Cloud Street

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The users geeks don't see

Nick writes, provocatively as ever, about the recent 'community-oriented' redesign of the portal:
A few days ago, Netscape turned its traditional portal home page into a knockoff of the popular geek news site Digg. Like Digg, Netscape is now a "news aggregator" that allows users to vote on which stories they think are interesting or important. The votes determine the stories' placement on the home page. Netscape's hope, it seems, is to bring Digg's hip Web 2.0 model of social media into the mainstream. There's just one problem. Normal people seem to think the entire concept is ludicrous.

Nick cites a post titled Netscape Community Backlash, from which this line leapt out at me:
while a lot of us geeks and 2.0 types are addicted to our own technology (and our own voices, to be honest), it's pretty darn obvious that A LOT of people want to stick with the status quo

This reminded me of a minor revelation I had the other day, when I was looking for the Java-based OWL reasoner 'pellet'. I googled for
pellet owl
- just like that, no quotes - expecting to find a 'pellet' link at the bottom of forty or fifty hits related to, well, owls and their pellets. In fact, the top hit was "Pellet OWL Reasoner". (To be fair, if you google
owl pellet
you do get the fifty pages of owl pellets first.)

I think it's fair to say that the pellet OWL reasoner isn't big news even in the Web-using software development community; I'd be surprised if everyone reading this post even knows what an OWL reasoner is (or has any reason to care). But there's enough activity on the Web around pellet to push it, in certain circumstances, to the top of the Google rankings (see for yourself).

Hence the revelation: it's still a geek Web. Or rather, there's still a geek Web, and it's still making a lot of the running. When I first started using the Internet, about ten years ago, there was a geek Web, a hobbyist Web, an academic Web (small), a corporate Web (very small) and a commercial Web (minute) - and the geek Web was by far the most active. Since then the first four sectors have grown incrementally, but the commercial Web has exploded, along with a new sixth sector - the Web-for-everyone of AOL and MSN and MySpace and LiveJournal (and blogs), whose users vastly outnumber those of the other five. But the geek Web is still where a lot of the new interesting stuff is being created, posted, discussed and judged to be interesting and new.

Add social software to the mix - starting, naturally, within the geek Web, as that's where it came from - and what do you get? You get a myth which diverges radically from the reality. The myth is that this is where the Web-for-everyone comes into its own, where millions of users of what was built as a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactive features start talking back to the broadcasters and breaking out of their walled gardens. The reality is that the voices of the geeks are heard even more loudly - and even more disproportionately - than before. Have a look at the 'popular' tags on as I write, six of the top ten (including all of the top five) relate directly to programmers, and only to programmers. (Number eight reads: "LinuxBIOS - aims to replace the normal BIOS found on PCs, Alphas, and other machines with a Linux kernel". The unglossed reference to Alphas says it all.) Of the other four, one's a political video, two are photosets and one is a full-screen animation of a cartoon cat dancing, rendered entirely in ASCII art. (Make that seven of the top ten.)

I'm not a sceptic about social software: ranking, tagging, search-term-aggregation and the other tools of what I persist in calling ethnoclassification are both new and powerful. But they're most powerful within a delimited domain: a user coming to for the first time should be looking for the 'faceted search' option straight away ("OK, so that's the geek cloud, how do I get it to show me the cloud for European history/ceramics/Big Brother?") The fact that there is no 'faceted search' option is closely related, I'd argue, to the fact that there is no discernible tag cloud for European history or ceramics or Big Brother: we're all in the geek Web. (Even Nick Carr.) (Photography is an interesting exception - although even there the only tags popular enough to make the tag cloud are 'photography', 'photo' and 'photos'. There are 40 programming-related tags, from ajax to xml.)

Social software wasn't built for the users of the Web-for-everyone. Reaction to the Netscape redesign tells us (or reminds us) that there's no reason to assume they'll embrace it.

Update Have a look at Eszter Hargittai's survey of Web usage among 1,300 American college students, conducted in February and March 2006. MySpace is huge, and Facebook's even huger, but Web 2.0 as we know it? It's not there. 1.9% use Flickr; 1.6% use Digg; 0.7% use Answering a slightly different question, 1.5% have ever visited Boingboing, and 1% Technorati. By contrast, 62% have visited and 21% It's still, very largely, a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactivity. Comparing results like these with the prophecies of tagging replacing hierarchy, Long Tail production and mashups all round, I feel like invoking the story of the blind men and the elephant - except that I'm not even sure we've all got the same elephant.