This is not ostensibly a post about Google. It is in part however, inspired by Google and their far-reaching motto, as well as their well publicized aim of 'indexing the world's information'. A while back I wrote about Wikipedia and the controversy over the inaccuracies inherent in such a system. What people seemed to be missing about the whole story was that the point was not that the authors of the article had posted lies or unsubstantiated facts, but rather that such stories and facts would have been posted regardless, whether Wikipedia had existed or not. Wikipedia, merely provides a common forum for all the random web pages that had sprung up over the past decade of growing internet usage, giving people a common repository for ideas and knowledge that inhabited 'net.

The sheer vastness of the web defies the perusal of a single overseeing body; no gatekeeper exists for the 'net, and nor should they. But accessing and tapping into the fragments of truth that are scattered across the internet is the defining challenge for the next decade, and without success in that sphere, the internet will remain unable to realize the immense potential that its size and scale represent. Wikipedia is merely one such attempt. It acknowledges that the knowledge of the world does not (indeed, cannot) come from a single source. Like the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica in Douglas Adams' satirical novel, any source claiming such omniscience will be relegated to ridicule and obscurity. The comparison mentioned in my previous post between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica help underline this simple fact, and convinces me that the face of the internet must change to closer align to this approach.

Google, in part, is attempting something like this: a single point of access for all the information in the world. But if fails in several key ways, most significantly, its poor browsing interface. Google, in all its various forms be it Video, Image, or Document searching, remains only a search platform. Once the searches have been completed it appears somewhat confused and unsure what to do with the results. Thus its interface, which begins with such startling simplicity, becomes uncertain and inefficient.

This is where the importance of the "social" aspects of the internet comes in. It seems to be rearing its elegant head nearly everywhere you look, and for good reason. What flickr, del.ico.us and other such services quickly realized was that much like the information services of Wikipedia, no single source could form a coherent and complete documentation and classification of a large amount of data. So the collective mind, the "community" that appears to be the core of the Web 2.0 revolution, is far more capable of undertaking this task that defies a solitary company such as Google. A combination of Google's search capabilities with its access to vast amounts of information, and the community's involvement in its organization is the key to a more usable and ultimately useful internet.

However this is merely a single view of how the future of the internet can be shaped. Another, far more ominous outlook appears to gathering greater attention and support, especially among the large companies that have of late been left out of the growing internet economy. This includes the telecom and cable giants that are our access points into the vast world wide web, but have little control over what we do beyond this point. And that is something they just can not stand for.

This has been gathering more and more attention recently (via Digg), especially after the announcements by Yahoo and AOL that they would begin a new paid service for 'priority' mail that would be 'guaranteed'… whatever that is supposed to mean. Silly me, thinking that current emails are already guaranteed to arrive where I send them. What, is there only like a 70-80% chance that when I press that 'send' button, my email will reach its destination?

Anyway the point is that when we really get down to it, we as consumers, have very little say in such things, and it seems obvious that the pure internet companies such as Amazon and Yahoo, that are currently against this 'other' form of internet, will eventually change sides once they are given a slice of the oh-so-sweet money pie. And so this is a call to all you people, consumers, workers, companies… please, Don't Be Evil! Let there exist an open forum for the world community to thrive together, communicating at a level unimaginable before, with a freedom that is unprecedented. We stand at a precipice; we can fall into the age old trap of bottom-line profit thinking, and let the floodgates of corporate ownership and control into the sacrosanct world of our internet, or stand together, strong and resolute, shouting – "We will not stand for it!" The decision, ultimately, is ours and ours alone.

We have the Power!

December 17, 2005

Continuing with my Web 2.0 contemplation, Wired News compares the accuracy of Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica. The results are not what you would expect. It turns out that a Wikipedia article which receives enough viewers (and so has enough “fact-checkers”) is nearly as accurate as Britannica, long thought to be the bastion of human knowledge. This just once again shows the power of the many over the few, and how the Social tools of the internet become more efficient and useful simply as a result of the sheer number of participants. Thus we can only expect Wikipedia to become more accurate and comprehensive, while Britannica and its like will be left behind in the dust.

This reminds me of how the TV companies (NBC and the rest) kept on insisting that it would cost too much, and would be too complicated to put all their TV shows online for subscription/pay-per-view download. And at the same time thousands and thousands of people were managing to do just that with no official help, minimal funding, with only the support of ardent tv fans that helped create the now-gargantuan Bittorrent community.

The recent controversy over the existence of certain inaccurate articles in Wikipedia, and its somewhat misguided coverage in the mainstream media (specifically by CNN’s Kyra Phillips), shows the strength of the website, rather than expose a crippling flaw in its premise, which is what some would like us to believe.

Web 2.0 is here. or so they tell us.

‘Social’ is the new buzz word, being pinned onto words that define the current internet… we now have Social-Bookmarking (del.icio.us), Social-Browsing (Flock), even Social-Picture Sharing (Flickr). Another buzz word is ‘Tags’, and the key feature of ‘Social’ services is ‘Tags’. Tagging is far more useful than the now-defunct ‘Categories’, since using multiple tags allows to more fully (and accurately) define something. Trying to fit most ideas and objects under singular definitions is inevitably inaccurate (or at the least, incomplete); tags then, help us use a more functional and personalized system to make sense of any information (be they pictures, books, or blog entries) and is thus easier to search and find what you want.

A simple example showing the usefulness of this can be seen in how i organize my pictures in Flickr. Where once a picture of me and a bunch of my friends out at a local club would have been Categorized as ‘Montreal’ or ‘Partying’ (lame, I know), now includes a number of different Tags. ‘Montreal’ and ‘Partying’ could certainly be two of them, but it could also include ‘Newtown’ as the club where we go pretty often, and ‘Summer 2005’ for the time of year; ‘Mahima’ for the describing people in the picture, and ‘Nate’s Visit’ for pointing out that a friend from out of town was there. Because of the number of dimensions used to describe a single picture, finding specific information becomes drastically easier. Choosing the ‘Mahima’ tag, all pictures with her in it can be brought up in a second. This may not sound like much, but when a vast amount of information is required to be sifted through, one begins to see the possibilities.

This is still an example for the individual level; Web 2.0 is all about the ‘social’ dimensions of the internet, and so the same situation is meant to be applied on a far larger scale. When the ‘montreal’ tag is expanded to all of the pictures in Flickr, the number of results increases exponentially. The aim at the end is to be able to find at will, a picture of a ‘montreal’ ‘sunset’ during the ‘summer’ of ‘2005’, taken at the ‘waterfront’ during the ‘F1 weekend’ at the restaurant ‘Jardin Neslon’.

Of course it seems to me that tagging is merely the use of multiple categories, and others seem to agree with this definition. Yet this small tweak, coupled with the personalized and social factors of Web 2.0 products, creates a level of functionality that nigh eliminates the difficulties of accommodating thepreconceived notions of website/software creators, and the frustration that inevitably comes along with it. This helps mimic the ‘mental map’ within people’s minds, and allows information to be organized more ‘organically’ (the underlying principle of all such ‘Social’ tools). TheInternet has forever had too-much information rather than too-little. Without ways of easily accessing that information, its functionality is greatly reduced.

It is these small changes that ultimately usher in the next level of evolution for products and innovations. The coming together of a number of incremental improvements suddenly appears to provide us with a complete, well rounded product. Humans, for example, existed for many millennia before bursting out into their current level of productivity and inventiveness; the raw material of the human brain lay unused and untapped, while homo sapiens lived as little more than groups of semi-intelligent chimpanzees. And then, almost out of nowhere, a small shift in the vocal chords, coupled with an almost equally small shift in the language centers of the brain, allowed for the communication of ideas and coordination of human efforts on a scale never before encountered. And presto, in the blink of an eye, an insignificant mammal, ill-adapted (physically) for his environment, came to envelop the globe.

Hmm… seem to have drifted off the point a little here… (inspired in part by this). But still, it remains true that no single thing stands alone in this world, and without the support from other related products or services, its usefulness to us remains limited. Web 2.0, and the future of the web, relies on this very truth, and so we foresee a convergence of the such activities as they are integrated into our normal, every-day lives. The old ways of enforced compartmentalization are done, and a new way of perceiving the ‘net (and the world) are emerging.

The future, then, is Social. And Tagged.