Cloud Street

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

We are your friends

I recently attended an "e-Government Question Time" session, organised in connection with this conference. There were some good points made: one speaker stressed the importance of engaging with the narratives which people build rather than assuming that the important facts can be read off from an accumulation of data; one questioner called the whole concept of 'e-government' into question, pointing out that the stress seemed to be entirely on using the Web/email/digital TV/texting/etc as a mechanism for delivering services rather than as a medium for democratic exchanges. Much more typical, though, was the spin which the mediator put on this question as he passed it on to the panel:

That's a very good question - what about democracy? And conversely, if it's all democracy where does that leave leadership?

The evening was much less about democracy than it was about leadership - or rather, management. This starting-point produced some strikingly fallacious arguments, particularly in the field of privacy. The following statements were all made by one panellist; I won't single him out, as they were all endorsed by other panellists - and, in some cases, members of the audience. (And no, identifying him as male doesn't narrow it down a great deal. The people in the hall were 3:1 male to female (approximately), the people on stage 6:1 (precisely).)

I like to protect my own privacy, but I'm in the privileged position of having assets to protect. When you're looking at people who have got nothing, and in many cases aren't claiming benefits to which they're entitled, I don't think safeguarding their privacy should be our main concern.

At first blush this argument echoes the classic Marxist critique of the bourgeois definition of human rights - if we have the right to privacy, what about the right to a living wage? But instead of going from universalism to a broader (and hence more genuine) universalism, we've ended up with the opposite of universalism: you and I can worry about privacy, but it doesn't apply to them. Superficially radical, or at least populist - you can just hear David Blunkett coming out with something similar - this is actually a deeply reactionary argument: it treats the managed as a different breed from the people who manage them (I like to protect my own privacy, but...). Management Fallacy 1: 'they're not like us'.

We're talking about improving people's life chances. We need to make personal information more accessible - to put more access to personal information in the hands of the people who can change people's lives for the better.

Management Fallacy 2: 'we mean well'. If every intervention by a public servant were motivated by the best interests of the citizens, safeguards against improper intervention would not be required. And if police officers never stepped out of line, there'd be no need for a Police Complaints Commission. In reality, good intentions cannot be assumed: partly because the possibility of a corrupt or malicious individual getting at your data cannot be ruled out; partly because government agencies have other functions as well as safeguarding the citizen's interests, and those priorities may occasionally come into conflict; and partly because a government agency's idea of your best interests may not be the same as yours (see Fallacy 3). All of which means that the problem needs to be addressed at the other end, by protecting your data from people who don't have a specific reason to use it - however well-intentioned those people may be. One questioner spoke wistfully of the Data Protection Act getting in the way of creative, innovative uses of data. It's true that data mining technology now makes it possible to join the dots in some very creative and innovative ways. But if it's data about me, I don't think prior consent is too much to ask - and I don't think other people are all that different (see Fallacy 1).

I've got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called

Have to stop you there. Management Fallacy 3: 'it looks all right to me'. The speaker was a local government employee: a private individual. His policy for handling his own private data doesn't concern me. But I would hope that, before he came to apply that policy more generally, he would reflect on how the people who would be affected might feel about surrendering their civil liberties, so-called. (Perhaps he could consult them, even.)

Carry on:

I've got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called, if it's going to prevent another Victoria Climbie case.

Management Fallacy 4: 'numbers don't lie'. (Or: 'Everything is measurable and what can be measured can be managed'.) This specific example is a common error with statistics, which can be illustrated with the example of a hypothetical test for the AIDS virus. Let's say that you've got an HIV test which is 95% accurate - that is, out of every 100 people with HIV it will correctly identify 95 and mis-identify 5, and similarly for people who do not carry the virus. And let's say that you believe, from other sources, that 1,000 people in a town of 100,000 carry the virus. You administer the test to the entire town. If your initial assumption is correct, how many positive results will you get? And how confident can you be, in percentage terms, that someone who tests positive is actually HIV-positive?

The answers are 5900 and 16.1%. The test would identify 950 of the 1000 people with the virus, but it would also misidentify 4950 people who did not have it: consequently, anyone receiving a positive test result would have a five in six chance of actually being HIV-negative. What this points to is a fundamental problem with any attempt to identify rare phenomena in large volumes of data. If the frequency of the phenomenon you're looking for is, in effect, lower than the predictable rate of error, any positive result is more likely to be an error than not.

Contra McKinsey, I would argue that not everything can or should be measured, let alone managed on the basis of measurement. (If the data-driven approach to preventing another Climbie case sounds bad, imagine it with the addition of performance targets.) Some phenomena - particularly social phenomena - are not amenable to being captured through the collection of quantitative data, and shouldn't be treated as if they were.

What all these fallacies have in common is a self-enclosed, almost solipsistic conception of the task of management. With few exceptions, the speakers (and the questioners) talked in terms of meeting people's needs by delivering a pre-defined service with pre-defined goals, pre-defined techniques, pre-defined identities (me service provider, you service recipient). There were only occasional references to the exploratory, dialogic approach of asking people what their needs were and how they would like them to be met - despite the possibilities for work in this area which new technologies have created. But then, management is not dialogue.

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it's really about is connecting people - and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Which side of the table?

[Pardon the long silence - life called.]

I think Google Base is a fun experiment, and I’m willing to play a little. It will be interesting to see the directory, especially if the company provides web services that aren’t limited to so many queries a day. But I never forget that Google is in the business to make a profit. If we give it the power, it will become the Wal-Mart of the waves–by default if not by design. Is that what you all want? If it is, just continue getting all misty eyed, because you’ll need blurred vision not to see what should be right in front of you.
I think this is precisely right. I find a lot of the comment on Google Base strange and slightly depressing, in the same way I find a lot of Web 2.0 talk strange and depressing. In the context of social software, when I use a word like 'enclose' - or a word like 'monetise' - it means something quite specific and entirely negative: it's a red-flag word. So it's weird, to say the least, to see the same words used positively. It's only a little less strange to see these concerns acknowledged, then batted away as trivial or meaningless (Tom: "Making data available for everyone to use is keeping it in the public sphere." (I'm Phil #2 in those comments, by the way)).

It seems to me that there's a fundamental tension between the demands of commerce and the nature of social software, as defined by Tom some time ago:
We believe that for a piece of Social Software to be useful:

  • Every individual should derive value from their contributions
  • Every contribution should provide value to their peers as well
  • The site or organisation that hosts the service should be able to derive value from the aggregate of the data and should be able to expose that value back to individuals
You add content, which has value for you and to other users; the host derives further value from the aggregate of content; the host exposes that added value to all users. Beautiful.

What this suggests is that social software - unlike, say, the e-business of the late 1990s - is all about the content. Specifically, it's all about freely and collectively contributed content, either held in common or held in trust for the commons. So monetising social software is qualitatively different from making money out of a new piece of stand-alone software, because it's the contributed content which has the original value - and makes the added value possible. Tangentially, I'm not sure whether Doc Searls gets this or not, and not only because his article's had a well-deserved slashdotting. On a first reading I got the impression he was saying that both the Net and the Web are valuable common resources which should not be fenced off for the sake of making money, but that part of what makes them valuable is that they're great environments for fencing things off and making money. (Oh, and we should stop saying 'common' because if you put 'ist' on the end it sounds kind of like 'communist', and when Eric Raymond hears the word 'Communist' he reaches for well, you know.) It's a great article, though, and I look forward to taking a more considered look at it when the tide subsides.

One of Doc's points is that the Web is, figuratively, all about publishing - a profession which, like many bloggers, I've seen close up. Just under ten years ago, I went from Unix sysadmin to magazine editor, and rapidly discovered that commercial publishing looks very different from the inside. Perhaps the biggest single shock was the realisation that content doesn't matter. Obviously I tried to make it the best magazine I could (and it got better still under my successor), but at a fundamental level editorial content wasn't what it was about. If the advertising department sold enough space, we made a profit; if they didn't, we didn't. (Show me a magazine that relies on the cover price and I'll show you a magazine with money worries. Show me a publication that gets by on the cover price and I'll show you an academic journal.) The purpose of the magazine was to put advertisements in front of readers - and the purpose of the editorial was to make readers turn all the pages.

So there's nothing very new about Google's business model: Google Base is to the Web what a commercial magazine is to a fanzine - or rather, a whole mass of different fanzines. The only novelty is that we, the fanzine writers, are providing the content: the content whose sole function, from the point of view of Google as a commercial entity, is to attract an audience which will look at ads.

But that's quite a big novelty.

Bill Burnham:
In my next post I will talk about Google Base's impact on the "walled garden" listings sites. I'll give you a hint: it won't be pretty.
Unless, of course, you like really big gardens with really high walls.

Update: I wrote, I find a lot of the comment on Google Base strange and slightly depressing, in the same way I find a lot of Web 2.0 talk strange and depressing. Cue Cringely:
Google has the reach and the resources ... And you know whose strategy this is? Wal-Mart's. And unless Google comes up with an ecosystem to allow their survival, that means all the other web services companies will be marginalized. ... the final result is that Web 2.0 IS Google. Microsoft can't compete. Yahoo probably can't compete. Sun and IBM are like remora, along for the ride. And what does it all cost, maybe $1 billion? That's less than Microsoft spends on legal settlements each year. Game over.
As an aside, I love the idea of International Business Machines as a parasite on the behemoth that is Google; I don't think we're quite there yet. But the accuracy or not of Cringely's prediction concerns me less than his tone, which I think can reasonably be called lip-smacking: "Google's going to 0wn the Web! Wow!" (Quick test: try reading that sentence out loud with a straight face. Now try substituting 'Microsoft' - or, for older readers, 'IBM'.) This enthusiasm for big business - as long as it's a cool big business - strikes me as both dangerous and weird, not to mention being the antithesis of what's made the Net fun to work with all these years. But it is a logical development of one branch of the 'Web 2.0' hype - an increasingly dominant branch, unfortunately.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

This is the new stuff

Thomas criticises Wikipedia's entry on folksonomy - a term which was coined just over a year ago by, er, Thomas. As of today's date, the many hands of Wikipedia say:
Folksonomy is a neologism for a practice of collaborative categorization using freely chosen keywords. More colloquially, this refers to a group of people cooperating spontaneously to organize information into categories, typically using categories or tags on pages, or semantic links with types that evolve without much central control. ... In contrast to formal classification methods, this phenomenon typically only arises in non-hierarchical communities, such as public websites, as opposed to multi-level teams and hierarchical organization. An example is the way in which wikis organize information into lists, which tend to evolve in their inclusion and exclusion criteria informally over time.
Today, having seen an new academic endeavor related to folksonomy quoting the Wikipedia entry on folksonomy, I realize the definition of Folksonomy has become completely unglued from anything I recognize (yes, I did create the word to define something that was undefined prior). It is not collaborative, it is not putting things into categories, it is not related to taxonomy (more like the antithesis of a taxonomy), etc. The Wikipedia definition seems to have morphed into something that the people with Web 2.0 tagging tools can claim as something that can describe their tool
I'm resisting the temptation to send Thomas the All-Purpose Wikipedia Snark Letter ("Yeah? Well, if you don't like the wisdom of the crowds, Mr So-Called Authority..."). In fact, I'm resisting the temptation to say anything about Wikipedia; that's another discussion. But I do want to say something about the original conception of 'folksonomy', and about how it's drifted.

Firstly, another quote from Thomas's post from today:
Folksonomy is the result of personal free tagging of information and objects (anything with a URL) for one's own retrival. The tagging is done in a social environment (shared and open to others). The act of tagging is done by the person consuming the information.
There is tremendous value that can be derived from this personal tagging when viewing it as a collective, when you have the three needed data points in a folksonomy tool: 1) the person tagging; 2) the object being tagged as its own entity; and 3) the tag being used on that object. ... [by] keeping the three data elements you can use two of the elements to find a third element, which has value. If you know the object (in it is the web page being tagged) and the tag you can find other individuals who use the same tag on that object, which may lead (if a little more investigation) to somebody who has the same interest and vocabulary as you do. That person can become a filter for items on which they use that tag. You then know an individual and a tag combination to follow.
This is admirably clear and specific; it also fits rather well with the arguments I was making in two posts earlier this year:
[perhaps] the natural state of knowledge is to be 'cloudy', because it's produced within continuing interactions within groups: knowledge is an emergent property of conversation, you could say ... [This suggests that] every community has its own knowledge-cloud - that the production and maintenance of a knowledge-cloud is one way that a community defines itself.
If 'cloudiness' is a universal condition, and flickr and tag clouds and so forth don't enable us to do anything new; what they are giving us is a live demonstration of how the social mind works. Which could be interesting, to put it mildly.
Thomas's original conception of 'folksonomy' is quite close to my conception of a 'knowledge cloud': they're both about the emergence of knowledge within a social interaction (a conversation).

The current Wikipedia version of 'folksonomy' is both fuzzier and more closely tied to existing technology. What's happened seems to be a kind of vicious circle of hype and expectations management. It's not a new phenomenon - anyone who's been watching IT for any length of time has seen it happen at least once. (Not to worry anyone, but it happened quite a lot around 1999, as I remember...)
  1. There's Vision: someone sees genuinely exciting new possibilities in some new technology and writes a paper on - oh, I don't know, noetic telepresence or virtual speleology or network prosody...
  2. Then there's Development: someone builds something that does, well, a bit of it. Quite significant steps towards supporting network prosody. More coming in the next release.
  3. Phase three is Hype. Hype, hype, hype. Mm-hmm. I just can't get enough hype, can you?
  4. The penultimate phase is Dissemination: in which everyone's trying to support network prosody. Or, at least, some of it. That stuff that those other people did with their tool. There we go, fully network prosody enabled - must get someone to do a writeup.
  5. Finally we're into Hype II, also known as Marketing: 'network prosody' is defined less by the original vision than by the tools which have been built to support it. The twist is that it's still being hyped in exactly the same way - tools which don't actually do that much are being marketed as if they realised the original Vision. It's a bit of a pain, this stage. Fortunately it doesn't last forever. (Stage 6 is the Hangover.)
What's to be done? As I said back here, personally I don't use the term 'folksonomy'; I prefer Peter Merholz's term 'ethnoclassification'. Two of my objections to 'folksonomy' were that it appears to denote an end result as well as a process, and that it's become a term of (anti-librarian) advocacy as well as description; Thomas's criticisms of Wikipedia seem to point in a similar direction. Where I do differ from Thomas is in the emphasis to be placed on online technologies. Ethnoclassification is - at least, as I see it - something that happens everywhere all the time: it's an aspect of living in a human community, not an aspect of using the Web. If I'm right about where we are in the Great Cycle of Hype, this may soon be another point in its favour.