Google Blogoscoped

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Free Culture on Authorama

You might be interested to read and annotate Lessig’s Free Culture, which I added to Authorama. (Note the book search will start working as soon as Google indexed this latest addition.)
Most of the books on the site are very old, thus being freed of copyright, but this work is a recent one. Professor Lawrence Lessig, who also writes a popular blog, made it available under the Creative Commons license.

Authorama uses the Amazon Web API, the Google Web API, and Google AdSense to add features. All in all I try to make sure books are both highly accessible (no background-patterns, plain black-on-white, XHTML Strict + CSS) as well as search-engine friendly.

Blog City

An individual blog post has no immediately recognizable feature visualizing age and location. Sure you can read the date, and sure you can read where the author categorized the post (if there are categories). But this is not instant.

Take an offline-book and skim through it, and you will always know where you are – there is a limited sense of space (beginning, middle, end, and so on). Judging from book cover and paper color and shape you also instantly know if it’s a recent book, or an old one. The fact the book can be found in a certain part of your home, your friend’s place, your local library, your workplace, already offers limited categorization.

The title and author of the book are also immediately visible, but this is also true of most weblogs. You have the logo in the upper left, the title somewhere above the post, and the author is in the copyright or right below the post, or on the about page.

But without looking at the title or author of a book, you already know an awful lot about what you are reading, and how this fits into your frame of knowledge. In fact you are already in a certain specific location where you grabbed the book (as opposed to the relatively static position of “in front of the computer”, giving you no special sense of location for individual pieces of information collected).

Surfing the Web by the ways of Google is like hunting information in the wild. You do not have initial trust or knowledge of most of what your read. If you jump the blogosphere from one point to another, even within a single blog (by going through the archive), there is no sense of space or time. A blog grows in linear, flat fashion.

Building a Blog City

The idea is not new. Information space could be build like a house instead, embedded in the context of a city. The blogosphere at whole would be a country, a town within it a certain type of blogging community, and the different houses of this town would symbolize different blogs. In a single house (blog), there are then different rooms (blog categories, like “tech”, “music”, “humor”, and so on). And in the separate rooms,we find tables, drawers and shelves (sub-categories of their own) storing individual posts. Dust would fall on the cover, and the virtual paper grows from white to light yellow.

Whatever you pick up in this house to read, or look at (a blog post might be picked from the video archive in the show room), you know where you are at. This eases both processing this information, knowing where to put it and how much to trust it, and also, knowing how to find it again. (It’s very easy for human brains to attach information to location, like a certain place in your house, whereas it is relatively hard to store “location free” bits of information.)
Trust is important and booms in current social software. Trust means knowing what to believe in. Judith S. Donath (Inhabiting the virtual city, 1996) quotes Kevin Lynch (“The Image of the City”, 1960):

“Obviously a clear image enables one to move about easily and quickly: to find a friend’s house or a policeman or a button store. But an ordered environment can do more than this; it may serve as a broad frame of reference, an organizer of activity or belief or knowledge... Like any good framework, such a structure gives the individual a possibility of choice and a starting-point for the acquisition of further information. A clear image of the surroundings is thus a useful basis for individual growth.”
– Lynch, 1960

Web links, in this model, are the roads. (You know Google’s “Similar Pages” feature, you may also know the Blog Twinning project.)
Strong linking relationship would be large main streets in Blog City. Neighborhoods to be created upon blog similarity.

Blog City would not be static, and it would change over the course of time; within a country, certain cities would become hot spots of activity. There would be get-together events in the market-place. Neighborhoods would change shape. Each and every house contains movement too, as things wander from living room to basement. Information changes its value over time, such as any blog post of today in ten years from now would likely be considered out-dated and only be of interest for historical reasons.

How would Blog City be implemented?

3D interfaces have problems of their own projected onto today’s 2D hardware and input mechanisms; Blog City could be more of a 2D cartoon* version of a city. Cartoons make it even easier to understand what is going on, because they are closer to language, and closer to how we represent things we understand in our minds.
The concept of a table is universal and can be symbolized by a drawing, whereas a specific photo-realistic image of a table goes from this symbol of many to a representation of one table. (Scott McCloud has a lot to say about this in his Understanding Comics.)
The round world is displayed in two-dimensions, and ultimately flat in our minds (also see GeoURL).

I’m not talking about childish or funny cartoons. I’m using this in the sense of visuals reduced to the outlines and basic shapes of things.

Instead of a ghost city though, people move in it. We can see representations of authors preparing new papers (blog posts). We can see people walking in groups towards new information. Everybody is free to plaster this information space with information, the comments of today’s blogs. We can chat with each other, just like we can in the real world (and rarely do, because most neighborhoods are not shaped out of likewise interest groups – most neighborhoods just happen to be random collections of totally different people, who might not find better topics to talk about than the weather).

Blog City Issues I - Socializing & Privacy

Some people do not want to reveal everything about their person in a blog. Most people don’t stick a photo of themselves on each post, though that would help recognition, building a level of trust, and knowing how to understand what is said (compare to The social function of the body*). The Blog however might not be about a single person, but about a person’s interest. Blog City without doors would equal inviting everyone into your living room. So what you got are topic areas where you feel comfortable in talking publicly, and those where you have privacy.

*Judith S. Donath writes “Much real-world communication is nonverbal, consisting of physical actions such as gestures, facial expressions, vocal tone, etc. Many social signals, especially, are communicated this way: subtle (or not so subtle) expressions of approval, status recognition, comprehension, etc. Unlike the written word, which is deliberately produced and passes through much conscious filtering, nonverbal expressions are often made subconsciously, often revealing a great deal about their maker’s ideas and opinions.”

Blog City Issues II - The Speed of Flat

The “speed of flat” is when you enter any combination of words into Google and get an instant result. This makes for a pragmatic 10-dimension information space (Google is restricted to 10 specific words per search query, though wildcards don’t count against that limit). For example when I want to bring up a post of my own blog for reference, I use “memomarks"; I type “this that blogoscoped” into Google and might then find the information or link I was looking for.

This makes a flat hierarchy of Web pages so quick. If information is projected onto “real virtual” space, you suddenly create distance. Added to that, you risk creating one-sided categorization because things might not be put into different categories at the same time.

Both problems can be solved. First, the Blog City will run in the background, and flat search is the instant way to walk. It will just help you to get an immediate feeling of where you ended up. The distance must not be a hurdle.

Second, things can be put into different places in virtual space. The same blog posts might appear in the market hall black board, your living room wall, and your basement archive. (The more open the copyright to your meme the faster it would spread.)
You can still point to this information (the permalink of blogs) because location and identity are separated. A specific post has multiple virtual incarnations in Blog City. Yet all are interconnected by a copy chain which is laid on top of the virtual space as an opaque line.

Who builds this world?

The Web is not only flat because that happens to works best; it is also a constraint put upon us facing the sheer amount of information. Google recently dropped the Open Directory Project from its main page, apparently because people weren’t using it enough, and because there were “quality issues”. It is incredibly hard to stick meta-data of any kind on all individual Web pages, as there are too many. Also, people disagree on where to put what. In reality you can’t just build your house whereever you want to, nor can you shape the face of yourself just like you feel you look best (cosmetic surgery aside).

Virtual reality in Blog City, or the Web World, needs to be algorithmic and automated. Just like the Google result it would not be directly shaped by humans, but indirectly. (You may tell your guests you are a great cook, but they decide with their nose; you are communicating meta-data which might be a lie, the fragrance communicates reality. Though whatever you cook will change the smell you cannot directly form it. Compare to Nielsen’s “information scent”.) This automated implementation of our virtual surrounding would also make sure this generation, the first to grow up with the Internet, would already get the chance to live in it.

Google’s Cheap Computers

“Instead of getting a few fast computers and running them to the max, Mayer explained at a recruiting event at MIT, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had to make do with hand-me-downs from Stanford’s computer science department. They would go to the loading dock to see who was getting new computers, then ask if they could have the old, obsolete machines that the new ones were replacing. Thus, from the very beginning, Brin and Page were forced to develop distributed algorithms that ran on a network of not-very-reliable machines.

Today this philosophy is built into the company’s DNA. Google buys the cheapest computers that it can find and crams them in racks and racks in its six (or more) data centers. “PCs are reasonably reliable, but if you have a thousand of them, one is going to fail every day,” said Hoelzle. “So if you can just buy 10 percent extra, it’s still cheaper than buying a more reliable machine.””
– Simson Garfinkel, Google and Akamai: Cult of Secrecy vs. Kingdom of Openness, April 21, 2004

In other news, Google’s Brin Talks on Gmail Future

Launch – Music on Yahoo

Yahoo got the pop stars at*. The video quality is just about bearable, same goes for music video quantity, but there is still a lot of interesting & recent** content to please the MTV-minded. Go have a look at Britney Spears’ “controversial new video"*** if you are interested in her purely fictituous, semi-suicidal hot tub diving. Beats KaZaA and iMesh, if you’re into stricly legal.

*There are also regional version, e.g. the German one at

**There are also old 80s classics, like A-Ha’s “Take on Me”. (For some of the content you need to log-in with your Yahoo ID.) This video shows they mixed cartoon and real actors before Seinfeld/ Superman.

***If instead of one person you put a whole city under water, that’s more in the main-stream.


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