm left with some bloggers 300 word, not even enough for a thought, more a thoughtlet.

However, bloggers and readers alike seem unperturbed by this, the loss of the link. My theory why, no one is really interested in what they read on blogs anyway. In fact I don't think most bloggers are much interested in what they write. Both groups, equally uninterested, just killing time.

The consumption and production of many a blog has become something akin to the consumption of romance novels. I work in a public library and regular witness the romance novel selection process. People choose romance novels because the cover is shiny and new, because the title is interesting or even because they've taken the time to read the first sentence on the back cover. At times I've witnessed patrons just take all the books that were ajar or misaligned. This, in my limited experience, is not dissimilar from the manner by which most people choose the blogs or blog posts they read. Why, because without the link, blog consumption is little different from reading a romance novel, just killing time.

Perhaps I'm wrong, maybe a lot can be said in only a few words, and genuine interest expressed without the desire to know more.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Wisdom of Digg from Crowd to Mob Part 1

In recent days a controversy has arisen over steps taken by to reduce the influence of its top contributors. The algorithm that moves stories to the coveted front page of the site is being altered to reduce both the weight formerly given to top diggers, as well as to reduce the effectiveness of reciprocal digging by require a greater diversity in the participating users. Top users have not only let loose with a torrent of blog articles criticizing the move, but are also "resigning" from the site in protest. The question this controversy has left the community is just how important are top contributors to the web 2.0's social production formula. The answer, a resounding "not very", can be found in two of web 2.0 's seminal works.

When one scours Amazon for the popular intellectual origins of the social production movement that has recently culminated in "web 2.0", one's search eventually and inevitably lands on James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki's work presents a compelling case for the effectiveness of social collaboration in achieving any number of goals. His arguments have since been employed repeatedly by bloggers, pundits and academics to justify an apearent infinity of new online collaborative tools. What is often lost in this evangelising of group power is that the book also serves as a warning that the wisdom of the crowd can very quickly devolve into the irrationality of the mob.

Surowiecki outlines three preconditions necessary for a collaborative project to succeed: diversity, independence and decentralization. Groups lacking in even one of these traits fail miserably at producing even passable results. In the case of Digg, having the top users in control of the front page violates not one, but all three of Surowiecki's tenets. The reciprocal digging that has been growing increasingly common among diggs top users has resulted in behaviour more akin to that of a cliques then a collection of independant netizens. Diversity disappears as the closer the group becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to move into. Finally, one can already see decentralization disappearing as leaders and personalities emerge from among the top user ranks. The recent debate further illustrates this last point, with the digg community looking to see what a select few individuals will do. In fact, if the top users succeed in driving traffic from digg, it will only serve to prove how little independence and diversity their is within the community.

Next post to come soon just think "long tail".


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Just a Few Things

Just finished reading the "The amorality of Web 2.0" post on Rough Type. A strange post and I don't think it really hung together, but then again what can you expect from blog posts. Personally, I strongly disagree with him on the amoral point, which, given his final paragraph, may have been his primary point. Notions of community, equality, and expression are not only concepts heavily value laden, but also very much a part of our society beyond and before the web. We live in a participatory democracy, a system founded in these ideas, it would seem the very definition of hypocrisy to suggest that we would not hold them in the highest esteem. True the web is "just happening", but it's happening because it allows us to tap into and further many of our core ideals.

On a very different note, I found what he had to say about the coexistence of the blog and traditional media interesting. Not interesting because of what he was saying about media, but because of how it seems that the same might also apply to the conflict between libraries and bookstores. Often the suggested solution seems to be to alter the library to emulate the bookstore. This seems like no better an idea then the suggestion the New York Times should cede the mantel of journalism to the bloggers. In both cases overlap may exist, but in neither case is their an excuse for the extinction of either.

Laws That Can't Be Ignored

I just finished reading the April Newsweek article "The New Wisdom of The Web" by Leve and Stone. While it provides an interesting and optimistic overview of a number of the major web 2.0 players, the authors enthusiasm seems to prevent them from taking a more critical look at the companies they are profiling. True, the ability of the web to overcome some of modern economics hard and fast rules regarding incentive and self interest is astounding, one only has to look at the success of the open source software movement. However, much of the evidence suggests that these economic improbabilities are built on the most tenuous of contextual changes. Sure the web may have lowered the personal costs of contributing to a collective effort by such a degree that altruism, enjoyment and recognition prove sufficient motivators, but an equally small push in the other direction may be all that is required to break the system. This is why so many, if not all these web 2.0 enterprises are burning holes in the pockets of their owners and investors.

What the article fails to mention is that many of the web 2.0 flagship sites have yet to turn a profit, relying on cash from venture capitalists much like their 90's dot com bubble counterparts. YouTube recently valued at 1 billion dollars continues to loose money hand over fist, not to mention the potential for further dramatic losses due to intellectual property law suits. Business Week recently feature founder Kevin Rose on its cover with the headline "How This Kid Made $60 Million in 18 Months". However, Rose was quick to respond in his weekly podcast that he can barely afford to buy a couch, the site still drawing on its venture capital cash.

In response to the, "show me the money" demand, one often hears that the magic of the Chris Anderson's "long tail" will come to the web's rescue. One is often directed to look at Amazon and Netflix for proof of every web 2.0's companies viability, but to leverage the "long tail" one has to have a product and flickr, YouTube and Myspace don't seem to. Without their users (and their content) these sites have nothing and the minute they place an impediment to their users participation they'll start a classic race to the bottom. Make the site less appealing to use through more intrusive ads or charging for access and users will cease to generate content. Once the content begins to dwindle so to will the users willingness to tolerate the ads and or cost, which will only further the loss of content, and users.

Adding to all this is fact that much of the aging infrastructure on which these sights rely was largely built during the dot com bubble and was thus significantly subsidized by all those investors that lost their shirts and pension in the bust. Today's cheap broadband is largely a product of bargain basement bankruptcy sales. Unless middle class of North America are willing to again turn over their life savings, such as they are, for the betterment of broadband access for all, costs for these sites are only going to rise. Rises in infrastructure costs will hurt sites like YouTube the hardest because of the data intensive content they provide, but rising costs for any money loosing startup cannot be good.

I do not mean to spell doom and gloom for the web 2.0 industry. All I am suggesting is that to look at it uncritically and consider only the value and not the costs is a mistake, one that was made by many not so long ago. The "long tail" provides a economic model for many an online business, but not all. Appealing to the masses is great, but it does not give one carte blanche to ignore economics.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

First Post (My Bio)


I am an MLIS student at the University of Western Ontario, currently in my third and final term (hopefully). Last year I com pleated a BA in Political Science and American Studies from the University of Toronto. I am and have been for the last 7 years an employee of the Toronto Public Library system at the Burrows Hall branch . Besides school and work much of my time over the last several years has been dedicated to training for and running in a number of marathons and races of other assorted distances. I spend many of my days attempting to reconcile my passion for libraries and my love of running, unfortunately reading while running results in way to many injuries.

About my social software experience, I have blogged, if only briefly. I have and do subscribe to RSS feeds both through a variety of aggregators and through firefox’s live bookmark feature. I’m not a fan of, not because of its underling principle but because the interface is atrocious. By far my favorite piece of social software is the social news aggregation site, not simply for its functionality and interface but because of the various personalities involved in its creation. I’m a reader of wikipedia but have only contributed once, in aid of Steve Cobert’s abortive sabotage attempt (In my defence I think he was making a valid point).