Archive for November, 2010

Next Entries »

Sincerity, Ambiguity and The Automated Web of Inauthenticity

During last Sunday morning’s visit to the newsstand, I noticed a story listed on the cover of the most recent issue of the Atlantic magazine. It was the promise of finding out How The Web is Killing Truth that caused me to add the publication to my stack of Sunday morning purchases.

Sometime later I noticed a tweet by Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, that pointed to the same article online. The crux of the article concerns what happens when the crowd votes for the truth or falsity of a web page containing a news story. In particular, it deals with acts of collusion by right-wing operatives with regard to certain stories as they flowed through the Digg platform.

Digg depends on the authenticity and sincerity of its community to ‘digg’ or ‘bury’ stories based on their genuine thoughts and feelings. If the community were to break into ideological sub-communities that acted in concert to bury certain stories based on ideological principles, then the output of the platform could be systematically distorted.

For a time Digg withdrew the ‘bury’ button in response to this dilemma. The ‘bury’ button provided a tool for political activists to swiftboat opinion pieces and stories from the opposing ideological camp. Rather than a genuine expression of the crowd, the platform’s output was filtered through the prism of two ideologies fighting for shelf space at the top of a prioritized list.

Eric Schmidt’s interest in the story may have reflected his understanding of how this kind of user behavior might affect PageRank, especially as it begins to add a real-time/social component. Larry Page’s search algorithm is based on the idea that the number and quality of citations attached to a particular page should determine its rank in a list of search results. The predecessor to this concept was the reputation accorded to scholars whose academic papers were widely cited within the literature of a topic.

Google is already filtering link spam from its algorithm with varying levels of success. But if we examine the contents of the circulatory system of email, we can see where this is going. Through the use of scripted automated systems, it’s estimated that from 90 to 95% of all email can be described as spam. This process of filtering defines an interesting boundary within the flood of new content pouring into the Network. In a sense, Google must determine what is an authentic expression versus what is inauthentic. In the real-time social media world, it was thought that by switching from keyword-hyperlinks-to -pages to people-as-public-authors-of-short-hypertext-messages that users could escape spam (inauthentic hyperlinkages) through the unfollow. But once you venture outside a directed social graph into the world of keywords, topics, hashtags, ratings, comments and news you’re back into the world of entities (people or robots) you don’t know saying things that may or may not be sincere.

1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
1:7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
1:8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
1:9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
1:10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good

And so Google saw the light, that it was good: and Google divided the light from the darkness. The good links that shed light from the bad links that dissemble and confuse. Of course, this is a very digital way of looking at language— a statement is either true or false. And with the exception of the spammers themselves, I think we can all agree that email, blog, twitter and any other kind of spam belongs on the other side of the line, over there in the darkness. When we say something is spam, we mean that it has no relevance to us and yet we, or our software agents, must process it. There is something false about spam.

The purely ideological gesture on a rating service is indistinguishable from the authentic gesture if one doesn’t have knowledge of the meta-game that is being played. Should meta-gamers be filtered from the mix? Ulterior motives dilute the data and may skew the results away from the authentic and genuine responses of the crowd/community. The question here is how do you know when someone is playing a different game than the one at hand? Especially if part of the meta-game is to appear to be playing the same game as everyone else.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

When we limit our language to the purely sincere and genuine, what kind of language are we speaking? What kind of world are we spinning? Is it a world without ambiguity? Without jokes? Without irony, sarcasm or a deadpan delivery? Suddenly our world resembles the security checkpoint at the airport, no jokes please. Answer all questions sincerely and directly. Step this way into the scanning machine. Certainly when we’re trying to get somewhere quickly, we don’t want jokes and irony, we want straightforward and clear directions. It’s life as the crow flies.

There’s a sense in which human language reduces itself to fit into the cramped quarters of the machine’s language. Recently, a man named Paul Chambers lost an appeal in the United Kingdom over a hyperbolic comment he published on Twitter. Frustrated that the aiport was closed down and that he would not be able to visit a friend in Northern Ireland, Mr. Chambers threatened to blow up the airport unless they got it together. A routine Twitter search by an airport official turned up the tweet and it was submitted to the proper authorities. Mr. Chambers was convicted and has lost his appeal. Mr. Chambers was not being literal when he wrote and published that tweet. He was expressing his anger through the use of hyperbolic language. A hashtag protest has emerged under than keyword #iamspartacus. When Mr. Chambers’s supporters reproduce his original tweet word-for-word, how do they stand with respect to the law? If they add a hashtag, an LOL, or a 😉 emoticon does that tell the legal machine that the speaker is not offering a logical proposition in the form of a declarative sentence?

Imagine a filter that designated as nonsense all spam, ambiguity, irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, metaphor, metonymy, and punning. The sense we’d be left with would be expression of direct literal representation. This is unequivocally represents that. Google’s search algorithm has benefitted from the fact that, generally speaking, people don’t ironically hyperlink. But as the language of the Network becomes more real-time, more a medium through which people converse— the full range of language will come into play.

This learning, or re-learning, of what is possible with language gives us a sense of the difference between being a speaker of a language and an automated manipulator of symbols. It’s this difference that is making the giants of the Internet dance.

The Real-Time Event In The Corporate Web Presence

In discussing the problem of real time with a corporate user-experience manager, the question was posed: “how should one manage resources to respond to a real-time event using a corporate-level content management system?” In the past, real-time events — let’s say large storms or earthquakes — had caused an all hands on deck response. Publishing timely information required many hours of production time to surface the appropriate information into the corporate web presence.

The problem is really one of information hierarchy and architecture as controlled and structured by a corporate content management system. When a batch publishing system is used to respond to a real-time event, the cost of publishing is very high. On the other hand, when the time of the event is controlled by the corporation — a campaign or a product release—the batch CMS software performs with the anticipated economics. The early days of the web were dominated by this kind of controlled publishing, and automated systems were developed to manage it.

One difficulty with the real-time event is that it doesn’t have a permanent home in the tree-structured information hierarchy except as a generalized real-time event. Placing real-time content in a semantically proper position in the information architecture is sensible, but fails to fully understand the time-value of the external event. These events are generally pasted on to the home page through a special announcement widget with a hyperlink to a page that hovers around the edge of information hierarchy. In the end, it becomes an orphan page and is deleted, because once time passes, it no longer has a place that makes sense.

Blogs and Twitter have emerged under the moniker of social media, but at bottom they’re instant publishing systems. But the key difference is, their information hierarchy is completely flat, items are posted in chronological order without regard for their semantic position in a system of meaning. On a secondary level, the items can be searched and categorized into ad hoc sense-making collections. In a recent online interview, IBM’s Jeff Jonas noted that batch systems never evolve into real-time systems; but that real-time systems can spin up batches all day. This approach to information publishing and organization was pioneered by David Gelernter and variously called chronicle streams, lifestreams, and information beams. In this model, time has priority over information space. The structure of real-time is based, not surprisingly, on the unfolding of time.

The real-time Network enables social media through the low-latency exchange of messages. But socializing is only one aspect that’s enabled by real-time systems. The National Security Agency continues to push the boundaries of what is possible on this front. It’s not just people who interact in real time, each and every day, our whole world is filled with surprising and unexpected events.

The real-time event is changing the corporate web presence in a number of ways. Real-time sense making of data captured in real-time is clearly coming. But the real-time visibility that Twitter and other real-time systems are providing to users have put the pressure on corporate enterprises to respond in close to real time. The content management systems that the enterprise has invested in are, for the most part, the wrong tool for the job. Initially batch publishing systems will need to be supplemented with real-time systems. Eventually, corporate web presence will be managed using a fully real-time system.

The interesting question is whether corporate web presence will be published as a time-sequenced real-time feed and secondarily made available in ad hoc personalized data collections — or whether the traditional tree structure, the hierarchical information architecture, will continue to dominate: batch vs. real-time architectures.

Next Entries »