Tag Archive for 'humans'

Social melebrities and the externality of arrogance

The biggest impact the web and the Internet has had on society can be described using one word: "social". Social computing, social networking, social software, social media – the list goes on. The ability for humans to connect sounds simple, but it’s literally shaking up entire industries. With the rise of mass collaboration however, there has been the creation of a new class of denizen.

Social melebrities
Social media is a broad-based buzz word now becoming mainstream, to describe technologies that enables many-to-many communication between humans. A defining characteristic of social media is that it’s a public discussion. It’s like having a conversation with someone around a water cooler and the people sitting nearby join in on the conversation. Although the message is directed to one specific entity, that same message can be seen by people not originally intended to get the message.

Enter the social melebrity: a social media celebrity. They are people aware of how others can see their message, and consequently, modify their behaviour accordingly.

Celebrity

The problem with social melebrities. As someone becomes more engaged in "social media", a natural fact that emerges is that you become better known. People will subscribe to your content and communications, which in turn creates this sense of self-importance. It implies if people are watching you then therefore you are influential.

An externality of this process however is arrogance. It feeds into the day-to-day language of people, and creates unhealthy behaviours. Like the obsession of people getting more followers on a site like Twitter, is really a symptom of someone chasing for influence to feed their insecurity that they somehow matter.

Extending Twitter as the casestudy,
– most people that follow you are spam and inactive accounts. That growing number of followers doesn’t mean anything. That’s not influence.
– Most people that use Twitter have a job. That means, they cannot physically track every Tweet and at the same time be productive. In other words, if they are people that are doing amazing things in this world, they haven’t got time to track everything you say all the time. That’s not influence.

Arrogance

Remind yourself that you’re unique – just like everyone else. Once you delve into this world, just assume you are going to get a lot more exposure of your personal brand. Good on you if you do – but remember, it doesn’t matter. Real influence comes from the types of people that follow you, not from the amount of people that follow you (and following can vary in itself depending how how engaged they are in you). There’s no easy metric to determine "real" influence or reach, but there’s a lesson in that nevertheless: drop the arrogance. You might be famous now – but so is everyone else.

Bloglines to support APML

Tucked away in a post by one of the leading RSS readers in the world, Bloglines had announced that they will be investigating on how they can implement APML into their service. The thing about standards is that as fantastic as they are, if no one uses them, they are not a standard. Over the last year, dozens of companies have implemented APML support and this latest annoucement by a revitalised Bloglines team that is set to take back what Google took from them, means we are going to be seeing a lot more innovation in an area that has largely gone unanswered.

The annoucement has been covered by Read/WriteWeb, APML founders Faraday Media,?Ç? and a thoughtful analysis has been done by Ross Dawson. Ben Melcalfe had also written a thought-provoking analysis, of the merits of APML.

What this means?

APML is about taking control of data that companies collect about you. For example, if you are reading lots of articles about dogs, RSS readers can make a good guess you like dogs – and will tick the “likes dogs” box on the profile they build of you which they use to determine advertising.?Ç? Your attention data is anything you give attention to – when you click on a link within facebook, that’s attention data that reveals things about you implicitly.

The big thing about APML is that is solves a massive problem when it comes to privacy. If you look at my definition of what constitutes privacy, the abillity to control what data is collected with APML, completely fits the bill. I was so impressed when I first heard about it, because its a problem I have been thinking about for years, that I immediately joined the APML workgroup.

Privacy is the inflation of the attention economy, and companies like Google are painfully learning about the natural tension between privacy and targetted advertising. (Targetted advertising being the thing that Google is counting on to fund its revenue.) The web has seen a lot of technological innovation, which has disrupted a lot of our culture and society. It’s time that the companies that are disrupting the world’s economies, started innovating to answer the concerns of the humans that are using their services. Understanding how to deal with privacy is a key competitive advantage for any company in the Internet sector. It’s good to see some finally realising that.

Don’t get the Semantic Web? You will after this

Prior to 2006, I had sort of heard of the Semantic Web. To be honest, I didn’t know much – it was just another buzzword. I’ve been hearing about Microformats for years, and cool but useless initiatives like XFN. However to me it was simply just another web thing being thrown around.

Then in August 2006, I came across Adrian Holovaty’s article where he argues journalism needs to move from a story-centric world to a data-centric world. And that’s when it dawned on me: the Semantic web is some serious business.

I have since done a lot of reading, listening, and thinking. I don’t profess to be a Semantic Web expert – but I know more than the average person as I have (painfully) put myself through videos and audios of academic types who confuse the crap out of me. I’ve also read through a myriad of academic papers from the W3C, which are like the times when you read a novel and keep re-reading the same page and still can’t remember what you just read.

Hell – I still don’t get things. But I get the vision, so that’s what I am going to share with you now. Hopefully, my understanding will benefit the clueless and the skeptical alike, because it’s a powerful vision which is entirely possible

1) The current web is great for humans; useless for machines
When you search for ambiguous terms, at best, search engines can algorithmically predict some sort of answer that partially answers your query. Sometimes not. But the complexity of language, is not something engineers can engineer to deal with. After all, without ambiguity of natural languages, the existence of poetry is impossible.

Fine.

What did you think when you read that? As in: “I’ve had it – fine!” which is like another way of saying ok or agreeing with something. Perhaps you thought about that parking ticket I just got – illegal parking gets you fined. Maybe you thought I am applauding myself by saying that was one fine piece of wordcraftship I just wrote, or said in another context, like a fine wine.

Language is ambiguous, and depending on the context with other words, we can determine what the meaning of the word is. Search start-up company Powerset, which is hoping to kill Google and rule the world, is employing exactly this technique to improve search: intelligent processing of words depending on context. So by me putting in “it’s a fine”, it understands the context that it’s a parking ticket, because you wouldn’t say “it’s a” in front of ‘fine’ when you use it to agree with something (the ‘ok’ meaning above).

But let’s use another example: “Hilton Paris” in Google – the worlds most ‘advanced’ search engine. Obviously, as a human reading that sentence, you understand because of the context of those words I would like to find information about the Hilton in Paris. Well maybe.

Let’s see what Google comes up with: Of the ten search results (as of when I wrote this blog posting), one was a news item on the celebrity; six were on the celebrity describing her in some shape or form, and three results were on the actual Hotel. Google, at 30/70 – is a little unsure.

Why is Paris Hilton, that blonde haired thingy of a celebrity, coming up in the search results?

Technologies like Powerset apparently produce a better result because it understands the order of the words and context of the search query. But the problem with these searches, isn’t the interpretation of what the searcher wants – but also the ability to understand the actual search results. Powerset can only interpret so much of the gazilions of words out there. There is the whole problem of the source data, no just the query. Don’t get what I mean? Keep reading. But for now, learn this lesson

Computers have no idea about the data they are reading. In fact, Google pumping out those search results is based on people linking. Google is a machine, and reads 1s and 0s – machine language. It doesn’t get human language

2) The Semantic web is about making what human’s read, machine readable
Tim Berner’s Lee, the guy that invented the World Wide Web and the visionary behind the Semantic Web, prefers to call it the ‘data web’. The current web is a web of documents – by adding this extra data to content – machines will be able to understand it. Metadata, is data about data.

A practical outcome of having a semantic web, is that Google would know that when it pulls up a web page regardless of the context of the words – it will understand what the content is. Think of every word on the web, being linked to a master dictionary.

The benefit of the semantic web is not for humans – at least immediately. The Semantic Web is actually pretty boring with what it does – what is exciting, is what it will enable. Keep reading.

3) The Semantic web is for machines to interpret, not people
A lot of the skeptics of the semantic web, usually don’t see the value of it. Who cares about adding all this extra meta data? I mean heck – Google still was able to get the website I needed – the Hilton in Paris. Sure, the other 60% of the results on that page were irrelevant, but I’m happy.

I once came across a Google employee and he asked “what’s the point of a semantic web; don’t we already enough metadata?” To some extent, he’s right – there are some websites out there that have metadata. But the point of the semantic web is so that machines once they read the information, can start thinking like how a human would and connecting it to other information. There needs to be across the board metadata.

For example, my friend Michael was recently looking to buy a car. A painful process, because there are so many variables. So many different models, different makes, different dealers, different packages. We have websites, with cars for sale neatly categorised into profile pages saying what model it is, what colour it is, and how much. (Which may I add, are hosted on multiple car sites with different types of profiles). A human painfully reads through these profiles, and computes as fast as a human can. But a machine can’t read these profiles.

Instead of wasting his (and my) weekends driving around Sydney to find his car, a machine could find it for him. So, Mike would enter his profile in – what he requires in a car, what his credit limit is, what his prior history with cars are – everything that would affect his judgement of a car. And then, the computer can query every online website with cars to match the criteria. Because the computer can interpret these websites across the board, it can evaluate and it can go back to Michael and say “this is the car for you, at this dealer – click yes to buy”.

The semantic web is about giving computers the information to be able to interpret data, so that it can do what they do really well – compute.

4) A worldwide database
What essentially Berner’s Lee envisions, is turning the entire world wide web into a database that can be queried. Currently, the web looks like Microsoft Word – one swab of text. However, if that swab of text was neatly categorised in an Excel spreadsheet, you could manipulate that data and do what you please – create reports, reorder them, filter, and do whatever until your heart is content.

At university, I was forced to do an Information Systems subject which was essentially about the theory of databases. Damn painful. I learned only two things from that course. The first thing was that my lecturer, tutor, and classmates spoke less intelligible English than a caterpillar. But the second thing was that I learned what information is and how it differs from data. I am now going to share with you that lesson, and save you three months of your life.

You see, data is meaningless. For example, 23 degrees is data. On its own, it’s useless. Another piece of data in Sydney. Again, Рuseless. I mean, you can think all sorts of things when you think of Sydney, but it doesn’t have any meaning.

Now put together 23 degrees and Sydney, and you have just created information. Information is about creating relationships between data. By creating a relationship, an association, between these two different pieces of data – you can determine it’s going to be a warm day in Sydney. And that is what information is: Relationship building; connecting the dots; linking the islands of data together to generate something meaningful.

The semantic web is about allowing computers to be able to query the sum of human knowledge like one big database to generate information

Concluding thoughts
You are probably now starting to freak out and think “Terminator” images with computers suddenly erupting form under your computer desk, and smashing you against the wall as a battle between humans and computers begins. But I don’t see it like that.

I think about the thousands of hours humans spend trying to compute things. I think of the cancer research, whereby all this experimentation occurring in labs, is trying to connect new pieces of data with old data to create new information. I think about computers being about to query the entire taxation legislation to make sure I don’t pay any tax, because it knows how it all fits together (having studied tax, I can assure you – it takes a lifetime to only understand a portion of tax law). In short, I understand the vision of the Semantic web as a way of linking things together, to enable computers to compute – so that I can sit on my hammock drinking my beer, as I can delegate the duties of my life to the machines.

All the semantic web is trying to do, is making sure everything is structured in a consistent manner, with a consistent dictionary behind the content, so that a machine can draw connections. As Berner’s Lee said on one of the videos I saw: “it’s all about creating links”.

The process to a Semantic Web is boring. But once we have those links, we can then start talking about those hammocks. And that’s when the power of the internet – the global network – will really take off.

On the future of search

Robert Scoble has put together a video presentation on how Techmeme, Facebook and Mahalo will kill Google in four years time. His basic premise is that SEO’s who game Google’s algorithm are as bad as spam (and there are some pissed SEO experts waking up today!). People like the ideas he introduces about social filtering, but on the whole – people are a bit more skeptical on his world domination theory.

There are a few good posts like Muhammad‘s on why the combo won’t prevail, but on the whole, I think everyone is missing the real issue: the whole concept of relevant results.

Relevance is personal

When I search, I am looking for answers. Scoble uses the example of searching for HDTV and makes note of the top manufacturers as something he would expect at the top of the results. For him – that’s probably what he wants to see – but for me, I want to be reading about the technology behind it. What I am trying to illustrate here is that relevance is personal.

The argument for social filtering, is that it makes it more relevant. For example, by having a bunch of my friends associated with me on my Facebook account, an inference engine can determine that if my friend called A is also friends with person B, who is friends with person C – than something I like must also be something that person C likes. When it comes to search results, that sort of social/collaborative filtering doesn’t work because relevance is complicated. The only value a social network can provide is if the content is spam or not – a yes or no type of answer – which is assuming if someone in my network has come across this content. Just because my social network can (potentially) help filter out spam, doesn’t make the search results higher quality. It just means less spam results. There is plenty of content that may be on-topic but may as well be classed as spam.

Google’s algorithm essentially works on the popularity of links, which is how it determines relevance. People can game this algorithm, because someone can make a website popular to manipulate rankings through linking from fake sites and other optimisations. But Google’s pagerank algorithm is assuming that relevant results are, at their core, purely about popularity. The innovation the Google guys brought to the world of search is something to be applauded for, but the extreme lack of innovation in this area since just shows how hard it is to come up with new ways of making something relevant. Popularity is a smart way of determining relevance (because most people would like it) – but since that can be gamed, it no longer is.

The semantic web

I still don’t quite understand why people don’t realise the potential for the semantic web, something I go on about over and over again (maybe not on this blog – maybe it’s time I did). But if it is something that is going to change search, it will be that – because the semantic web will structure data – moving away from the document approach that webpages represent and more towards the data approach that resembles a database table. It may not be able to make results more relevant to your personal interests, but it will better understand the sources of data that make up the search results, and can match it up to whatever constructs you present it.

Like Google’s page rank, the semantic web will require human’s to structure data, which a machine will then make inferences – similar to how Pagerank makes inferences based on what links people make. However Scoble’s claim that humans can overtake a machine is silly – yes humans have a much higher intellect and are better at filtering, but they in no way can match the speed and power of a machine. Once the semantic web gets into full gear a few years from now, humans will have trained the machine to think – and it can then do the filtering for us.

Human intelligence will be crucial for the future of search – but not in the way Mahalo does it which is like manually categorising pieces of paper into a file cabinet – which is not sustainable. A bit like how when the painters of the Sydney harbour bridge finish painting it, they have to start all over again because the other side is already starting to rust again. Once we can train a machine that for example, a dog is an animal, that has four legs and makes a sound like “woof” – the machine can then act on our behalf, like a trained animal, and go fetch what we want; how those paper documents are stored will now be irrelevant and the machine can do the sorting for us.

The Google killer of the future will be the people that can convert the knowledge on the world wide web into information readeable by computers, to create this (weak) form of artificial intelligence. Now that’s where it gets interesting.

Google: the ultimate ontology

A big issue with the semantic web is ontologies – the use of consistent definitions to concepts. For those that don’t understand what I’m talking about – essentially, the next evolution of the web is about making content readable by not just humans but also machines. However for a machine to understand something it reads, it needs consistent definitions. Human’s for example, are intelligent – they understand that the word “friend” is also related to the word “acquaintance”, but a computer would treat them to mean two different things. Or do they?

Just casually looking at some of my web analytics, I noticed some people landed on my site by doing a google search for how many acquaintances do people have, which took them to a popular posting of mine about how many friends people have on facebook. I’ve had a lot of visitors because of this posting, and its been an interesting case study for me on how search engines work. However today was something different from other times: I found the word acquaintance weird. I know I didn’t use that word in my posting – and when I went to the Google cache I realised something interesting: because someone linked to me using that word, the search engine replaced the word ‘friend’ with ‘acquaintances’.

acquaintances

Google’s linking mechanism is one powerful ontology generator.

The power of feedback

Validation of a persons self-worth is a key aspect of being human. Why do we like praise, but not criticism? Because the former validates our self-esteem, the latter contradicts it. Insecure people tend to seek more validation from other peoples opinions – because they need other peoples opinions to validate their self-esteem. Wonder why the modest don’t boast? It’s because their validation is not derived from having to tell you so that you know. They already know you know, and if you don’t agree, they don’t care – they’re self validated.

However no matter how secure you are with yourself, everyone loves a bit of validation – it’s just some people need it more than others, or possibly, we all have different ways in how we validate ourselves. Some fish for compliments on their looks; others validate themselves through great achievements. Validation of who we are, is what drives almost everything we do. That’s why an atheist should never bag out religion to a believer – the argument about whether God exists is irrelevant; what is relevant, is that by criticising the existance of a religious establishment, you are actually criticising a person’s self-identity that has been built on that establishment, by effectively de-validating their belief system.

Motivation systems are complex, and I by no means claim to be an expert – but I do know, that the power of feedback is one of the most effective ways of motivating an individual, especially when it comes to content creation. In the context of web-services, recognition and validation are key: people will stick around on your site, if they feel a greater sense of self-worth because of it.

There are two ways people feel validated on online communities: analytics and responses. Analytics in the sense of statistics: page and profile views, unique visitors, popular content. Most bloggers arn’t really making money out of their blog – so why is software that provides statistics on their readership so popular? Because knowing people read your blog, is a form of validation. A bit like how an insecure teenage girl feels validated by the attention she myspace profilegets from sleazy older men. Right now, I am writing this blog entry because a reader asked if I could write more about the interaction between psychology and successful web start-ups. His comment validated my opinions, spurring me to write more on the subject.

Likewise, Myspace users will post a “Thanks for adding me” comment on a new friend. Why? Because it means more people will visit their profile. The reason I can say there are ulterior motives to just thank someone, is because they could have said “thanks for adding me” as a private message. So it then begs the question of why do they want more people to visit their profile? Because people get an ego boost seeing their page count go up.

Statistics to something you’ve created, are a quiet form of feedback. The more views, the more validated you feel by that. Popularity is a great feeling!

A second type of validation, is a bit more direct: it’s through the interactions with people. When people create content – photos, blog postings, whatever – nothing is more satisfying for them than a comment.

Features like Flickr’s recent activity are also apparently, what makes it so addictive. Again – it’s a form of validation. By responding to something someone has created, you are giving value to that creation – that feedback can make someone justify the effort, by providing recognition.

Sometimes the most powerful way a boss can keep their employees satisfied, is by a simple “thank you”. Recognition for effort expended by someone, can sometimes be all that someone needs to keep going.

Think you have a killer web2.0 app? You might. But unless a user feels like they are getting feedback on their existance and content creation, their first visit will likely also be their last. Feedback feels good. People want to feel good. So go and make them feel good about themselves.

People think like two-year-olds

A few thoughts:

1) Property ownership is one of the central tenets of capitalism.

2) At work, I am involved in a special assignment. Throughout the initiative, I’ve caused a lot of friction with various groups because it was perceived that I was infringing on their “territory”.

3) Myspace allows users to customise their profile however they want. And people do.

4) My two-year old niece is going though a stage where everything is “hers”.

5) Capitalism works better than any other economic system; my firm is very successful as an organisation; Myspace is a run-away hit; my niece is a happy baby.

Notice a trend? The only difference between you and a toddler is that you don’t say “mine” every time someone takes your toy. Want to get peoples’ support or to buy your product? Then remember this: property and giving people a sense of ownership is how us humans work. We take comfort in what we can control.

Patents: more harm than good

When I was in Prague two years ago, I met a bloke from Bristol (UK) that very convincingly explained how patents as a concept, are stupid. Because alcohol was involved, I can’t recall his actual argument, but it has since made me question: do you really need a patent to protect your business idea?

Narendra Rocherolle, an experienced entrepreneur, has written a good little article explaining when you should, and shouldn’t, spend money to protect your IP. Racherolle offers a good analysis, but I am going to extend it by stating that a patent can be dangerous for your business, and not just because of the monetary cost. Radar Networks is my case-study – a stealth-mode “Semantic web” company, that has received a lot of press lately because apparently they are doing something big but they are not going to tell us until later this year.

Continue reading ‘Patents: more harm than good’

The reason for success on social networking sites

Friendster was the first site I noticed the “post a comment” feature now so prevalent on the social networking sites. I remember thinking it was a way for others to know what your reputation was (like eBay). Interesting, but no big deal I thought – I couldn’t imagine it being used that often.

Then MySpace came around.

Continue reading ‘The reason for success on social networking sites’