June 2007

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Wired has a great story explaining the profound implications of Google Maps and Google Earth, mainly due to the fact that these maps don’t have to come from only one point of view, but can capture the collective frame of reference from millions of users across the globe: Google Maps Is Changing the Way We See the World.

This quote captures what I think is the main world-changing factor:

“The annotations weren’t created by Google, nor by some official mapping agency. Instead, they are the products of a volunteer army of amateur cartographers. “It didn’t take sophisticated software,” Hanke says. “What it took was a substrate — the satellite imagery of Earth — in an accessible form and a simple authoring language for people to create and share stuff. Once that software existed, the urge to describe and annotate just took off.”

Some of the article is a little more utopian than fits reality, but that’s just Wired. Still, you can’t deny that it really does change, forever, the way the human geographical world describes itself. I think the main thing, for me, is the stories: that because we’re not stuck with a single, 2-dimensional map that can only speak of one or a frames of reference, we can now see a given spot of the earth and learn of its human context — the stories that happened there to regular people, or people you might not otherwise know or understand.

It really is amazing what happens when you have the right banana.

Danah Boyd is pondering some of the rich, loamy stuff she’s uncovering in her long ethnographic study of young people and social networks.

She’s finding signs that there’s a growing social class/standing divide between Facebook and MySpace among high-school-age kids, and she’s wrestling with precisely what that means.

Thankfully, before waiting until it’s all been strained of all personality and doubt and pinned to wax as an official “paper,” she’s putting her neck out there and sharing some of the ideas she’s struggling with. You know, starting conversations, asking for feedback.

Of course, lots of people don’t get it. The BBC posted a story about it as if it were a University-vetted “study” — and it’s getting slashdotted and everything, which is bringing tons of people to the blog/essay who don’t understand ethnographic methods, or her approach to social sharing.

But, all that aside, it’s a fascinating post in itself.

The “blog essay” itself is on her site at danah.org. And the regular blog post where she explains it and is collecting comments from the public is on her blog at zephoria.org.

It’s especially interesting to read through these comments. Of course, as I said, lots of people seem uncomfortable with qualitative, raw, conversational research-analysis-in-formation. There are also some who, in their snooty disdain for MySpace and what they see there, unwittingly prove Boyd’s point to a degree.

What a lot of commenters bring up is that there are important differences between these two social engines that may cause some of the results Boyd is seeing. For example, while MySpace allows a user to create an anonymous account and connect to anyone they want, Facebook requires you to be “yourself” on the site, and allows connections only through referrals or pre-existing offline relation (such as being from the same school).
here are other, more subtle rules-based structural differences discussed throughout.

To me, this is central to what information architecture (at least as I see it) is all about: creating structures (whether categories of content or logical rules for what can and can’t be done and how) to channel people in particular ways.

I mean not so much the tabs/categories/taxonomy but the rules-based structures: who can friend whom; whether or not you can use a pseudonym; what channels can be used to form networks; how much you can customize your personal page, etc.

I wonder why these kinds of design decisions don’t get talked about more among IAs? Though to be fair, it’s on the rise. There were some great sessions about it at the last summit.

I can’t help but have a strong gut feeling, though, that the IA of “categorization and organization” of static structures is going to pale in comparison in terms of importance and impact next to the design decisions behind rules-based structures such as this.

One of many articles out in the last few weeks about the new show from David Milch, the man who brought us the glorious Deadwood.
David Milch mines his imperfect past in ‘John From Cincinnati’ – Los Angeles Times

Milch was quite a mess, according to him, for about 30 years, but then got above it. I liked this quote:

Milch got sober 8 years ago through “God’s grace,” he said. “To me, sobriety is taking the world as I find it. Trying to glorify it in its complexity, its reality, its beauty, its horror, and not try to judge it.”

It’s not just a great way to define sobriety; to me it sounds like the best definition of Faith I’ve possibly ever heard.

I’m not a fan of surfing movies or shows, I hate beaches, and “surf-noir” sounds like, I dunno, Beach Boys in a minor key? But I’m going to give “John” a chance — after all, before Deadwood, I never thought I’d watch another TV Western.

Fascinating post in Danger Room about a new War College research paper explains that insurgencies aren’t even a species of conventional warfare, but very different. Definitely check out the post, but here’s an interesting tidbit:

…the dynamics of contemporary insurgency are more like a violent and competitive market than war in the traditional sense where clear and discrete combatants seek strategic victory.

So here’s an interesting syllogism: If Markets are Conversations, and Insurgencies are Markets, then are Insurgencies = Conversations?

From what the report says, it might be the best way to think of them. The report essentially recommends playing neutral mediator — even if you think one side is better than the other.

This makes me wonder if anybody involved in dealing with Iraq ever paid attention back in the 80s when Hill Street Blues was on. When I was a kid, I remember thinking how strange it was to see cops in a room with “bad guy” gang leaders, negotiating things like truces. I thought: “The bad guys are right there, why don’t you arrest them??” But I realized soon enough that they’d only be replaced by more bad-guy leaders, and that until they brought a modicum of peace between the gangs, they would never manage to reduce violent crime in the city.

Of course, that’s the somewhat idealized TV version, which is much less messy than real life. But isn’t it still a great idea that often works? Or at least, isn’t it an idea that should be tried first, before you just try crushing the bad guys?

I finally got a chance to listen to Bruce Sterling’s rant for SXSW 2007 via podcast as I was driving between PA and NC last week.

There were a lot of great things in it. A number of people have taken great notes and posted them (here’s one example). It’s worth a listen either way — as are all of his talks. I like how Bruce is at a point where he’s allowed to just spin whatever comes to mind for an hour to a group of people. Not because all of it is gold — but because the dross is just as interesting as the gold, and just as necessary.

A lot of this year’s talk was on several books he’s reading, one of which is Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. It’s fascinating stuff — and makes me want to actually read this thing. (It’s available online for free — as are some excellent summaries of it, and a giant wiki he set up.)

In the midst of many great lines, one of the things Sterling said that stuck with me was this (likely a paraphrase):

“The distinctions just go away if you’re given powerful-enough compositing tools.”

He was talking about commons-based peer production — things like mashups and remixes, fan art, etc. and how the distinctions between various media (photography, painting, particular instruments, sculpture, etc) blur when you can just cram things together so easily. He said that it used to be you’d work in one medium or genre or another, but now “Digital tools are melting media down into a slum gully.”

First, I think he’s being a little too harsh here. There have always been amateurs who create stuff for and with their peers, and they all think it’s great in a way that has more to do with their own bubble of mutual appreciation than any “universal” measure of “greatness.” It just wasn’t available for everyone to see online across the globe. I’ve been in enough neighborhood writer’s circles and seen enough neighborhood art club “gallery shows” to know this. I’m sure he has too. This is stuff that gives a lot of people a great deal of satisfaction and joy (and drama, but what doesn’t?). It’s hard to fault it — it’s not like it’s going to really take over the world somehow.

I think his pique has more to do with how the “Wired Culture” at large (the SXSW-attending afficianados and pundits) seem to be enamored with it, lauding it as some kind of great democratizing force for creative freedom. But that’s just hype — so all you really have to do is say “we’ll get over it” and move on.

Second, though, is the larger implication: a blurring between long-standing assumptions and cultural norms in communities of creative and design practice. Until recently, media have changed so slowly in human history that we could take for granted the distinctions between photography, design, architecture, painting, writing, and even things like information science, human factors and programming.

But if you think of the Web as the most powerful “compositing tool” ever invented, it starts to be more clear why so many professions / practices / disciplines are struggling to maintain a sense of identity — of distinction between themselves and everyone else. It’s even happening in corporations, where Marketing, Technical Writing, Programming and these wacky start-up User-Experience Design people are all having to figure each other out. The Web is indeed a digital tool that is “melting” things down, but not just media.