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Archive for June, 2008

Tim O’Reilley’s What is Web 2.0 classifies the term “Web 2.0” as a meme (pronounced “meem”). It’s worthwhile to know what a meme is because the term smacks of democratization, crowdsourcing, and, at its core, the sort of environment-vs.-genetics, nurture-vs.-nature or choice-vs.-predestination connotations that are core to the Web’s direction. An understanding of the term evokes a warning to the owners of Web 2.0 sites.

According to Dictionary.com, a meme is “a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.” The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, who used it to define a popularized cultural practice which may supercede biological evolutionary processes of natural selection. A meme can either succeed by being used repetitively by a growing number of users or it can die because people don’t find it particularly useful. In a society, that means a meme which runs counter to natural selection can still succeed. So a cultural practice can actually select and even proliferate a trait that physically weakens the population.

This has implications for the Web itself, and for any Web 2.0 site. A Website evolves in one of three tracks:

  1. The site fails to evolve as its users demand and becomes unpopular and irrelevant;
  2. The site evolves at every whim of its members and becomes something that serves is popular to its members but that fails to fulfill its sponsors’ original mission.
  3. The site evolves in a limited way, serving many user needs but still fulfilling its sponsors’ intended mission.

At face value, the idea that a Web 2.0 site can grow into a monster its creator can’t control seems obvious. But what is less obvious is how to recognize where your own site rests on that slippery slope.

I’m a genealogist, which means I search for my ancestors. A common practice among top genealogists may be helpful in determining where on the slope to popularity-and-mission-loss your site might be. When a genealogist finds records of a person who may be the parent of an ancestor already on his family tree, he steps back and tries to disprove the potential link. Let’s say the genealogist already knows who his grandfather is, and finds records of someone who might be his great grandfather. Rather than just attaching great-grandad to his family tree, he steps back and tries to disprove that this candidate could really be the great grandfather. Did the grandfather and great-grandfather live in the same place, or were their residences distant? Was the great-grandfather candidate the right age to have sired the grandfather? Did the candidate die young in a war or epidemic which predated the birth of the grandfather? Are there other records that provide a definite link between the candidate and the grandfather, and if not, why? Sometimes this discipline — this willingness to say “Why shouldn’t these two people be linked?” — evokes questions which prevent big mistakes in one’s genealogical research.

A similar discipline can apply to the evolution of a Web 2.0 site. It’s easy for site sponsors to just let users evolve the site as they wish. After all, there are more users than sponsors, and the Type-A users are very outspoken, often reaching a level of influence with other users which is higher than that of sponsors. But undisciplined evolution of a site in all directions can bring a chaos that degrades the site’s usefulness. Mobocracy can lead to chaos. So when the user population wants the site to evolve in a certain direction, the wise sponsor might ask himself “What are some reasons why this change would be bad? How might this evolution change or undermine the site’s mission?”

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There’s probably no better way to learn a subject than to write about it as you research. Groundswell authors Li and Bernoff used del.icio.us to categorize the sites they learned about during their research. Each time they found a site that taught them something new, they created a del.icio.us entry for it. They annotated the entry regarding what they learned from the site. Then they tagged the entry. These tags, like file cards a student uses to take notes for a research project, eventually became the organizational heirarchy of a book’s chapters and headings. Brilliant way to write a book one step at a time.

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Del.icio.us has a brilliant feature on its site that would strengthen other sites and and give their users the feeling that there’s always something new there. Each day a Delicious member can post their newly tagged Internet favorites as a blog post with a series of links to each new site (Groundswell p.30). If a library’s Website put such a daily list in a highly-trafficked portal page, customers visiting the portals would get a strong feeling that A) this site is improving all the time and B) if it doesn’t have information I want today, it will tomorrow.

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As I read We are Smarter than Me, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Wikinomics, Groundswell, and other books about the Web 2.0 paradigm, I’m excited by nearly every aspect of the movement. One aspect that unsettles me, though, is knowing who is providing my news.

Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I learned which media companies to believe and which ones were extremists. If you watch NBC, CBS, Fox, or other media stations, you get to know what to expect from them. Using a recognized media source makes it easier to know where to go to find a little republican news and a little democratic news to try to balance the messages you’re getting. I never wanted to grow up one of those people who think someone like Rush Limbaugh can be believed word for word.

With Web 2.0, it’s not so easy. If you get your news from Digg, for instance, you can’t be quite sure what kind of a wack-job is feeding you a story — what his bias is. I suppose there’s probably a way to follow specific Diggers who maybe aggregate stories on both sides of an idealogical fence, but something still feels unsettling. The most popular stories tend to be the ones that are most sensational — the site sometimes feels as if it’s an aggregate for National Enquirer stories.

One Digg favorite today was Internet celebrates 2 years of futility battling Pirate Bay. It led to a story that looks to have been written by Pirate Bay supporters. It gives some slanted details about a Swedish police raid on Pirate Bay offices to try to crack down on music piracy and copyright infringement. Writing the story — and managing to get it fronted on Digg — is a clever way for Pirate Bay to gain customers, but the story isn’t news in the sense that it doesn’t even attempt objectivity. And as I scan Digg, I find that to be true of a high percentage of the content. There’s not much in the way of centrist ideas here; it’s mostly sensational stuff.

So how does this apply to my community site, you ask? As long as you’re not delivering news you’re safe, right? Well, not really. My site, for instance, seeks to deliver free advice to people seeking to learn about their ancestors. A lot of the guidance written by the community contains subjective material. Opinions. And what I don’t want is the kind of site where zealots on the far right or left of an issue duke it out by offering ever-diverging opinions. So the takeaway here is How can I get my users to talk through their inevitable conflicts and come to the middle? What tools must I provide to enable them to do this?

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Lately I’ve been reading an excellent book by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff entitled Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. I’ll use this blog to record and discuss some of the book’s interesting ideas.

What is the groundswell?

The authors define the groundswell as “a spontaneous movement of people using online tools to connect, take charge of their own experience, and get what they need — information, support, ideas, products, and bargaining power — from each other…. Simply put, the groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other instead of from companies” (X).

That’s a mind-bender. I work for a company that cares very much about their image and branding. Those in our organization who control traditional publications processes feel that our publications have to be perfect before they go to print, which means we often get stalled. We don’t cover enough domains or enough languages for our customers, nor do we update information fast enough to keep it relevant.  What Li and Bernoff teach us in this book is that Web 2.0 — the phenomenon that powers the Groundswell — is happening to our market whether we want it or not, and that if we don’t find ways to harness the power of communities in creating valued content, the community will do it themselves and make us, as professionals, irrelevant.

Li and Bernoff mention that the groundswell phenomenon is “based on people acting on their eternal desire to connect” (X). This desire, it seems to me, is so powerful that it can drive a community of volunteers to quickly outpace any group of professional writers. If your company expects, as ours does, to create a community wiki where corporate professionals will influence the content site-wide to make it more instructive, the company’s writers had better learn to overcome their urge to write stuff themselves and instead learn to become enablers and coordinators of community writing teams.

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Why this blog?

As a technogeek, I’ve found over the years that the best way to learn about technologies and major paradigm shifts is to write about them. Web 2.0 is such a sea change — it is forcing the world’s most powerful corporations, governments, and people to adapt or lose relevance. It is democratizing everything it touches. It is forcing adaptations in my business — the world of genealogy, research support, and virtual reference. As one who prefers surfing waves to getting crushed by them, I’m learning how to ride this new swell. I’m studying the best books and Websites on the subject and taking notes as I go.

But what good are an academician’s notes if he never shares them? As a genealogist since 1994 who has helped others figure out how to find their ancestors, I’ve learned that each of us, even if we hold our command of a subject in low regard, possess knowledge that others wish they had. Whatever level we’re at, if we all just shared a little more of what we’ve learned along the way, we could bring a lot of new knowledge and joy to others. Therefore, in sharing what I learn as I learn it, maybe I can save someone else a few steps….

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