- Jon Mitchell, Google Is Going To Mess Up The Internet
Mitchell’s got a series of points regarding the way the Google+ works that is creating a new social layer on top of the web of pages, and making it hard to find things and share things in more ‘traditional’ ways. And he doesn’t like the social padding involved. Read it. There’s a lot of detailed analysis, not just a screed.
Here’s another take on the rise of short format and the decline of long format on the social web. Without a discussion about streaming it all sounds like a series of fads:
Verne Kopytoff, Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter
The Internet and American Life Project at the Pew Research Center found that from 2006 to 2009, blogging among children ages 12 to 17 fell by half; now 14 percent of children those ages who use the Internet have blogs. Among 18-to-33-year-olds, the project said in a report last year, blogging dropped two percentage points in 2010 from two years earlier.
Former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers. Others said they had no interest in creating a blog because social networking did a good enough job keeping them in touch with friends and family.
Blogging started its rapid ascension about 10 years ago as services like Blogger and LiveJournal became popular. So many people began blogging — to share dieting stories, rant about politics and celebrate their love of cats — that Merriam-Webster declared “blog” the word of the year in 2004.
Defining a blog is difficult, but most people think it is a Web site on which people publish periodic entries in reverse chronological order and allow readers to leave comments.
Yet for many Internet users, blogging is defined more by a personal and opinionated writing style. A number of news and commentary sites started as blogs before growing into mini-media empires, like The Huffington Post or Silicon Alley Insider, that are virtually indistinguishable from more traditional news sources.
Blogs went largely unchallenged until Facebook reshaped consumer behavior with its all-purpose hub for posting everything social. Twitter, which allows messages of no longer than 140 characters, also contributed to the upheaval.
No longer did Internet users need a blog to connect with the world. They could instead post quick updates to complain about the weather, link to articles that infuriated them, comment on news events, share photos or promote some cause — all the things a blog was intended to do.
Indeed, small talk shifted in large part to social networking, said Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of BlogHer, a women’s blog network. Still, blogs remain a home of more meaty discussions, she said.
“If you’re looking for substantive conversation, you turn to blogs,” Ms. Camahort Page said. “You aren’t going to find it on Facebook, and you aren’t going to find it in 140 characters on Twitter.”
Lee Rainie, director of the Internet and American Life Project, says that blogging is not so much dying as shifting with the times. Entrepreneurs have taken some of the features popularized by blogging and weaved them into other kinds of services.
“The act of telling your story and sharing part of your life with somebody is alive and well — even more so than at the dawn of blogging,” Mr. Rainie said. “It’s just morphing onto other platforms.”
The blurring of lines is readily apparent among users of Tumblr. Although Tumblr calls itself a blogging service, many of its users are unaware of the description and do not consider themselves bloggers — raising the possibility that the decline in blogging by the younger generation is merely a semantic issue.
Kim Hou, a high school senior in San Francisco, said she quit blogging months ago, but acknowledged that she continued to post fashion photos on Tumblr. “It’s different from blogging because it’s easier to use,” she said. “With blogging you have to write, and this is just images. Some people write some phrases or some quotes, but that’s it.”
Asking people why they don’t do something often leads to a general explanation: I don’t have time. Robert Putnam found that when asking people why they didn’t get involved in community organizations was invariably told by respondents that they had not time, that commuting, work, house work, and child care were taking up all of people’s time. But when he researched where people’s time was going, the answer was glaring: television watching steeply increased starting in the ’60s to an all-time high in the ’90s. Almost 5 hours a day in the US, crowding out community involvement almost totally.
So, you can’t really trust people’s folklore about why they do and don’t do the thinks that they do and don’t do. You can, however, examine what they are actually doing, like the Pew folks do.
And the most important and unexamined aspect of the move from blogs to streaming applications like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr is their streaming nature. Streaming and the open follower model is an evolutionary advance over the primitive social structures of the old school blogging era. People are moving from the slower, less social model of interaction embedded in the blogging model, to a much faster, and much more social model of interaction in streaming applications.
And this is only the wavefront of the transition to a web of flow, away from the web of pages: that’s the deep background story here.
As much as we love the open, unfettered Web, we’re abandoning it for simpler, sleeker services that just work.
I buy a good deal of Anderson’s pitch, but he misses the biggest aspect of the next wave: the movement is not just away from HTML to apps, its from a web of pages to a web of flow.
The dominant motif of all strategically important web apps from this point forward for at least a decade will be that they stream information to users from those that they chose to follow. This will turn the historical web into an archive of pages that we return to less and less as better apps and richer social experience fragments pages into constituents and hurls them into the vortex of sociality. URLs will cease to be navigational tools, principally, and instead will represent addresses through which fragments are pulled, and streamed.
It’s not that the web is dead, it’s being reanimated through pervasive social streaming.
And then, the step after that is when social constructs are built into the operating platforms, like iPad, Android, Mac OS, and whatever other platforms matter in the next few years. That will obliterate the browser, except as a fallback for viewing archives.
Near the end of a long, rambling discussion with Google’s Peter Norvig about making (and learning from) mistakes, Kathryn Schultz gets to where Google has stumbled hardest:
Kathryn Schultz, Error Message: Google Research Director Peter Norvig on Being Wrong
Schultz: What do you think have been Google’s biggest mistakes?
Norvig: I can’t speak for the whole company, but I guess not embracing the social aspects. Facebook came along and has been very successful, and I may have dismissed that early on. There was this initial feeling of, “Well, this is about real, valid information, and Facebook is more about celebrity gossip or something.” I think I missed the fact that there is real importance to having a social network and getting these recommendations from friends. I might have been too focused on getting the facts and figures—to answer a query such as “What digital camera should I buy?” with the best reviews and facts, when some people might prefer to know “Oh, my friend Sally got that one; I’ll just get the same thing.” Maybe something isn’t the right answer just because your friends like it, but there is something useful there, and that’s a factor we have to weigh in along with the others.
And being too focused on discrete goal-directed actions, like figuring out which camera to buy, Peter.
The web is about people in a profoundly deep way: we are making it to happen to ourselves. Google certainly has missed that world, growing in plain sight.
We are not looking for cameras, we are becoming connected.
As I said in Can Google Go Social?:
Google made a pile by harvesting the latent value of all the social gestures we were leaving around the web in the form of links. These form the core of Page Rank and Google’s search/advertising business.
This was born in the paleolithic of the social web, where mostly we were wandering around as hunter-gatherers, turning over rocks, based on keyword search. The idea of social in those days was to send email alerts to people so they’d remember to read your blog and post comments.
But the social web has grown based on social networks — relationships between people — not hyperlinks between web pages. We are in a great migration away from a web of pages to a web of flow, where streams connect us and allow us to share links, comments, photos, games, locations, lists, and even larger social objects in the future. And Google has only had the smallest involvement in that expansion. But they desperately want in on the next wave, but they haven’t found a formula yet. It’s not Wave or Buzz, obviously. And now they are plotting a knockoff of Facebook: how 2009!
We are headed for a post-search web, where search will become something we do less and less. Our social networks will be the source of what we want to know about, rather than Google’s search algorithms. They have got to make that world a reality, instead of acting like it will never happen, or they will be dinosaur dust.
Stowe Boyd, 10 Minute Sprint From 140 Character Conference
Abundance economics means that we won’t rely on search: search is based on scarcity.
Imagine that all critical information is available, publicly, and the most important breaking news is a few seconds (at most) away. In this world the problem won’t be finding what you want, but minimizing the torrent so that you have a small number of things to look at.
This is as true inside of a 1000 person company as in the open web.
Increasingly, we will switch to a social connection mode to filter and find for us. Our networks will become engines of meaning, as Bruce Sterling said.
Everything we want to find has been found, and will find us through our social connections. Like head colds and happiness.
Kara Swisher reports that gee-whiz iPad app Pulse has been yanked after very public praise yesterday at the Apple developer conference might be a tempest in a teacup. Perhaps — as many suggest — senior NY Times execs don’t know that Pulse is ‘just’ an RSS reader. Or is this step one in a way against RSS?
Mike Masnick probes at the edges of this:
I’m guessing their concern is with the fact that the RSS reader is a paid app. This likely this goes back to an issue I raised more than five years ago, about companies who were putting “non-commercial” licenses on their RSS feed. How do you determine what’s “non-commercial” in RSS? If I use that RSS feed as a part of my job, is that commercial? If I use it in a fee-based app, is that commercial? Either way, it’s hard to see how this is really commercial use in any way. Yes, the RSS app is a fee-based app, but it’s not “selling” the NY Times’ content. It’s just letting anyone access the free content that the NY Times put out for just this purpose. It’s selling the software. In the same way Dell or HP or whoever sells a computer and lets people “access” the NY Times website.
I don’t think this is about RSS, per se. It’s about the general trend into the web of flow away from the web of pages. And the Times and other media giants will resist this.
The web of flow that is emerging — based on RSS originally, but now the social web — turns pages into URL handles: not for navigation but for fetching. Instead of playing nice, and clicking on links to visit the hosting site, the flow will suck up the content at the end of a URL and pull it into a the stream. So instead of seeing a NY Times story on their site, the Twitter client or Pulse reader will display the piece in context.
The media want people to travel to their old web of pages — that they spend some much time editing, organizing, and curating — so that they can make money on ads (oh, and maybe people will look at other pages too).
The answer to this won’t be to block the inexorable web of flow from happening. The answer is to put flow ads into the posts being served up in the flow apps. Instead of fighting with Pulse the NY Times ought to be figuring out a way to build micro ads into the RSS that Pulse is using, or the shortened URLs that everyone uses in the microstream.
As just one approach, a shortened URL could be associated with not only a piece of content — the news story on /Message or the NY Times — but also with a micro ad, which could be rendered by readers or flow apps, like Tweetie running on my desktop or my iPhone, or in Pulse on the iPad. The responsiblity of Pulse and Tweetie would be to display the micro ad if and when the story is expanded in place. If the user just clicks through, no problems.
Marshall Kirkpatrick recently griped about Ask.com’s blog search service closing down.
Marshall Kirkpatrick, R.I.P. World’s Greatest Blogsearch
Searching the blogs, scanning the posts, feed-powered search: there used to be more startups offering blogsearch than there are characters in a Twitter message today. But no more. Today blogsearch engines fade away all the time and almost no one notices.
But when Ask.com shuttered its blogsearch engine this month, I noticed. It made me sad, because it was the best blogsearch engine in the whole world. And now it’s gone. You, dear reader, probably didn’t even notice. But let me explain what we’re missing out on now that it’s gone.
That’s a real shame.
Sometimes you’re looking to see what experts in a field are writing in long-form on their blogs. Not spitting out on Twitter. Not posting on a static website. Blog posts. There is an incredible body of knowledge in that medium, and search by popularity was a really useful way to sort it. Surely someone offers a similar service. Who?
Bruce Sterling, who noticed Kirkpatrick’s howling when I hadn’t, suggests that it’s not just the difficulty of competing with Google blog search, but that blogs are dying as a medium:
Bruce Sterling, Dead Media Beat: blog search
Why does ‘almost no one notice’ that blogsearch enterprises are fading away? Because nobody notices that blogs are fading away. The technical ecosystem around blogs is disintegrating, being folded into other structures. Three years ago, I said at SXSW that there wouldn’t be many blogs around in ten years. That leaves ‘em seven years to continue to dwindle in interest and relevance. There will still be SOME blogs in seven years, no matter how firmly disintermediated they are by social media, and the many things that follow social media. There are still some personal computer bulletin board systems around today, too. But look at the trend. Compare today’s reality to the hectic illusions surrounding blogs three years ago.
There is certainly something to what Bruce has to say. Interest in long-format blogging is dropping, even while it is being incorporated into traditional media.
The rise of streaming tools, though, is leading to a new state, where long-format blogging is being imploded, turned into content for the short-format stream, like radio was cannibalized for TV.
We’ll see a new logical layering. At the bottom will be the web of pages, a vast archive of HTML connected by links: a giant hypertext.
At the top will be the web of flow, as typified now by Twitter microstreaming. Users will consider themsleves as ‘logged into’ Twitter (or other microstreams) where microsyntactic references, via URLs, hashtags, or other techniques will allow users to pull in larger format or richer content, like text, audio, video, or images. This is where people will operate, share, comment, question, and argue converationally.
In between will be a swirling nexus of ‘engines of meaning’ — algorithms and filters, assemblages and indexes, and the social networks where we connect — tools that people use to mark, retain, annotate, and find snippets of meaning.
This inherently devalues the materials accumulating at the bottom, like last week’s newspapers, old issues of magazines, and yesterday’s blog posts.
A few years ago we seemed to live in our RSS readers, and the metronome of our media diet was timed to author’s posting cycles, or our feeding cycles which was more like the daily newspaper than a stock ticker.
We’ve shifted to stream time, and the tempo is much, much faster.
Techmeme seems slow, when it formerly seemed like the breakingest place to be for tech.
And the great majority of chatter about the breaking news stories is in the stream, not in the comments on blogs, and not in the blogs themselves. While a great deal of thoughtful and expository writing still goes on, the average joe is dropping out of long format writing, even as an aspiration. It’s easier to just talk, and tweeting (or Facebook) seems more like talking or texting, and less hard work.
Arrington has staged a mock intervention for Scoble, whose ‘addiction’ to Friendfeed (and to a lesser extent, Twitter) has led to a serious diminution of his blogging, and for what?
I asked Robert how much time he actually spends on those services. He monitors them all day, he said, hitting refresh over and over on both (he doesn’t use desktop clients to manage the services, and he says he doesn’t like real-time streaming feature on Friendfeed). In addition to watching all day, he says he spends at least seven hours a day, seven days a week, actually reading and responding directly on those services.
That’s 2,555 hours over the last year.
Which is more than a full time job (2,000 hours/year).
It is more than 106 full 24 hour days interacting with those services in aggregate.
It is an addiction.
What is the cost of this addiction? Well, I’ll put his family life aside, that’s his business. But his blog has clearly suffered. He now posts only a few times a week, sometimes sporadically writing multiple posts in a day but often skipping 3-4 days in between. A year ago, Robert wrote multiple posts, every day. I used to read his blog daily, now I visit once a week.
“Some people tell me my thought leadership has declined as I’ve blogged less.”
What has he gained? On Twitter Robert has nearly 45,000 followers and has written over 16,000 messages. On Friendfeed Robert has nearly 23,000 subscribers.
So lots of people follow Robert on those services, but they aren’t visiting his site and the content he writes is on someone else’s server. Plus all that content is just really forgettable, compared to a good thought piece that people refer back to over time. There is no direct way to monetize any of that content, which is something that a full time blogger with a family really needs to think about.
Meanwhile, all this attention from Robert has certainly helped the valuations of Friendfeed and Twitter. How much of that value does Robert receive? Zilch.
Much of what Arrington is saying rings so true, and primarily because Scoble is such an outlier, such an anomaly. However, the general trends of how Scoble, and others, have shifted their web interaction is more interested than the naked numbers without a trend line.
Robert is the guy that put the sizzle in RSS, you may recall, back when he was a fire-eating blogger. He was following hundreds of blogs — back in 2004 he was reading 2000? He has always overdone in the line of consumption; he’s like watching an eating contest: it’s either amusing or nauseating, but it’s certainly not for the average person.
So what has really happened is not some normal web user who has all of a sudden started spending seven hours a day in his underwear, not showering, smashing the return key. He’s transitioned from roughly N hours of blog reading via RSS to N hours of conversation (with many, many links) via streaming applications.
We can divide this discussion into two parts:
I have said for years that traditional media — and Arrington has become mainstream media at this point, a Murdoch in the making — would war against the movement from pages to flow: they will say it is illegitimate, immoral, fattening, addictive, whatever.
Arrington’s points make sense relative to a certain perspective. In essence he is saying that time we spend engaging with others on the web has got to have a point, otherwise it’s just hanging out. And in the simplest terms, you should either be making money from becoming heavily invested (and well-known) on the web, or doing something else of great value.
Scoble maintains that his involvement with those in his various networks has great value, and that his more tangible work — his video series — has improved because of this involvement. But Arrington’s argument is stronger, at least to Arrington and other realists, since, implicitly, if Scoble went to work for a media outlet like TechCrunch and devoted his energies to media work that was more monetizable than the amorphous ‘following’ he has amassed in Flowland, he’d be worth millions. And he isn’t using his great hypothetical influence on the web to cure poverty, or end the genocide in Darfur, or overturn prop 8, either. He’s just fooling with tools.
But Scoble is some sort of idealist, maybe even a utopian, who sees the distant glimmerings of a new tomorrow, one that hasn’t been figured out yet. Arrington is right that Scoble can’t sell ads on his Friendfeed stream. Yet. So in very concrete terms, Scoble is losing serious bank while he is putzing around with all this social community chit-chat stuff.
And to a lesser extent, so are all of us that Twitter all day. Some a certain viewpoint, it’s like sitting on the porch and whittling.
But Robert is a early adopter, and not necessarily even the ablest promoter of the movement he is in.
The rise of flow and the new form of social connection that these flow applications engenders will slowly erode the edges of the more established, page-based Web 1.0 publishing models, like TechCrunch, Huffington Post, and whatever it is that the newspaper behemoths metamorphose into before finally shutting off their printing presses. Something new will emerge, out here, at the far fringes of Flowland. I believe it will recast the older forms of media, reshape them, like TV did to radio, and web 1.0 has done to print. But it’s going to take a long time, a decade or more, and a million baby steps to get there.
Scoble’s in love with the edge, and he doesn’t apparently want to monetize every waking second of his life. But is not an addiction: he’s blinded by the light, which is a whole different problem.
My recent talk from the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin, which I retitled “Better Social Plumbing For The Social Web” instead of ‘Better Media Plumbing…”. I include the notes that I prepared, with minor tweaks.
My topic is not new — in the sense that I started writing about it a year ago. But I think it is of growing importance.
The basic premises that underlie social media — the fundamental relationships that link authors to the community of readers — are changing in the face of new and different social tools. In a sense, I am chasing the elusive question about where community resides, once again.
In this presentation, I plan to explore the root causes of today’s social media plumbling — the stuff that makes it social — and to outline the stresses that new social metaphors are creating. Lastly, I wave my hand at where it might all be headed.
I am best known these days for my writing (and the thinking behind it) at /Message and other blogs at www.stoweboyd.com. I have been involved with the development of various interesting ideas, like social tools, flow applications, workstreaming, web culture, edglings, microblogging, and new localism. I have spoken at dozens of conferences in the past ten years, like Lift, Reboot, Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Defrag, Supernova, Under The Radar, Mesh, Next, and many, many others.
I work with a lot of start-ups building social tools, and larger companies trying to make sense of them.
Apologies. It was blogging that did this to me. No neat conclusions. A barrage of conjecture, wisecracks, and one-liners, disguised as a presentation.
My work is social tools, but my goals lie beyond.
We have inherited the Web 1.0 vision of the Web as a giant network of documents, linked to each other, where you can wander forever.
Where are the people? Oh. It’s the authors. They are people. They create links, but there are not in the immediate foreground. It’s documents, all the way down.
So in the Web of Pages — Web 1.0 — pages are more important than people.
And why are we here? “I must be here to read about things and follow links” since that’s what is the most natural thing to do, not to interact with people.
The Web of Pages wants us to be hunter/gatherers. We search, find a link, click it, see if it’s want we want, if not, we keep following leads.
It exploits the spatial sense in our minds.
People create the links that connect pages, asserting relationships between the info on the pages, and by extension, relationships between the people reading and writing the various pages. But it all seems pretty far away from human conversation. You write something, I find it, and write my own thing, and point at yours…. Its more like sending letters than conversing.
Yes, Google builds its page rank based on people’s actions — creating links and the identity of who created them — but all that seems way down in the subbasement, far far away.
Links are obliquely social, but direct conversation — through chat, social networking messages, and (most central to our subject today) blog comments — is where web media really become social media.
Asynchronous in nature, but can be near real time.
A blog is a long-lived repository of discourse, a place to ask questions, contend, agree, make suggestions, enlist support, and offer counterpoint. Nearly every possible sort of conversational interaction can be shoehorned into the lowly comment thread.
This is one of the reasons that the blogosphere has gone from a fringe phenomenon in 1999 to mainstream in 2009, where the leading print media outlets of the pre-web world have embraced the blogging paradigm at a fundamental level.
Social media is distinct from pre-social media in many ways — web based, individual voice dominates, etc. — but it is the social dimension that defines the difference. Social media is contrived (at least the best instances are) around the premises of open discourse between individuals.
While the publishers of blogs retain (in general) the ability to moderate comments, largely the model seems open. And the authorship — based on the identities of the bloggers and the commenters — makes the relationships that seemed so oblique in web 1.0 much more obvious and direct.
The heart of social tools is the individual, which is why I say social = me first. In the world of blogging that translates — not too well, actually — into ‘bloggers first, commenters second.’
The current baseline of blog technology puts very strong controls into the hands of the blogger, and hardly any in the hands of the commenters.
What sort of sociality is going on in a comment exchange? It’s a strangely unequal forum, where the blogger has nearly absolute controls, and the commenters — even in some sort of collective fashion — have no power. The blogger can delete any comment, or mark it as spam, while the commenters can’t change a single comma in the blog posts they comment on. (Of course, some commenters become bloggers themselves, and then the comment exchange becomes slower and distant, cross-linked by trackbacks or URLs, but pulled out of the comment stream.)
This asymmetry in control and ownership — who gets the revenue from the blog ads? — has ramifications throughout the web. For example, the page rank for a blog is attributed to the writing skills of the blogger, but it is the links that make the rank, not what is on the page. What is on the blog — the posts and the comments — are what lead to strong reputation for a blog, and that is due to the commenting — the sociality at the blog — but the author claims all the benefits, including all the revenue.
It’s interesting that social media is often heralded as proof that companies have lost control of their ‘message’ but at the same time that blogging keeps so much control in the hands of the blog publisher.
And there is the ‘comment dispersal’ problem, where very active commenters wind up with their participation spread all over the web, and no collation of their contributions.
This is one of the reasons that solutions like Co-comment and Disqus have been making ground, because an individual’s stream of contributions can be pulled together somewhere, and in a sense ‘owned’ by the participants and not just the blog publisher.
The seed for the change in the blogosphere was a seemingly small advance.
RSS feeds are a way to receive the posts from blogs without visiting them. Instead, using an RSS reader, a webhead can instead have posts from any number of blogs deposited into an RSS tool, like Google reader. This is a sort of out of body experience, since the user doesn’t hunt and gather anymore, wandering around looking for new information by search and following links. Instead, a steady diet of bite sized morsels simply appear. And generally without the comments.
So the shift to RSS by the most technically hip websters meant that
So, people find it easier to take other actions using tools outside the blogs, rather than comment. For example, creating shared bookmarks a la Delicious may seem of higher value for the individual and that individual’s network of friends than writing blog comments.
And right on the heels of RSS feeds, we began to see the rise of other social tools where conversation was the centerpiece, not the sidebar.
And these tools rely on our sense of timing, not a spatial sense. We are not wandering around looking for things to read: instead, things to read just show up in some regular timeframe.
Tools like Digg and Techmeme share a few key characteristics, and define two ends of a continuum. There is a stream of new information that finds its way to the pages of the website: in the case of Digg this arises from individuals recommending pages for others’ attention, and in the case of Techmeme an algorithm looks are the clustering of a short list of A list bloggers to see what is getting the attention of many. In both cases, the user is presented a stream of information, ordered by the observed actions of others.
Here we find the key attribute of all important social tools going forward: the collective actions of some group of people shape — order, filter, embellish — a stream of information. One sort of embellishment is a comment, like the comments traditionally left on blog posts or in bookmarks. But these comments never find their way back to the blogs, if they were sparked there.
Also, the way the sites work feature emergent properties from the community, collectively, that can’t happen on a single blog all alone. On Digg things rise (or fall) relative to others; and on Techmeme stories rise and fall by clustering of authors. In this regard, the evaluation of the value of a single blog post is one of the outputs of Digg and Techmeme.
As a result, participants’ behavior can change when exposed to these tools. It becomes more fun to Digg a blog post than to comment on it. As a reader of Techmeme, you find it unprofitable to comment on blog posts — even of posts currently active on Techmeme — since a/ comments don’t show there, and b/ the comments have no influence on the Techmeme algorithm.
So, there are now dozens of streaming applications — Digg, Facebook, Jaiku, Pownce, Twitter, Social|Media, Threads, Friendfeed, and more — where the social dimension is people interaction in (potentially large scale) open discourse via the ‘follower|following’ model, and without recourse necessarily to blogs.
Once a person begins to experience the dissociation of blogs and commentary — once commentary moves to these streams away from blog comments — it seems odd to go back. Like using a computer that is not connected to the web.
My hypothesis is that people will find it most natural to have the most active conversation where the flow feels fastest: meaning, where there are many people so that any given topic or link creates a great deal of commentary in relatively short order. However, this is an added incentive to comment directly in the streaming app like Digg, friendfeed or Twitter.
There is a cost to leaving behind the community of commenters on a blog, but if a core group defect en masse to some flow app, that community can remain largely entact, with even the blogger coming along.
For example, someone I follow on Twitter posts a Tweet with a link “someone Wrote a new post on XYZ topic. See www.tinyurl.com/y78YD889Ww.” My natural reaction is to click it, and then write a comment in Twitter to @someone, like ‘@someone have you considered the writing of Borges?”
And from the point of view of Twitter use, I am keeping the covenant: I received the message there, so I respond there. But from the blog-centric view, I am breaking faith, since I read the post that was published there, but I am merely treating the blog as a repository for posts, not a centerpoint for community.
So we are seeing a second wave of defection that defines a new era in social media. We defected from traditional mainstream media, where they broadcasted to us as passive members of an audience. And now we are defecting from the Web 1.0 model of social media, where the blog publisher hold all the power, and the world is a feudal patchwork of blog-based communities. We are moving into a era of flow, where blog posts will just another bit of conversation streaming in the flow.
Since there are dozens — and perhaps soon hundreds — of these streaming apps, each with different although overlapping communities, what can we expect in the near, medium and long term?
Near term — tower of Babel as more people find value in one or more streaming conversational tools, the conversation — the third space — will be subdivided ten times over. And less and less conversation will happen on blogs.
Medium term — Comment tools — like Disqus and IntenseDebate — provide a way to pull the commentary from streaming apps back onto the blog posts. I write a blog post, and a handful of people comment on it at Social|Medium (for example), and my future commenting solution would display those comments as if they had been made on my blog, along with comments from other streaming tools and native one from my blog. This fills a gap in the plumbing, but doesn’t really change the experience of people in each of the streams, since they will only see a subset of the total comments.
How does this feel from the perspective of the individual at the micro level?
Once you adopt the flow attention model, things change.
Here’s my desktop, or one part of it. I usually work with my laptop plugged into a 30” monitor, and I do my ‘work’ — blog posts, email, writing, reading — on the 30” monitor. I keep the laptop screen for flow apps. Here, from left to right I have Snackr (an RSS newsticker app), Twhirl (a twitter client), Friendfeed’s RealTime Beta, and Flickr’s new Activity Stream. Another stream I use is Backpack’s Journal.
I am not saying that everyone is going to become me, but the flow model — where pertinent information is filtered by my contacts and finds its way to me instead of me finding it — is simply better, simpler, and less time consuming, so long as you can make the shift from manual to automatic transmission.
In the long term the static inequalities in blogging make it hard to fit into the coming web of flow. We need a world in which comments, posts, bookmarks, and recommendations are really different aspects of the same thing. Why have we devised a web where posts and comments are so different? Or so different from a bookmark?
All of these ideas share core principles: a person authors a post, comment or bookmark. It is created in some context, probably represented by other open windows on the screen or selections on those screens. (For example, a ‘bookmark’ is the storing of a URL for a page, plus a title, a note, and some tags. The same information could be created as a blog post, right? Or a comment is based on some open post or comment, and has a link to the post or comment. And so on.)
In today’s world, the URL associated with anything created on the web is in effect it’s unique ID, but it is a physical location not just a logical handle. Imagine a web in which the physical location of things was simply an archive, a place to access the definitive data and metadata, but otherwise was used principally as a unique identifier. Imagine all these sorts of conversational particles bouncing around the world through a gazillion streaming apps that use various sorts of social and algorithmic models to order, filter, and aggregate the particles in various ways. These bits could flit from one streaming app to another, or users could create a post in one, a comment in another, and see them come together in a post+comment form in a third. In this world, the bits float around and are experienced in the flow apps, and people might never go back to the original URL associated with the bits.
Also in this world, the bits might be owned by the author, no matter where they are streamed. So if I want to, I can put an ad in every post, bookmark, and comment I make. Likewise, when a service creates new value from aggregation, algorithm, or emergent property of some social sling, they should be able to have their own ads in that context, but they should also honor the ads embedded in the bits. Basically, it’s a fractal world, where ownership is associated with the smallest bits, and larger aggregates. But these can travel — even the aggregates — from one streaming context to another. We will need standards for this, of course, but they will arise to meet demands.
So imagine the following scenario: I post an observation about, say, the future of Web 2.0. A few others see this floating past in various streams and create comments linking to my post, or Digg it — which means it shows up in the Digg stream and several others, like a future friendfeed or social|medium. All of these people add their own ads, and when Digg streams voting results (with associated comments) that has Digg ads embedded. A future version of Techmeme notices that my post is collecting a lot of heat, so it creates a story ‘cluster’ around my post and other posts and comments linking to my post (including in the future, the digg object pointing at my post), and Techmeme drops that into its stream, with an embedded ad, too.
While it might be possible to go down, down, down to the URLs associated with these objects, who ever would? Why leave the flow, where the live things are, to look at the river bottom, where all the dead things fall?
“The Internet doesn’t know what it is doing” - Clay Shirky. It isn’t build to push just one sort of thing around, but all sorts of things.
I think this generation of flow apps will move past a static and deterministic model of what sorts of conversational particles exist, how they should be related to each other, and what apps can show which ones — to a much more fluid model, where all sorts of new associations can be made.
We need to agree on the metaphor of the web of flow — of the bloodstream — and then people can create all sorts of particles that can be streamed through it, and we can get to a more egalitarian social medium that we have now, one that is firmly in the Web of Flow, past the Web of Pages.
There have been a few posts by various folks who heard the talk (here, here, and here), and I think a recording will be posted at http://dogearnation.com/ on Monday or Tuesday. The slideshare.net version can be accessed, and the comments at the Web 2.0 Expo site, too.
Christine Rosen, in The New Atlantis, does a masterful job of collating all the arguments against multitasking in her Myth Of Multitasking. I discovered the piece this morning courtesy of the editorial staff of the New York Times, who put it in the Reading File with the uncritical lede, “In The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen explores the dangers of multitasking.”
Note: the title does not mean that people aren’t multitasking, just that its purported benefits are mythical. And what are those supposed benefits? Well, she sort of charges right past that with a handwave:
In modern times, hurry, bustle, and agitation have become a regular way of life for many people—so much so that we have embraced a word to describe our efforts to respond to the many pressing demands on our time: multitasking. Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible.
Well, at least in my case, I am not trying to do as many things simultaneously as possible, as quickly as possible, using as many technologies as possible. I am trying to remain connected to a large, sprawling network of thousands of edglings, and to gain an understanding of the world through that connection. The instant messaging, blogging, RSS readers, and other tools are merely a means to accomplish that, and in fact, a necessary one.
But Rosen doesn’t explore these aspirations of sociality at all, or really examine motivations at any more depth than setting up a strawman with the express purpose of burning it down.
It is heartening that Rosen did look into the modern cognitive studies about attention, and did report on some of the positive results about multitasking and attention:
[from The Myth of Multitasking.
Psychologist David Meyer at the University of Michigan believes that rather than a bottleneck in the brain, a process of “adaptive executive control” takes place, which “schedules task processes appropriately to obey instructions about their relative priorities and serial order,” as he described to the New Scientist. Unlike many other researchers who study multitasking, Meyer is optimistic that, with training, the brain can learn to task-switch more effectively, and there is some evidence that certain simple tasks are amenable to such practice.
Uh, yes, simple skills like flying fighter jets at Mach 4, or playing basketball. Nearly every sort of physical skill mastery involves multitasking. Meyer’s and other researchers work is directed toward discovering how people can learn to coordinate many complex tasks. We have yet to be able to conduct magnetic resonance tests on basketball players or fighter pilots, but that’s clearly where the researchers want to get to.
As usual, Rosen is focused on the efficiency of task switching, and not its effects, because her arguments are totally industrial age. The presumption is that individual productivity is the highest good, and anything that deviates from that is bad. What if we are multitasking without trying to be more efficient?
But his [Meyer’s] research has also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.
My contention is that as people become more used to multitasking they are stressed by it less. More research is needed in that area.
In one recent study, Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that “multitasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.” His research demonstrates that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information. Discussing his research on National Public Radio recently, Poldrack warned, “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”
In the wonderful book, Kluge, Gary Marcus makes a solid case that the human mind is really bad at memory, and that we have developed all sorts of compensating techniques to counter that weakness. Our memories can be demonstrably changed by simple shifts in context or in framing questions, as any successful trial attorney knows. Evidence shows that we reconstruct memories out of fragments, or by contextual associations with more general knowledge.
[from Kluge by Gary Marcus]
In the final analysis, we would be nowhere without memory; as Steven Pinker once wrote “To a very great extent, our memories are ourselves.” Yet memory is arguably the mind’s original sin. So much is built on it, and yet it is, especially in comparison with computer memory, wildly unreliable.
In the final analysis, the fact that our ability to make inferences is built on rapid but unreliable contextual memory isn’t some optimal tradeoff. It’s just a fact of history: the brain circuits that allow us to make inferences make do with distortion prone memory because that’s all evolution had to work with. To build a truly reliable memory, fit for the requirements of human deliberate reasoning, evolution would have to start over. And, despite its power and elegance, that’s the one thing that evolution can’t do.
My suggestion is that Rosen, and the other detractors of the multitasking flow state, takes it as a given that optimizing our (truly miserable) human memory is obvious. My belief is that we are shifting to alternative forms of cognition where the context is relied on more than our flaky memories.
[she goes on]
If, as Poldrack concluded, “multitasking changes the way people learn,” what might this mean for today’s children and teens, raised with an excess of new entertainment and educational technology, and avidly multitasking at a young age? Poldrack calls this the “million-dollar question.” Media multitasking—that is, the simultaneous use of several different media, such as television, the Internet, video games, text messages, telephones, and e-mail—is clearly on the rise, as a 2006 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed: in 1999, only 16 percent of the time people spent using any of those media was spent on multiple media at once; by 2005, 26 percent of media time was spent multitasking. “I multitask every single second I am online,” confessed one study participant. “At this very moment I am watching TV, checking my e-mail every two minutes, reading a newsgroup about who shot JFK, burning some music to a CD, and writing this message.”
Who says kids are getting an excess of simultaneous media? They are definitely shifting their consciousness, and these media are becoming non-rivalrous (don’t require foreground full attention). But the ‘excess’ is pejorative and judgmental.
She has made her case with a few modern studies and some apparently alarming statistics about young people, and then she quotes the infamous study that equated multitasking with smoking dope. Of course she quotes Linda Stone, who characterized continuous partial attention an affliction of executives: “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing.” She quotes the author of CrazyBusy, Edward Hallowell, who suggests we are driving ourselves crazy or at least ADD.
And then she wheels out William James:
To James, steady attention was thus the default condition of a mature mind, an ordinary state undone only by perturbation. To readers a century later, that placid portrayal may seem alien—as though depicting a bygone world. Instead, today’s multitasking adult may find something more familiar in James’s description of the youthful mind: an “extreme mobility of the attention” that “makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice.” For some people, James noted, this challenge is never overcome; such people only get their work done “in the interstices of their mind-wandering.” Like Chesterfield, James believed that the transition from youthful distraction to mature attention was in large part the result of personal mastery and discipline—and so was illustrative of character. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again,” he wrote, “is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”
It may be that in this age — unlike Jame’s 1890s — we need to retain the youthful mind-wandering instead of a settled sort of thinking in comfortable and well-worn ruts. The evidence that learning while multitasking leads to memories being laid down in different areas of the brain, areas associated with learning not settled memories, also suggests that we are responding to an imperative: we need a new sort of thinking, and a new sort of memory, to deal with this new century.
Rosen is looking back, wistfully, to a time when things were simpler, quieter, and less hurried. Just like Nick Carr, who believes the Web is making is stupid because we don’t think the way we used to, Rosen is suggesting that the new ways of thinking that we are developing are illegitimate and inferior to what we are leaving behind.
Let’s be clear. One-sided, left-brain dominated thinking, based on the inherent irrationality and content-driven memory of the human mind, is not necessarily the end all and be all of human understanding. And most of what is involved in reasoning is learned, not innate.
Rosen and others would make it seem that the changes in our perceptions, thoughts, and ethics that come from new patterns of interaction through new media are somehow overthrowing a god-given system that is inherent. It is not. The pre-Web industrial mindset is taught. We learn it through family, school and cultural institutions, but mostly through media that we are exposed to.
Boiled down, Rosen’s argument can be turned on its head: We are using new media, and it is changing our perceptions, how we process the world, and the ethics that arise from our beliefs. She would like us to go back to linear time, industrial age norms, and the ethical systems of the last century, where we would, among other things, take it as a given that personal productivity should be placed squarely ahead of all other goods.
At the same time, I can’t disagree that there are messy cognitive issues associated with multitasking, but human reasoning is a mess, across the board. We are born innumerate, irrational, and with terrible memories. We have developed cultural artifacts like writing, math, physics, and logic to counter some of these defects, and they help some of us some of the time.
But there is nothing stopping us from developing new, different, and perhaps better ways to perceive the world and understand it. And we are. And Rosen, even quoting William James, can’t stop us.
Judging the ‘better’ in that assertion will be a job for new — not old — ethics, though.