Cloud Street

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

They don't know about us

Some dystopian thoughts on data harvesting, usage tracking, recommendation engines and consumer self-expression. First, here's Tom, then me:
"This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware - not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects."

This sentence works just as well with the word 'benefits' replaced by 'threats'. It all depends who gets to do the tracking and collating, I suppose.

Now here's Max Levchin, formerly of Paypal, and his new toy Slide (via Thomas):
If Slide is at all familiar, it's as a knockoff of Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Users upload photos, which are displayed on a running ticker or Slide Show, and subscribe to one another's feeds. But photos are just a way to get Slide users communicating, establishing relationships, Levchin explains.

The site is beginning to introduce new content into Slide Shows. It culls news feeds from around the Web and gathers real-time information from, say, eBay auctions or profiles. It drops all of this information onto user desktops and then watches to see how they react.

Suppose, for example, there's a user named YankeeDave who sees a Treo 750 scroll by in his Slide Show. He gives it a thumbs-up and forwards it to his buddy" we'll call him Smooth-P. Slide learns from this that both YankeeDave and Smooth-P have an interest in a smartphone and begins delivering competing prices. If YankeeDave buys the item, Slide displays headlines on Treo tips or photos of a leather case. If Smooth-P gives a thumbs-down, Slide gains another valuable piece of data. (Maybe Smooth-P is a BlackBerry guy.) Slide has also established a relationship between YankeeDave and Smooth-P and can begin comparing their ratings, traffic patterns, clicks and networks.

Based on all that information, Slide gains an understanding of people who share a taste for Treos, TAG Heuer watches and BMWs. Next, those users might see a Dyson vacuum, a pair of Forzieri wingtips or a single woman with a six-figure income living within a ten-mile radius. In fact, that's where Levchin thinks the first real opportunity lies - hooking up users with like-minded people. "I started out with this idea of finding shoes for my girlfriend and hotties on HotOrNot for me," Levchin says with a wry smile. "It's easy to shift from recommending shoes to humans."

If this all sounds vaguely creepy, Levchin is careful to say he's rolling out features slowly and will only go as far as his users will allow. But he sees what many others claim to see: Most consumers seem perfectly willing to trade preference data for insight. "What's fueling this is the desire for self-expression," he says.

I'm not sure that I see, in today's self-portraits on MySpace or YouTube or Flickr, or in the fetishistic collecting of virtual tokens of attention, the desire to mark one's place in a professional or social stratum. What they seem to express, more than anything, is a desire to turn oneself into a product, a commodity to be consumed. And since, as I wrote earlier, "self-commoditization is in the end indistinguishable from self-consumption," the new portraiture seems at its core narcissistic. The portraits are advertisements for a commoditized self

Granny Weatherwax:
"And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is. ... People as things, that's where it starts."

More precisely, that's where some extraordinarily unequal and dishonest social relationships can start.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Got a web between his toes

Now that Nick has read the last rites for Web 2.0, perhaps it's safe to return to a question that's never quite been resolved.

To wit: what is Web 2.0? (We've established that it's not a snail.) Over at What I wrote, I've just put up a March 2003 article called "In Godzilla's footprint". In it, I asked similar questions about e-business, taking issue with the standard rhetoric of 'efficiency' and 'empowerment'. I suggested that e-business wasn't - or rather isn't - a phenomenon in its own right, but the product of three much larger trends: standardisation, automation and externalisation of costs. (Read the whole thing.)

Assuming for the moment that I called this one correctly - and I find my arguments pretty persuasive - what of Web 2.0? More of the same, only featuring the automation of income generation (AdSense) and the externalisation of payroll costs ('citizen journalism')? Or is there more going on - and if so, what?

Update 16/11

It would be remiss of me not to give any pointers to my own thinking on Web 2.0. So I'm republishing another column at What I wrote, this time from February of this year. Most of you will probably have seen it the first time round, when it appeared in iSeries NEWS UK, but I think it's worth giving it another airing. Have a gander.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Simplify, reduce, oversimplify

An interesting post on 'folksonomies' at Collin Brooke's blog prompted this comment, which I thought deserved a post of its own.

I think Peter Merholz's coinage 'ethnoclassification' could be useful here. As I've argued elsewhere, I think we can see all taxonomies (and ultimately all knowledge) as the product of an extended conversation within a given community: in this respect a taxonomy is simply an accredited 'folksonomy'.

However, I think there's a dangerous (but interesting) slippage here between what folksonomies could be and what folksonomies are: between the promise of the project of 'folksonomy' (F1) and what's delivered by any identifiable folksonomy (F2). (You can get into very similar arguments about Wikipedia 1 and Wikipedia 2 - sometimes with the same people.) Compared to the complexity and exhaustiveness of any functioning taxonomic scheme, I don't believe that any actually-existing 'folksonomy' is any more than an extremely sketchy work in progress.

For this reason (among others), I believe we need different words for the activity and the endpoint. So we could contrast classification with Peterme's 'ethnoclassification', on one hand, and note that the only real difference between the two is that the former takes place within structured and credentialled communities. On the other hand, we could contrast actual taxonomies with 'folksonomies'. The latter could have very much the same relationship with officially-credentialled taxonomies as classification does with ethnoclassification - but they aren't there yet.

The shift from 'folksonomy' to 'ethnoclassification' has two interesting side-effects, which I suspect are both fairly unwelcome to folksonomy boosters (a group in which I don't include Thomas Vander Wal, ironically enough). On one hand, divorcing process and product reminds us that improvements to one don't necessarily translate as improvements in the other. The activity that goes into producing a 'folksonomy', as distinct from a taxonomy, may give more participants a better experience (more egalitarian, more widely distributed, more chatty, more fun) but you wouldn't necessarily expect the end product to show improvements as a result. (You'd expect it to be a bit scrappy, by and large.) On the other hand, divorcing process from technology reminds us that ethnoclassification didn't start with; the aggregation of informal knowledge clouds is something we've been doing for a long time, perhaps as long as we've been human.