I’ll be collating and curating interesting articles about disruptive innovation, information futures, and just plain good writing in this feed, so stay tuned for more of that!
Curation, Aggregation, and Web 2.0
Tools for curating, sorting, and managing web content usually take the form of social aggregators such as Digg or Reddit. The act of curating is not one of careful selection by a trained expert, but rather the weighted consensus of the masses promoting or up-voting content they find notable.
Web 2.0—nay, the entire information profession—has a problem; the barriers to information creation and storage have fallen in recent years. This has resulted in the amount of information on the Web proliferating beyond all expectations. Finding the right information among the endless supply of trivial and irrelevant data has become almost impossible. The rational response would be to trust our curation to trained professionals, able to disseminate and sort through this wealth of information and categorise it based on merits of accuracy and quality.
Instead, popular aggregators and the wisdom of crowds have emerged as the determining values of qualitative merit on the Web.
There is a very real risk that the Web—the most powerful source of knowledge available—is mislabelling, misrepresenting, and misplacing important data, and being unable to distinguish it from the unfiltered noise of the masses. We have trusted the most important resource in human history to the collective rule of enthusiastic amateurs.
This pollution of data poses a threat of eroding and fragmenting any real information stored on the Web. Users have come to rely on the anonymous and amorphous ‘rest of the Web’ as their authoritative filter. Content aggregators remix information drawn from multiple sources and republish them free of context or editorial control. These aggregated opinions of the masses are vulnerable to misinformation as users have too much control and too little accountability. The risk of aggregating information is the risk of privileging the inaccurate, banal, and trivial over the truth.
Digg.com, founded in 2004, was the first notable aggregator of Web 2.0 content. Voting content up or down is the core of the site: respectively ‘digging’ and ‘burying’ material based on contributors input. This supposedly democratic system allows content of merit to be promoted and displayed. But, this assumes that all opinions and user-generated regulations are equally valuable and relevant in determining merit.
The collective judgements of a group—the clichéd ‘wisdom of the crowds’—can be an effective measure of certain types of quantitative data. Called upon to guess at the number of jellybeans in a jar, the aggregated guesses of a thousand contributors would provide a relatively accurate figure. However, if that same group was called upon to disseminate the value of a news story their opinions would not represent a collective truth about the value or merits of the piece. The voting process of Digg or Reddit is transparent and instant, and causes contributors to cluster around popular opinions—promoting sensationalism and misinformation. Content that grabs the attention of users will quickly be promoted and rise to be seen by more users, regardless of its accuracy.
The momentum of a popular story is exponential: the more users see something, the more popular it becomes—exposing it to even more users. The infinite shelf-space and shelf-life of the Web means that once a piece of information has seen any exposure it almost impossible to control. Instantly a lie can spread across the Web by the zeal of its promoters, and be cross-referenced by a dozen news aggregators. Lies become widespread and pollute enough aggregation sites that they become the valid—supposedly authoritative—result of any Google search on the topic. The wisdom of the crowds is fickle and closer to a mob mentality; it is impossible to aggregate their wisdom without aggregating their madness as well. After all, there is a fine line between the wisdom of crowds and the ignorance of mobs
However, non-trivial and important content is still being created, promoted, and viewed on the Web; aggregated information services do capture these notable pieces of data in their trawling. In practice an old problem remains: time and effort must be manually expended to sort out the real information from the useless noise. Exactly the sort of time and effort that professional curators, librarians, and information professionals were traditionally employed to expend.
Digital media theorist Andrew Keen, in his book The Cult of the Amateur (2007) likens the community of Web 2.0 to evolutionary biologist T.H Huxley’s humorous theory that infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters would eventually create a masterpiece such as Shakespeare. Keen sees this infinite community of empowered amateurs as undermining expertise and destroying content control on the Web. He argues that their questionable knowledge, credentials, biases, and agendas means they are incapable of guiding the public discourse of the Web with any authority at all.
Another perspective on this comes from the 1986 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, wherein television commentator Neil Postman theorised about the erosion of the public discourse by the onslaught of the media. He frames the media in terms of the dystopian scenarios offered by Huxley’s grandson—science fiction author Aldous Huxley—in the novel Brave New World, and compares them to the similar dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984:
‘There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shrivelled. In the first—the Orwellian—culture becomes a prison. In the second—the Huxleyan—culture becomes a burlesque’ (Postman, 1986, p.155).
In one dystopia, Orwell feared those who would deliberately deprive us of information; in another, Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
And, the culture of Web 2.0 is essentially realising Huxley’s dystopia. It is cannibalising the content it was designed to promote, and making expert opinions indistinguishable from that of amateurs.
User-generated content is creating an endless digital wasteland of mediocrity: uninformed political commentary; trivial home videos; indistinguishable amateur music; and unreadable poems, essays, and novels. This unchecked explosion of poor content is devaluing the work of librarians, knowledge managers, professional editors and content gatekeepers. As Keen suggests ‘What is free is actually costing us a fortune. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music, and news-gathering industries that created the original content these Websites ‘aggregate’ (Keen, 2007, p.32).
In a world with fewer and fewer professional editors or curators, knowing what and whom to believe is impossible. Because much of the user-generated content of the Web is posted anonymously—or under pseudonyms—nobody knows who the real author of much of this self-generated content is.
No one is being paid to check their credentials or evaluate their material on Wiki’s, aggregators, and collaboratively edited websites. The equal voice afforded to amateurs and experts alike has devalued the role of experts in controlling the quality and merit of information. So long as information is aggregated and recompiled anonymously then everyone is afforded an equal voice. As Keen dramatically states, ‘the words of wise men count for no more than the mutterings of a fool (2007, p.36)’.
We need professional curation of the internet now more than ever. We need libraries and information organisations to embrace the idea of developing collections that include carefully evaluated and selected web resources that have been subject to rigorous investigation. Once upon a time we relied on publishers, booksellers, and news editors to do the sorting for us. Now, we leave it to anonymous users who could be a marketing agency hired to plant corporate promotions; it could be an intellectual kleptomaniac, copy-pasting other’s work together and claiming it as their own; or it could be, as Keen fears, a monkey.
Without professional intervention, the future is a digital library where all the great works of human history sit side-by-side with the trivial and banal under a single, aggregated category labelled ‘things’. And we would have no-one to blame but ourselves.
There is no such thing as a tool that is good even if used without consideration. Social media, microblogging, and corporate communications platforms are no exception to this. That being said, they are a powerful way to flatten hierarchies and open up the conversation within an organisation.
My previous employer–a major web-hosting company–were heavily invested in creating an open, integrated communications system within the company. With offices in a number of locations around Australia and the world, there was often a significant disconnect between all but the most closely integrated departments. To combat this isolation, the organisation rolled out Yammer across the company. Yammer, for those unfamiliar with the platform, is more-or-less a facebook news-feed clone for closed, internal use. Much like familiar social media platforms, Yammer invites users to post, comment, and follow discussions and share links and the such like.
Because the organisation had not followed through with a comprehensive internal communications policy for Yammer, the results were mixed. The posting quickly turned into inane, trivial, and mundane minutia such as: ‘The coffee pot on level 5 is empty’, ‘Lol who turned out the lights,’ and ‘Woo! Go accounts. More sales!’…you get the idea. There were some flashes of inspired thinking on the service, such as the CFO opening up a forum for discussing summer reading titles relevant to business and technology, which invited a rare opportunity to speak candidly (about books!) with the managing directors of a multi-national corporation. These opportunities to make my voice heard were few and far between, but I welcomed the fact that such a conversation could not have been possible without a tool like Yammer.
Ultimately, the problem with corporate microblogging and social feeds is one of restraint and management. Unchecked, it becomes yet another source for information-bloat and distraction. Too-regulated and it becomes a cork-board for posting internal PR releases.
Organisations take note! You should start hiring internal social media moderators and curators to better direct, manage, and engage the use of these platforms in your organisation. I’m certain that my peers and I would welcome the challenge!
Web 2.0 pundit and theorist Andrew Keen writes in his book Digital Vertigo (2012):
Instead of making us happier and more connected, social media’s siren song—the incessant calls to digitally connect, the cultural obsession with transparency and openness, the never-ending demand to share everything about ourselves with everyone else— is, in fact, both a significant cause and effect of the increasingly vertiginous nature of twenty-first—century life.
The inconvenient truth is that social media, for all its communitarian promises, is dividing us, rather than bringing us together (p. 67)
There’s a great deal of wisdom in what Keen is saying: The overwhelming wealth of information available online lends itself to a perverse idea of obsessive over-sharing and digital exhibitionism. Ideas of transparency and openness have to be considered against the alternative of constructing a carefully limited, constructed persona online to be completely disingenuous.
Ultimately, either end of the spectrum is still driving us towards an online culture that is divided, fragmented, and essentially at odds with itself.
So what’s the middle ground? What balance can there be between honestly engaging in a rich, participatory culture online, and protecting our individual privacy and identity.
For my own part, I choose to present myself as a professional fully and absolutely online. Anything relevant to my professional development, career aspirations, and written work is funnelled into the same set of linked channels. I keep a unified identity across media platforms (@mjjfeeney on Twitter; www.mjjfeeney.com on this, my blogging domain; /mjjfeeney/ as my Facebook username etc.). Since our online identities span so many platforms today, I feel that presenting a consistent set of values and sharing limits across each platform is vital. I would hate for someone who follows me on twitter to discover this blog and be disoriented by an overabundance of personal content.
I feel that keeping this consistency about what we’re sharing—and where—is vital. What you put online will be found, no matter where you think it’s hidden away. Making sure it’s something you’d be willing to share in *any* of your other channels of communication is vital.
In 1985, Steven Brand published the now famous information doctrine Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which stipulated the unique ethos of the hacking subculture and claimed that ‘All information wants to be free’:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. (Brand, 1985, p. 49)
But, information is not made solely of ephemeral ideas; it is made of ideas and work. Sadly, I’m guilty of taking advantage of the altruism of others and exploiting that good work selfishly. Having recently explicitly examined the idea of a ‘Personal Learning Network’ (PLN) I realised that I’m a ‘drain’ on my localised PLN: I take more than I put back.
I have embedded myself in a community of people with like interests, who I make use of as a sort of social filter to hopefully reveal the most relevant information to me. I actively scour blogs, twitter feeds, and other social data to skim off the cream-of-the-crop of trends coming down in the LIS sector. But, even when I have something to contribute, I remain largely silent. I realise that this isn’t a particularly admirable state of affairs, and aim to rectify it in the coming months.
First things first, I’m going to get some fresh, original content up on this blog. I’m really fascinated by social aggregation and the transformation of controlled taxonomies into organic folksonomies, so stay tuned for some of that in the near future.
Also, I’ve started repurposing some of my writing from 2010+ on the evolution of digital publishing, price, and piracy to snazzy blog-sized chunks.
So, I come hat in hand to my PLN, offering these small morsels of content to repay the free-ride I’ve been taking so far. It’s not much, but it’s a start.