Few would disagree that Presidents’ Day, though in theory a celebration of the nation’s highest office, is actually one of our blandest holidays — not so much about history as the resuscitation of commerce from the post-holiday slump. Yesterday, however, brought a refreshing change.
Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison
Spending the afternoon at the institute was Holly Shulman, a historian from the University of Virginia well known among digital scholarship circles as the force behind the Dolley Madison Project — a comprehensive online portal to the life, letters and times of one of the great figures of the early American republic. So, for once we actually talked about presidential history on Presidents’ Day — only, in this case from the fascinating and chronically under-studied spousal perspective.
Shulman came to discuss possible collaboration on a web-based history project that would piece together the world of America’s founding period — specifically, as experienced and influenced by its leading women. The question, in terms of form, was how to break out of the mould of traditional web archives, which tend to be static and exceedingly hierarchical, and tap more fully into the energies of the network? We’re talking about something you might call open source scholarship — new collaborative methods that take cues from popular social software experiments like Wikipedia, Flickr and del.icio.us yet add new layers and structures that would better ensure high standards of scholarship. In other words: the best of both worlds.
Shulman lamented that the current generation of historians are highly resistant to the idea of electronic publication as anything more than supplemental to print. Even harder to swallow is the open ethos of Wikipedia, commonly regarded as a threat to the hierarchical authority and medieval insularity of academia.
Again, we’re reminded of how fatally behind the times the academy is in terms of communication — both communication among scholars and with the larger world. Shulman’s eyes lit up as we described the recent surge on the web of social software and bottom-up organizational systems like tagging that could potentially create new and unexpected avenues into history.
A small example that recurred in our discussion: Dolley Madison wrote eloquently on grief, mourning and widowhood, yet few would know to seek out her perspective on these matters. Think of how something like tagging, still in an infant stage of development, could begin to solve such a problem, helping scholars, students and general readers unlock the multiple facets of complex historical figures like Madison, and deepening our collective knowledge of subjects — like death and war — that have historically been dominated by men’s accounts. It’s a small example, but points toward something grand.
In an effort to more directly engage readers, two of America’s most august daily newspapers are adding a subtle but potentially significant feature to their websites: author bylines directly linked to email forms. The Post’s links are already active, but as of this writing the Times, which is supposedly kicking off the experiment today, only links to other articles by the same reporter. They may end up implementing this in a different way. screen grab from today’s Post
The email trial comes on the heels of two notoriously failed experiments by elite papers to pull readers into conversation: the LA Times’ precipitous closure, after an initial 24-hour flood of obscenities and vandalism, of its “wikatorials” page, which invited readers to rewrite editorials alongside the official versions; and more recently, the Washington Post’s shutting down of comments on its “post.blog” after experiencing a barrage of reader hate mail. The common thread? An aversion to floods, barrages, or any high-volume influx of unpredictable reader response. The email features, which presumably are moderated, seem to be the realistic compromise, favoring the trickle over the deluge.
In a way, though, hyperlinking bylines is a more profound development than the higher profile experiments that came before, which were more transparently about jumping aboard the wiki/blog bandwagon without bothering to think through the implications, or taking the time — as successful blogs and wikis must always do — to gradually build up an invested community of readers who will share the burden of moderating the discussion and keeping things reasonably clean. They wanted instant blog, instant wiki. But online social spaces are bottom-up enterprises: invite people into your home without any preexisting social bonds and shared values — and add to that the easy target of being a mass media goliath — and your home will inevitably get trashed as soon as word gets out.
Being able to email reporters, however, gets more at the root of the widely perceived credibility problem of newspapers, which have long strived to keep the human element safely insulated behind an objective tone of voice. It’s certainly not the first time reporters’ or columnists’ email addresses have been made available, but usually they get tucked away toward the bottom. Having the name highlighted directly beneath the headline — making the reporter an interactive feature of the article — is more genuinely innovative than any tacked-on blog because it places an expectation on the writers as well as the readers. Some reporters will likely treat it as an annoying new constraint, relying on polite auto-reply messages to maintain a buffer between themselves and the public. Others may choose to engage, and that could be interesting.
The End of Cyberspace is a brand-new blog by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, former academic editor and print-to-digital overseer at Encyclopedia Britannica, and currently a research director at the Institute for the Future (no relation). Pang has been toying with this idea of the end of cyberspace for several years now, but just last week he set up this blog as “a public research notebook” where he can begin working through things more systematically. To what precise end, I’m not certain.
The end of cyberspace refers to the the blurring, or outright erasure, of the line between the virtual and the actual world. With the proliferation of mobile devices that are always online, along with increasingly sophisticated social software and “Web 2.0” applications, we are moving steadily away from a conception of the virtual — of cyberspace — as a place one accesses exclusively through a computer console. Pang explains:
Our experience of interacting with digital information is changing. We’re moving to a world in which we (or objects acting on our behalf) are online all the time, everywhere.
Designers and computer scientists are also trying hard to create a new generation of devices and interfaces that don’t monopolize our attention, but ride on the edges of our awareness. We’ll no longer have to choose between cyberspace and the world; we’ll constantly access the first while being fully part of the second.
Because of this, the idea of cyberspace as separate from the real world will collapse.
If the future of the book, defined broadly, is about the book in the context of the network, then certainly we must examine how the network exists in relation to the world, and on what terms we engage with it. I’m not sure cyberspace has ever really been a home for the book, but it has, in a very short time, totally altered the way we read. Now, gradually, we return to the world. But changed. This could get interesting.
Just as we were creating a del.icio.us account and linking it to our site, Yahoo announced the purchase of the company. This strategy of purchasing successful web service start-ups is nothing new for Yahoo (for example, flckr and egroups.) Del.icio.us’s popularity has prompted lots of discussion has been going on across the internet, notably on slashdot as well as social software.
Del.icio.us started with the simple idea of putting bookmarks on the web. By making them public, it added a social networking component to the experience. Bookmarks, in a way, are an external representation of notable ideas in the mind of the owner.
They also announced a new partnership with Six Apart, who created Moveable Type. Although, they did not purchase Six apart. Six Apart has optimized their blogging software to work with Yahoo’s small business hosting service.
In the end, these strategies make sense for Yahoo and other large media companies, because they are buying proven technologies and a strong user base. Small companies are often more nimble in thought and speed, and then able to develop novel technology.
Interestingly, the online discussion seem to be framing this event in terms of Yahoo versus Google. Microsoft is noticeably absent in the discussion. Perhaps, as Lisa suggested, they are focused on gaming right now. With each new initiative and acquisition, the debates about the services and strategies of Yahoo and Google sound more like discussions about competing fall line-ups of ABC, NBC and CBS.
Here is another example of users latching onto unexpected features of a technology. Time magazine reports on the surprising popularity of their “Skype Me” mode which allows Skype users to basically cold call each other. This feature seems to be popular with people abroad (especially in China) looking for opportunities to practice their English with people in the US, in a way that resembles pen pals.
One might say that is really just one big chat room, although chat rooms are still text based. The interesting part of the Skype Me community is that it shifts pen pals from a text based activity to an oral based one. The impact that Skype has on pen pals highlights the interplay which digital technology encourages between written and oral forms. Is this a case of the Internet expanding the reach of a community or another example of technology reducing the emphasis on developing writing skills?
Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has announced he will launch a major citizen journalism site within the next three months. As quoted in The Guardian:
The American public has lost a lot of trust in conventional newspaper mechanisms. Mechanisms are now being developed online to correct that.
…It was King Henry II who said: ‘Won’t someone rid me of that turbulent priest?’ We have seen a modern manifestation of that in the US with the instances of plausible deniability, the latest example of that has been the Valerie Plame case and that has caused damage.
Can a Craiglist approach work for Washington politics? It’s hard to imagine a million worker ants distributed across the nation cracking Plamegate. You’re more likely to get results from good old investigative reporting, but combined with a canny postmodern sense of spin (and we’re not just talking about the Bush administration’s spin, but Judith Miller’s spin, The New York Times’ spin) and the ability to make that part of the story. Combine the best of professional journalism with the best of the independent blogosphere. Can this be done?
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo fame wants to bridge the gap with a new breed of “reporter-blogger,” currently looking to fill two such positions — paid positions — for a new muckraking blog that will provide “wall-to-wall coverage of corruption, self-dealing, and betrayals of the public trust in today’s Washington” (NY Sun has details). While other high-profile bloggers sign deals with big media, Marshall clings fast to his independence, but recognizes the limitations of not being on the ground, in the muck, as it were. He’s banking that his new cyborgs might be able to shake up the stagnant Washington press corps from the inside, or at least offer readers a less compromised view (though perhaps down the road fledgeling media empires like Marshall’s will become the new media establishment). That’s not to say that the Craigslist approach will not be interesting, and possibly important. It was dazzling to witness the grassroots information network that sprung up on the web during Hurricane Katrina, including on the Craigslist New Orleans site, which became a clearinghouse for news on missing persons and a housing directory for the displaced. For sprawling catastrophes like this it’s impossible to have enough people on the ground. Unless the people on the ground start reporting themselves.
Citizen journalists also pick up on small stories that slip through the cracks. You could say the guy who taped the Rodney King beating was a “citizen journalist.” You could say this video (taken surreptitiously on a cellphone) of a teacher in a New Jersey high school flipping out at a student for refusing to stand for the national anthem is “citizen journalism.” Some clips speak for themselves, but more often you need context, you need to know how to frame it. The interesting thing is how grassroots journalism can work with a different model for contextualization. The New Jersey video made the rounds on the web and soon became a story in the press. One person slaps up some footage and everyone else comments, re-blogs and links out. The story is told collectively.
Not quite sure what I think of this new web-based word processor, Writely. Cute Web 2.0ish name, “beta” to the hilt. It’s free and quite easy to get started. I guess it falls into that weird zone of transitional unease between desktop computing and the wide open web, where more and more of our identity and information resides. Some of the tech specifics: Writely saves documents in Word and (as of today) Open Office formats, outputs as RSS and to some blogging platforms (not ours), and can also be saved as a simple web page (here’s the Writely version of this post). A key feature is that Writely documents can be written and edited by multiple authors, like SubEthaEdit only totally net-based. It feels more or less like a disembodied text editor for a wiki.
I’m trying to think about what’s different about writing online. Movable Type, our blogging software, is essentially an ultra-stripped-down text editor — web-based — and it’s no fun to work in. That’s partly because the text field is about the size of a mail slot, but writing online can be annoying for other reasons, chief among them the fact that you have to be online to work, and second that you are susceptible to the chance mishaps of the browser (accidentally backing up and losing everything, it crashes, you forgot to pay Time Warner and they turn off the web etc.). But with a conventional word processor you’re vulnerable to the mishaps of the machine (hard drive dies and you didn’t back it up, it crashes and you didn’t save, coffee spills…). Writely saves everything automatically as you go, maintaining a revision history and tracking changes — a very nice feature.
They say this is the future of software, at least for the simple everyday kind of stuff: web-based tool suites and tons of online data storage. I guess it’s nice not having to be tied to one machine. Your work is just out there, waiting for you to log in. But then again, your work is just out there…
The NY Times reports on new web-based services at university libraries that are incorporating features such as personalized recommendations, browsing histories, and email alerts, the sort of thing developed by online retailers like Amazon and Netflix to recreate some of the experience of browsing a physical store. Remember Ranganathan’s fourth law of library science: “save the time of the reader.” The reader and the customer are perhaps becoming one in the same.
It would be interesting if a social software system were emerging for libraries that allowed students and researchers to work alongside librarians in organizing the stacks. Automated recommendations are just the beginning. I’m talking more about value added by the readers themselves (Amazon has does this with reader reviews, Listmania, and So You’d Like To…). A social card catalogue with a tagging system and other reader-supplied metadata where readers could leave comments and bread crumb trails between books. Each card catalogue entry with its own blog and wiki to create a context for the book. Books are not just surrounded by other volumes on the shelves, they are surrounded by people, other points of view, affinities — the kinds of thing that up to this point were too vaporous to collect. This goes back to David Weinberger’s comment on metadata and Google Book Search.
An editorial in today’s New York Times by The Search author Jon Battelle makes the argument that the current resurgence in technology stocks is not the sign of another technology “bubble,” but rather an indication that companies have finally figured out how to capitalize on the internet. Batelle writes: … we are witnessing the Web’s second coming, and it’s even got a name, “Web 2.0” – although exactly what that moniker stands for is the topic of debate in the technology industry. For most it signifies a new way of starting and running companies – with less capital, more focus on the customer and a far more open business model when it comes to working with others. Archetypal Web 2.0 companies include Flickr, a photo sharing site; Bloglines, a blog reading service; and MySpace, a music and social networking site.
In other words, Batelle is pointing out that one way to “get it right” is not to sell content to users, but rather to give them the opportunity to create and search their own content. This is not only good business sense, he says, it’s also more enlightened — the creators of social software such as Flickr are motivated equally by a desire to “do good in the world” and a desire to make money. “The culture of Web 2.0 is, in fact, decidedly missionary,” Batelle writes, “from the communitarian ethos of Craigslist to Google’s informal motto, ‘don’t be evil.'”
O.K. Doing good while making money. Reading this, I’m reminded of Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism and the larger sustainability movement — the optimistic philosophy that weaves together environmental ethics and profitability. But is that what’s really going on here? Isn’t the “missionary” culture of the internet a bit OLDER than Web 2.0? Batelle is suggesting that Internet capitalists have gotten all misty and utopian; isn’t it the case that some of the folks who were already misty and utopian have just started making some money?
I guess the more viable comparison here would be to Marc Andreessen’s decision to transform his Mosaic browser from its public-domain University of Illinois incarnation into the Netscape Browser. Andreessen certainly started out as a browser missionary — and, like the companies Batelle sees as characteristic of Internet 2.0, Andreessen’s vision for Netscape (and in the beginning, Jim Clark’s vision as well) was a strong customer focus and open business model. What happened? Netscape’s meteoric success helped inflate the internet “bubble” Batelle’s referring to, and in the end, after the long battle with Microsoft, the company’s misfortunes helped to burst that bubble as well.
So what paradigm fits? Is “Internet 2.0” really new and more socially enlightened? Or are we just seeing a group of social software businesses — and one big search engine — just in the early stages of an inevitable transformation into corporations that are less interested in doing good than making money?
Incidentally, last month, Marc Andressen launched a social networking platform called Ning.
Nicholas Carr, who writes about business and technology and formerly was an editor of the Harvard Business Review, has published an interesting though problematic piece on “the amorality of web 2.0”. I was drawn to the piece because it seemed to be questioning the giddy optimism surrounding “web 2.0”, specifically Kevin Kelly’s rapturous late-summer retrospective on ten years of the world wide web, from Netscape IPO to now. While he does poke some much-needed holes in the carnival floats, Carr fails to adequately address the new media practices on their own terms and ends up bashing Wikipedia with some highly selective quotes.
Carr is skeptical that the collectivist paradigms of the web can lead to the creation of high-quality, authoritative work (encyclopedias, journalism etc.). Forced to choose, he’d take the professionals over the amateurs. But put this way it’s a Hobson’s choice. Flawed as it is, Wikipedia is in its infancy and is probably not going away. Whereas the future of Britannica is less sure. And it’s not just amateurs that are participating in new forms of discourse (take as an example the new law faculty blog at U. Chicago). Anyway, here’s Carr:
The Internet is changing the economics of creative work – or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture – and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.
He then has a nice follow-up in which he republishes a letter from an administrator at Wikipedia, which responds to the above.
Encyclopedia Britannica is an amazing work. It’s of consistent high quality, it’s one of the great books in the English language and it’s doomed. Brilliant but pricey has difficulty competing economically with free and apparently adequate….
…So if we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it’s going to have to be a good Wikipedia. So those who care about getting a good encyclopedia are going to have to work out how to make Wikipedia better, or there won’t be anything.