Social software questions authority

A semi-rant based on a session at

The Scholarship in Chaos! panel never got to where I thought it would go — brainy brawl over things like open access, participatory information architecture, folksonomies, controlled vocabularies, peer review, and the nature of expertise and authority. (I did leave before the very end, so maybe it happened, but the moderator was going for the too-quiet side of respectful discourse, so I doubt it.)

Unknown gatekeepers will always seem arbitrary, that’s the problem. Who is an expert? How do you decide? Which carries more weight with you — a movie review in the New York Times written by a “professional” or a Netflix recommendation? Considering Netflix knows what I’ve watched for the past two years (and how much I loved or hated what I watched) and the NYT knows nothing about me, I’ll go with Netflix.

When we’re not talking about brain surgery, this approach will yield more satisfying results. When the example is brain surgery, things get interesting. Because if I need a brain surgeon to address a rare condition, I want that brain surgeon to be able to access anything ever published about my condition. Things like controlled vocabularies will make it possible for my surgeon to find the information; peer-reviewed publications mean it isn’t quackery; reaching beyond digitized content ensures completeness and you need a human behing with search skills for that. Not to mention I want an actual board-certified brain surgeon.

But maybe there isn’t medical consensus about how to treat my rare condition. In that case, I want to learn about all my alternatives and be an informed participant in treatment decisions. I don’t want to wait for peer-reviewed publication or the end of a study to know about something that might help me. I want actionable information, and I don’t care if it comes with a stamp of authority. I’ll take the wisdom of an educated crowd.

Social software tools are just the next step in questioning authority — authority (expertise with establishment ties) isn’t going to disappear. Sometimes authority is right, sometimes it is out of touch. Social software is a way to put a face on expertise, bring transparency, deepen trust, and expand the pool of experts. Unknown gatekeepers’ days should be numbered.

Second Life is not just gambling and porn

More adventures at

The Second Life Library 2.0 panel gave one of the best (and shortest) explanations of Second Life I’ve heard so far: “Its a community, not like a game with a point.”

It might not have a point, but it does have momentum: it recently crossed the one million residents mark, companies like American Apparel have opened shop there, IBM has held employee meetings in its virtual space, and Reuters has a bureau in-world.

So a bunch of geeky librarians have banded together to build Info Island and offer a variety of library services. You could say they are a bit of an obsessive group (“employers don’t understand it yet, so people are doing it on their own time”) and in that way, they are just like any other evolving online community. I think the things they are learning about as a result will have application beyond the library world:

  • How to collaborate with and manage virtual teams spread across five continents
  • How to create links between in-world activity and real-world information resources
  • Dealing with the potential stigma of porn and gambling getting there first (“Pornography and gambling tend to lead in innovation technology.”)

Because I think environments like Second Life are going to be around for some time, I enjoyed the predictions the panel made:

  • Library services to avatars will thrive [What other avatar services will be needed?]
  • Architecture will evolve away from real-world architecture [It is a world with flying and teleportation — you can change the laws of physics, Captain]
  • Libraries will include elements from museums, theme parks, etc. [Budget constraints are very different when you build in an existing virtual world]
  • Exhibits and events will be more useful than traditional collections [Rich media wins in the digital world — books are still too clunky unless they are analog]
  • Demand will grow for immersive, experiential learning such as walk-in books and 3D interactive mashups [Fully inhabiting virtual worlds means moving past physical world analogies and developing new forms and experiences]

Between four and five thousand visitors teleport in to Info Island on a typical day. That makes it busier than all public libraries outside of larger cities as well as more trafficked than many college and university libraries.

When will the first “real” store will see significant revenue from virtual world activities? Which businesses will hold digital company-wide meetings?

More, related:

“Informed by human judgement”: Google isn’t God

Adventures at

I went to was Chris Sherman’s Search Engine Report session this morning, where early on he repeated the question (first?) posed in the headline of a NYT piece a few years ago: “Is Google God?”

I don’t worship Google. (Passionate obsession and engagement with the web does not equal membership in the Church of Google.) I don’t think of Google as all-powerful. However, I suppose if I were dependent on Google’s ads or search referrals for my income, I might feel differently. I do lean toward conceding all-seeing to Google though, because if it can pick up a post like this one within 24 hours, truly no sparrow falls without it noticing.

Spiritual musings aside, the real point of Sherman’s talk — what are search engines up to, anyway? — boiled down to “they all think there is gold in user behavior.” Algorithmic search has plateaued, so a combo of algorithms and “people-mediated” search is going to be the way forward. Trust networks are going to become increasingly important. (Or, as Joshua Porter put it last year, “Recommendation systems are the end goal of Web 2.0.”) Social search — loosely defined by Sherman as “informed by human judgement” — will work best for non-text content (photos, videos, music).

Sherman delivered a good overview of what is going on in the web search world. And I found that, like with any good conference session, half the point for me was in the big or small a ha!s that come from being in the room, but aren’t necessarily closely tied to the speaker’s message. A couple from this morning were:

  • My “that’s so freaking cool” moment: seeing the Real Underground Map. Pure genius. It takes the iconic Tube map and morphs it to conform to real geography, then lets you overlay details from a map of London.
  • My eureka! moment: an idea for how to win the Netlix competition. (Of course I’m not going to tell you what it is now, that would be stupid. The million is mine, mwahahaha.)