The dynamics of ridiculously easy group-forming
Very interesting exchange between David Sifry and Gary Lawrence Murphy on what happens when everyone is empowered to create open channels where any blogger can contribute content. (I believe the Internet Topic Exchange is the first implementation of that idea.)
What Gary writes is similar to the (private) reasoning that led me to decide that the ridiculously easy group-forming idea was probably worth an experiment or two.
But here again, people are driven by two competing objectives, one to be uniquely differentiated, the other to be found in a group, so as these top topics grow to unmanageable size (themselves flatten out), people will fork them, recursively repeating the top-level problem, eventually moving into a deeper hierarchy they see as still likely to attract those who got as far as that hot topic just above them. In the long run, chaos will anneal to a solution.
Ditto for the synonym problem: If two directories have lexically different topics that are similar, and both directories grow in popularity, it won't take long before people learn of the other and double-classify their blog into both taxonomies ... and by being present in both, they inadvertently create the needed bubble bridge our spider robots can use to suss out the semantic relationship.
Why didn't this happen with the Meta tags? Simple: There was no feedback. No vehicles grew up to take advantage of any of those meta tags (except description being used for bookmarks) and as a result (except for description) no one really took them seriously.
I'm really happy that Gary should put on his systems thinking had and bring up feedback again. I believe the issue of feedback is quite fundamental and deserves more attention than it generally gets right now. For instance, I doubt blogging would have taken off nearly as fast as it did had it not been for the availability of referer data, which effectively closes the loop between writing and perceiving an effect and is a great source of reinforcement.
In a recent short piece called "Towards Structured Blogging" I speculated that designing with feedback in mind - that is, being careful to harmoniously mesh the "publish" and "subscribe" activities - might help build community and at the same time drive people to author metadata.
Yes, open channels do get polluted. The issue is, should we filter them? If so, how? Here are my quick observations on this, which I hope to be able to expand upon sometime:
- It is always possible to keep the raw feed accessible in case anyone wants to know what they're missing by following a filtered feed.
- Filtered feeds are derived products of raw feeds. As nobody owns the raw feed, everybody can use it, and anybody can improve it, an arbitrary number of filtered versions may coexist. They will compete against one another (and against the original feed) for readers.
- Filtering can be done by a single person, a group, a software entity, or a mix of those.
- The simplest filtering method is for a single person to appoint herself as an editor and select posts for inclusion in a derivative feed. The load could also be distributed across a group. This is akin to moderation in a mailing list - except that there can be as many moderator slots as there are people who are willing to moderate.
- Given that we now have tools like the blogging ecosystem and Technorati that give a rough measure of how many people "trust" sources, a potentially worthwhile and completely automated filtering method would consist in the following. First, the reader requests a certain "reputation rank" threshold (say, 10 inbound blogs). Then the system simply culls out posts whose sources fail to meet the threshold from the raw feed. The decision of where to set the threshold is up to the reader, who can check out what he's missing by selecting a different threshold.
- Different individuals will want to adopt different filtering behaviors, depending on the throughput of a given raw feed, how much time they have on their hands, and their degree of interest in the topic at hand.
- In a loosely joined group, the fragmentation resulting from the fact that no two people experience the feed in the exact same way might not be something to worry about. No two people even experience an identical feed in the same way, anyways.