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Category: philosophy

The Bees of the Invisible

“We are the bees of the invisible,” Rilke wrote to Hulewicz, his translator, “Frantically we gather in the honey of the visible—to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

The process of linking one thing to another on the Web may someday contain a kind of poetry. Today we link things together because they have a certain kind of coherence or utility. But, in truth, in life, the kind of links that stay with us are the ones the produce unexpected connections.

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Everyone and No One

In this new media world, Jeff Jarvis thinks that “everyone” can provide the necessary checks and balances to the conscious or unconscious editorial bias on Mahalo’s edited search page results. He calls the idea of an Ombudsman very Old Media.

There’s a sense in which Mahalo is very old media. It employs editors to filter the Web and determine what’s important and what’s not. It’s not a Wiki and it’s not a UseNet Group— the public can suggest editorial content, but the editors make the decisions. Mahalo appears to be structured like a Wiki, but it’s operated by paid professionals on our behalf.

Jason Calacanis commented recently that Mahalo wasn’t a product built for the leading edge of users. It’s a service that aims for the early majority, not the innovators and early adopters. This is one of the reasons that leaving the task of challenging editorial bias to “everyone” probably won’t work.

Of course, challenging editorial bias on Mahalo only becomes an issue if the company and the service is successful. If Mahalo itself is in the margin in the world of Web search then the Web itself provides the counter argument.

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Mahalo & Winer: The Human Element

Calacanis makes products, Winer makes networked formats (and products to support those formats). Calacanis thinks about the Web’s ecosystem, but he also thinks about the economics of the Web and is willing to pay for value at the leading edge (even in the so-called social network space). That makes him rare.

So why the break? What’s really upset Winer about Mahalo? That it’s not a platform? This seems unlikely. While Winer is usually good about thinking about ordinary users, in this case I think he’s really thinking only about developers as users, and not ordinary users.

What’s good about Mahalo? Compare the search results pages for “how to speak french.”

Google: How to speak french

Mahalo: How to speak french

To my eye, the Mahalo page is more useful if a person would like to learn how to speak french. Granted the Google page lists the Mahalo page in its results, but the Google page is filled with advertising. Google doesn’t really tell me how to learn french, it provides a list of pointers based on a keyword query and page rank algorithm. Google doesn’t even know or care about my interest in speaking french.

Is the Mahalo page useful to a Web developer? Is it a low-level network protocol or format that can be mashed up into something new? Not at the moment, but it would be very useful to a developer who wanted to learn to speak french. The interesting thing about Mahalo is that it brings editorial judgement into the process of searching and finding.

And that injection of the “editor” is probably what Winer objects to the most, although he hasn’t put it that way— and maybe doesn’t realize it. Most of the technology that Dave has built is for the purpose of empowering the individual. Blogs, RSS, OPML, Manilla, Frontier — all these things give power to the individual to create. Mahalo doesn’t do that, it just provides good answers to questions. And to do that it needs smart editors to compile, structure and write answers. This makes the editor an important filter. Dave prefers to build his own filters and empower users.

From this perspective, Mahalo moves things in the other direction. Mahalo may start with good editors, but that may not always be true. If I search for “Dave Winer” on Mahalo, what will the editors return as a result? Will the break between Winer and Calacanis have any affect on the results? The human element can provide the extra intelligence that makes the difference between a good list of pointers and good answer to a question. It can also inject bias, cultural prejudice, political agendas, economic agendas, etc. Will Mahalo have the wisdom and ability to respond to its inevitable mistakes? And once that process starts, will Mahalo still be able to provide good answers to questions?

So maybe Winer is thinking about users. Calacanis has created a useful product, but he needs to answer the questions that Winer hasn’t been able to articulate.

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