Archive for September, 2009

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The Silo & The Pipe: Doc Searls gets Venezuelan


It’s a rare thing that I read a Doc Searls post and start shaking my head half way through. The recent $100 million investment in Twitter, bringing their valuation to $1 billion, has unleashed  a torrent of criticism. Driving my daughter to school the other day, I heard an “analyst” on NPR chirp that Twitter couldn’t be worth $1 billion because it was just a fad, that people might stop using it tomorrow and the bottom would fall out. If using Twitter were a random activity that returned no value, I suppose that could be true. Just as people could decide to stop going to the movies, stop eating pizza or stop listening to “analysts” on NPR. If the value of something is disregarded at the start, it’s rather difficult to speak sincerely of valuation.


Searls’s criticism is a reprise of the open source silo meme. The drumbeat for the nationalization of Twitter has re-emerged. The capitalist pigs at Twitter have chosen to build a business rather than contribute their technology to the open source technology commons. Praise is sung for linux, rss, email and http. If only Twitter would see the light and release what they have to benefit the common good. Twitter’s business is just lumber from which other software developers should be allowed to create value. The complaint is that because Twitter is neither open nor decentralized, it has created an intractable engineering problem and does not contribute to the greater good of the web.

I would contend that Twitter is both open and distributed. Its characterization as a silo misses the point. Rather than using the silo as a criteria for openness, what if we look instead to the pipe. In the Unix command line, the standard output can be piped to the standard input of a new filter. Some very complex forms of processing can be created by chaining together a series of filters and piping data through it. The “chainability” of the javascript library Jquery is another good example of this model. The critique of the silo is its lack of interoperability, you can’t pipe to or from it.


Now, let’s look at Twitter. Can you pipe messages to Twitter? Can you pipe messages from Twitter? There was a time when I used as a primary micromessaging client. I typed messages into the web client and they entered the local pool, then I piped them to FriendFeed, where they also entered that ecosystem, FriendFeed sent them to Twitter, and Twitter sent them to Facebook. Examining this relay chain could you say that Twitter is a silo that owns my messages? Each of these venues represents a slightly different social graph and has a different tool set with which to display, prioritize and filter my messages within the context of the local graph. Twitter and Facebook are simply the most successful venues with which to read and write micro-messages (formerly called status messages). Google reader shares, SMS messages, Blog entries, et cetera can all be piped in and out of Twitter. Or if one prefers, Twitter can be left out of the chain entirely.

The mind share that Twitter and Facebook have built can’t be nationalized and distributed as lumber for a hypothetical socialist realist distributed micro-messaging ecosystem. If one is truly interested in open, look to the pipe, not the silo. Certainly there’s work that needs to be done on the pipe itself. Issues around real time, rate limiting, identity, social graphs, micro-communities, activity stream formats and track are all very important. But the real time stream environment is already here and operational. Many in the open source crowd are just rewinding the VCR and replaying the last battle. Steve Ballmer summed it up nicely in his interview with Mike Arrington, “we want to be first, best and interoperable.” Even Microsoft has embraced the pipe.

Ornamentation: The Beauty of Search


It began with a discussion of ornamentation. As we look around us, the ornament seems to be disappearing. The things we use have been stripped of ornamentation in favor of pure functionality. Form, we are taught, must follow function. Decoration is an unnecessary expense, as it adds nothing to the function of a manufactured thing. Ornament has lost the battle of Return on Investment.

It wasn’t always so, there was a distinct turn. Alain De Botton, in his book “The Architecture of Happiness” explores the moment when engineering and aesthetics collided.

“The answer that eventually emerged was not really an answer; rather, it was an admonishment that it might be irrelevant and even indulgent to raise the question in the first place.

A prohibition against discussions of beauty in architecture was imposed by a new breed of men, engineers, who had achieved professional recognition only in the late eighteenth century, but had thereafter risen quickly to dominanace in the construction of the new buildings of the Industrial Revolution.”

These engineers were building the factories, bridges and railways that would provide the infrastructure for the industrial age. Style simply wasn’t a consideration.

“The philosophy of the engineers flew in the face of everything the architectural profession had ever stood for. ‘To turn something useful, practical, functional into something beautiful, that is architecture’s duty,’ insisted Karl Friedrich Schinkel. ‘Architecture, as distinguished from mere building, is the decoration of construction,’ echoed Sir George Gilbert Scott.

The essence of great architecture was understood to reside in what was functionally unnecessary.”

In 1923, Le Corbusier penned a book called ‘Toward a New Architecture‘ which outlined the principles of this new approach to the design of buildings. Again, from De Botton’s book:

For Le Corbusier, true, great architecture — meaning, architecture movtivated by the quest for efficiency — was more likely to be found in a 40,000-kilowatt electricity turbine or a low-pressure ventilating fan. It was to these machines that his books accorded the reverential photographs which previous architectural writers had reserved for cathedrals and opera houses.

And with that prelude, we arrive at the web search engine and the use and meaning of ornament. There’s an interesting experiment currently being conducted called Blind Search. The creators of this test wonder what happens to a user’s perception of search results when all branding is removed. Google initially established itself by producing noticeably better search results. Now, established as a verb meaning “to search,” does Google still provide results that are visibly superior? The results indicate that Google still leads, but not by as much as you’d think: Google: 41%, Bing: 31%, Yahoo: 28%. And putting the Google brand on any search results increases satisfaction.


In looking at the design of the Google user interface, we see the influence of Le Corbusier. The typographic logo is the only design on the page, and occasionally it is playfully re-imagined to commemorate notable events. Here, form follows function.

In his book, De Botton tries to articulate how we find beauty— the mechanics of what attracts us:

“We can conclude from this that we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally are deficient. We respect style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.”

While we may perceive the Network as vast, complex and opaque— with its simplicity Google’s design provides us with the antidote. Now look at this image of Microsoft’s Bing home page:


Bing’s user interface is decorated with a background image that gives a sense of what it does. I’m fairly certain that the image has no effect on the quality of the search results. Bing is attempting to provide a usage model for the consumption of faceted search results. Queries return both potential facets along with the traditional list of links. Bing is designed with both facets and links in mind, while Google appends facets to the bottom of the link list.

As the facets and links that search engines return become more and more indistinguishable, what is the difference that will make a difference? One could assume that there will always be an engineering innovation right around the corner that will make a significant and visible difference. We like to believe that progress is always linear.

Corporate brand clearly makes a difference, users like a brand name search product. Microsoft’s brand has been held in the background and a new brand has been established. Images have also been used to distinguish Bing. Ornamentation has been exiled for so long, it’s hard to understand how to even value it.

Let’s return again to Alain De Botton:

The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worth wile — which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes or colours, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of the good life are intertwined. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn steps that hint at wisdom and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.

Le Corbusier’s aesthetic demanded design be “ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal.” He had a hatred of any kind of decoration. Google’s engineering aesthetic is a terminal design. Any competitor employing a purely functional design will unintentionally be referencing Google. There’s no way to get radically simpler than Google, and therefore no way to create enough space to allow for differentiation. The only alternative is to move back into ornament, into the decorative, into beauty.


While we may think of computerized search of the internet as a purely functional affair of ONEs and ZEROs, the simple lists of links are being pulled into organic forms by their facets. Human forms of life are surfacing in and through our search queries. Search results will begin to bloom into something that looks much more like a natural form than points and lines in a frictionless space. This moment may mark another turning point…

Aria: O mio babbino caro


Next week I’m going to see Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Triptych) at San Francisco Opera. It’s comprised of three short operas: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Soprano, Patricia Racette will be performing the lead role in each story. It’s rare for a single performer to take on all three roles. Puccini started with the idea of three short operas about Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in the end only Gianni Schicchi maintained a connection.

Even if you don’t know opera, you may be familiar with an aria from Gianni Schicci, it’s called O mio babbino caro. Courtesy of YouTube, here are some renditions of that song.

Maria Callas

Renee Fleming

Anna Netrebko

And here’s a preview of the San Francisco Opera production of Il Trittico:

Il Trittico premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 14th, 1918.

Space/Name Space: “Syndication Doesn’t Make Sense In The Age Of The URL”


I’d like to take something Clay Shirky said out of  context. First of all, here’s the context from which I’m going to extract the quote: Shirky gave a talk to a group of journalists about the forward visibility of what he calls “Accountability Journalism.”  There are a couple excellent posts on Shirky’s talk by Ethan Zuckerman and David Weinberger. Both are highly recommended reading. The bottom line seems to be that while Shirky, at least, is beginning to be able to articulate why newspapers, as a media type, are unsustainable— visibility into the method by which “accountability journalism” will perdure is very limited. Listening to the Q&A after the talk brought to mind a song by Aimee Mann.

Oh, better take the keys and drive forever
Staying won’t put these futures back together
All the perfect drugs and superheroes
wouldn’t be enough to bring me up to zero
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
couldn’t put baby together again
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
couldn’t put baby together again

Aimee Mann
Humpty Dumpty, from the album Lost in Space

The journalists in attendance continued to sift through the pieces of egg shell looking for the formula that will put it all back together. I imagine them watching Shirky closely for some signal that pay walls or micro-payments just might be the glue for pieces they’ve been left holding.

Shirky makes clear that he values what “accountability journalism” provides— investigative journalism that holds people, corporations, governments and other institutions accountable for their actions is a crucial function in a democratic society. However, the notion that only newspapers, or news organizations, as they are currently constituted, can fill that need fails to heed the lessons of history.

And while the thread of this discussion is extremely important, I was taken off track by a phrase thrown out by Shirky in the middle of supporting one of his points. And this is where I’d like to remove this sentence from its context and treat it as a standalone fragment. It addresses the mechanics of distribution in space and name space:

“Syndication doesn’t make sense in the age of the URL, as AP has figured out, which is why they’re driving people towards their own content.?

Clay Shirky
in a talk to the Shorenstein Center
for the Press, Politics and Public Policy

The business of syndication is distributing copies of material to non-overlapping localities in physical space. Something produced for one locality can be leveraged into new markets for the cost of sales and distribution. Electronic distribution changed the economics and size of addressable markets substantially. The mechanisms of redistribution generally take the form of local newspapers, television and radio stations. In order for the model to work, there must be a high barrier to entry for local redistribution endpoints.

The qualities of physical space— distance and nearness are the medium through which syndication operates. As McLuhan notes, under electronic information conditions, everything changes. Once there’s a shift from physical space to name space, the concept of distance evaporates. When the Network is the distribution channel, what’s the difference between remote distribution and local distribution? Access via URL obviates syndication, distribution is direct. There’s no business model for local redistribution of remotely produced media product.

It’s interesting that we model physical syndication in technical formats like RSS. Media content is transported from an originating production facility to remote reading machines. The sales proposition is a reversal of transportation energy. Rather than you expending energy “going” to a news source, the news source expends energy “pushing” the news to you. News distribution takes the form of file transfer from over there to my local computer. The value of the pushed news stream is in the editorial decisions around feed subscription. There’s no item level granularity, so while the aggregation of feeds is a substantial advance, it’s only in “shared item” feeds that we start to see the possibility of filtering tools to produce high value synthetic feeds.

The URL, the hyperlink, has allowed readers to tear up the New York Times and share the interesting parts through multiple messaging buses. As Shirky notes, the publication is reassembled on the demand side. This feed of high-value items doesn’t require transport of the items from here to there. In a broadband environment, a playlist of URLs (tweets) delivers the news without moving an inch.

When we use the metaphor of physical space to think through economics of a name space, we end up like the journalists staring at Clay Shirky looking for a sign that everything is going to be all right.

You can read a transcript here or listen to Clay Shirky’s talk here: Clay Shirky on Accountablity Journalism

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