Monday, April 2, 2007

Copyright and Bedouins: Part I: Introduction

Catching Up on Web 2.0 (Manifesto)
Web 2.0 is the new dot-com. The phrase itself is only about three years old, coined to refer to the new "interactive" web, and all the blog-covered, MySpace-drenched, active AJAX content thereon. A few months ago (at Christmas, in fact), I finally gave up on my homespun photo-hosting solution (RIP, PhotoJournal) and signed up for a Flickr account. That was the beginning of my expansion into the frontiers of the social web.

Over the past week or so, I've signed myself for all sorts of things: this Blogger blog, a Ma.gnolia bookmarking account, the Kayuda mind-mapping service, Technorati tagging, and Twitter mini-blogging. I've also worked on getting as much integration as possible; cameraphone pictures posted to Flickr are automatically cross-posted to my blog with attached text, and my username and password at Ma.gnolia are mediated by the laptop in my dining room.

Now usually, I'm okay with getting a general idea of how things work and waiting until I need the details to get a better understanding. This new side of the web (and social technology in general) falls into the set of things that I consider my core knowledge. If I'm not ready to whip out a cellphone and broadcast a GPS-tagged picture of the guy wearing a laptop for a hat, I'm not on my game. (For the record, I am still working on the GPS angle.) Just last week I saw a girl, maybe 15, standing in her yard and text messaging with one hand and playing catch with her little brother with the other. I refuse to fall behind a 15 year old in anything but number of MySpace stalkers. I'm not the only one who shouldn't be falling behind. It's my career, so I may be a little further along, but staying abreast of the recent changes in

Technological innovation is a peculiar phenomenon. Most of you older than 20 have likely run into some awful music that is nonetheless the current genre-of-choice, and you might think to yourself, "Oh no, I'm going to be so out of the loop! All my music will be played on the Oldies stations!" Well, you're right, but fortunately, it isn't likely to keep you from buying your fried mush at the grocery store. On the other hand, not knowing how to work the credit card machine will get you in trouble. Even you fogeys who are unimpressed by innovations such as "instant messaging" or so-called "mobile telephones" should be aware that interactions (with the world, and with other people) are changing, and the pace is accelerating. If you're not aware of the subtext of interaction possible, you're probably missing things. An anecdote: my roomate's aunt tried to play matchmaker by giving him a girl's postal address, expecting him to write a letter. Rather, within moments he'd found her email address and was agonizing over what to write, rather than where to find a stamp. Science fiction author Charles Stross repeatedly writes about the acceleration of technology as an agent of massive social and economic change (more on his ideas in a later post), and it's obviously happening. Technology has gone from enabling us to eat better to enabling us (albeit in a limited way so far) to think better.

As you may have noticed, this article is merely a Part I, the first of what I expect to turn into approximately
six articles. This one you are currently reading is mainly a primer: first my ever-so-convincing reasons for paying attention, then a more concrete (and less blustery) introduction to Web 2.0 applications and issues. So, onward to the buzz-o-sphere.

The Buzzosphere (the blogosphere and its accouterments)
Blogging is pretty much the process of creating what you are reading right now. A diminutive of the term "weblog", a blog is what you are reading now: an often narcissistic, opinionated open letter to whomever. Certain forms are more like public angst-ridden diaries (see LiveJournal) or just buckets for pictures of cats (warning, previous link is both noisy and ugly). Plenty of blogs are about politics. Some are just in it to be funny; I like reading The Sneeze. Basically, blogs are a way to broadcast your thoughts about anything to the world. Easier to set up than a web page, people have jumped on them like crazy. (The blog-tracking site Technorati estimates 175,000 new blogs per day.) Information is being dumped onto the Internet like crazy, and the best part is that you're almost guaranteed to find someone interested in the same things.

The same sort of immensity is true of more specific media. Flickr, the photo-hosting site I mentioned earlier, has more than 30 million images hosted that are specifically for use in the public domain. Publicly shared bookmarks probably number in the billions at sites like, where all it takes is a click to recommend a site you like.

Okay, so how is this mess organized? Searching through descriptions just isn't going to cut it. The answer is an extension of ontologies and controlled vocabularies. Biologists, for instance, use ontologies to label the anatomy of an animal, and the terms are indexed in a way that allows easy processing by a machine; there's no wondering if it's an "ae" or an "a", or even whether a "finger" is the same thing as a "digit". Now, in the scientific world, ontologies are fixed in order to prevent people from making up different words for the same thing. The Internet is messier than that, so a new type of vocabulary has evolved called a "folksonomy". People just assign any label (or set of labels) to their blog entry (or picture, or video, or podcast, or whatever), and then computers index these tags for searching. There are two things that make this work better than you'd expect. For one, these labels (called tags) are meant to be short, usually one word. That limits the number of different possible choices. One person may label a post "weblogging" while another labels it "blogging", but no one is likely to label it "diary on the internet". The other feature of Internet folksonomies is that the Internet is huge. If an idea is even a little bit popular, a "standard" tag will rise to the surface, leading other authors to use that tag for related content. Thanks to social bookmarking sites (these are sites that let you share links to other pages, kind of like sending an email to a friend with a great website, but instead sending it to the world), people who aren't even authors of the original content can attach tags, making it even more likely to be found.

Unlikely as it seems, the blogosphere is still in its infancy; lots of content is just bloggers blogging about each other. This won't last, though. As more people jump on the bandwagon, more content becomes available. People on the street blog celebrity sightings, people in Iraq blog about their day-to-day lives, and some people just blog their most recent photography. Blogging may even become the new mass media, given a little bit of time. At the very least, it looks like it's here to stay for a while.

And Then?
Whew. That turned out a little wordier than I expected it to. I've probably enlightened perhaps two people, but hey, that's what the Internet is for, right? Next time, I'll be talking about copyright; not just as it applies to mainstream things like CDs and books, but also how some groups are trying to improve copyright law using the accessibility of the Internet as a launching platform.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Count me as one of the 2 people you've enlightened. Though I'm not really enlightened, just somewhat better informed now. And I know how to post comments. ;)