Archive for February, 2008

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We don’t know how to collaborate through the network

Sharepoint is the collaboration model for Microsoft Office. It’s meant to save Office, because we work with teams, and teams are supposed to collaborate. But the problem is that we don’t know how to collaborate. Google has just launched Sites to provide a collaboration portal for Google’s business apps. But the fact remains, that most workers barely know how to operate the basic apps in Office. It’s one of the reasons that Google’s apps have a chance, they do less, but in many cases that’s enough.

There are many wonderful Wikis out there, but the best ones have a strong culture of collaboration. The form a social network with thier own customs. Corporate America doesn’t particularly like to collaborate in any deep sense. Sharepoint is used as just a slightly better version of email and shared network drives.

Considering all the money spent building applications in this space, you’d think it was fairly assured that the future state where we all collaborate is just around the corner. It may be a moment that never comes. Collaboration on a network is a culture, a social relation, something that requires practice. Most of the collaboration in business happens through people talking or through email, not much at all happens through the network. You’d think we’d be much better at collaborating with work than at play, but the reverse is true.

The commons and the cloud, the network and the tribes

The commons and the cloud, its the direction many of us see the world of personal/corporate technology moving. We’re starting to trust the cloud to hold our data, keep it safe and secure and provide it to us where ever and when ever we need it. Although there have been some notable failures recently, we assume that things will simply get better and better. The richer the cloud and commons become the better it is for all of us. The internet itself was built to route around failures in nodes of the network.

There have been a few signals that not everyone has signed on to that dream. In particular, I’m referring to the undersea cables recently cut to eliminate internet access to whole countries. And more recently the attempts by Pakistan to censor YouTube that made the service unavailable to everyone.

As we grow more and more dependent on the commons and the cloud, we have to understand that not all cultures and political systems are compatible with the level of openness that currently exists in the network. Is it a future moment of science fiction where a war has broken out between the network and the tribes? Or is it something just around the corner.

As though language weren’t of humans, but eminated from the world around us

Alain Robbe-Grillet passed away earlier this month. I first became aware of Robbe-Grillet as the writer of “Last Year at Marienbad.” I saw that film twice in one day. (At least I seem to remember it that way) There are a few movies I’ve found so compelling that I had to see them again right away. “Wings of Desire” was another one. The film lead me to the novels, and I read them one after another.

Robbe-Grillet’s writing seems very much of a particular time and place as I look back on it now. But what he accomplished was very important; it’s as though he created an element, a fundamental substance which were added to the periodic table of writing.

Preserving the random with coarse-grained filters in Twitter

One of the frustrations people have with Twitter is its simplicity. Twitter is an authoring environment for hypertext limited to 140 characters and a method of publishing and subscribing to an almost unlimited combination of social graphs. It achieves some complexity through its API, which allows it to be mashed up with other applications. In this sense it adheres to David Weinberger’s idea of “small pieces loosely joined.”

Twitter’s simplicity means the barrier to getting started is very low, register an identity, type 140 characters and click “update.” Understanding the value of Twitter doesn’t come until later. Non-users and new users can’t actually experience Twitter. The public timeline is there as an example, but to generalize and form opinions based on this evidence would lead one solidly in the wrong direction. The public timeline could potentially be decoded, but it’s a task very similar to spending time with Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Anna Livia Plurabelle and dream logic of Finnegan’s Wake. Or as James Joyce put it: Here comes everybody.

Veteran users of Twitter experience something very different from the public timeline. And it’s those regular users who begin to long for more controls, more features to help them refine their Twitter experience. Generally this is expressed through a desire to configure and define groups within the larger pools of the followed and the followers. By concisely defining groups a Twitter user could get exactly what she wanted.

But getting “exactly what you want” is exactly what you don’t want. Fine grained controls and filters are generally used to focus on common interests and concerns. The result is pre-defining the message flow you receive, creating an echo chamber. Random and negative feedback have an important role the health and stability of any dynamic organic system. When Twitter only brings you what you expect, it loses its value.

Twitter will grow new features, all applications do. But what if, rather than think in terms of precision, exactness and clarity; we thought of coarseness, randomness and ambiguity. What kind of coarse grained filters would preserve the random in a users Twitter stream? The seed for this rumination was inspired by a conversation on @Newsgang Live about squelch as metaphor for filtering Twitter streams. Imagine filtering the stream based on frequency of tweets, or location of tweets. By tuning into quadrants of the Twitterverse with coarse-grained filters new voices could be discovered. So often we think in terms of signal versus noise, but when we think of noise perhaps we should take a lesson, and listen with the zen ears of John Cage.

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