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The Vision Thing: 10 Reasons I Hate Where the Web is At

It’s no secret that recently I’ve felt a general sense of fatigue at the Web. I don’t know if it’s the Web’s fault, we’re both getting older and, well, people change. I’m just not sure my old friend knows what it’s changing in to. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve not fallen out, indeed deep down I have high hopes we can work things out, but I can no longer keep my feelings in the dark.

I’m not the first, in fact this post was inspired by the ever-enlightening Paul Robinson; and it follows a few days of similar posts (like Jeff Nolan). Oh and I lied about the “10 reasons”… you shouldn’t feel cheated, this is apparently the language of the Web (take solace in the fact this post iz not written by mai kitten for ur cheezburger).

As a foreword, when I talk about my friend the Web I really mean the opportunity it represents. The new types of business, new ways of connecting wtih people, new ways of viewing and understanding the world, new kinds of leisure pursuits… heck, even interesting advances in technology itself. All the things that appear to be moving closer, but feel like they’re moving further away.

So where did it begin?
My initial disallusionment began sometime in Q3 2007, and is an underlying reason I dropped out of Meecard, my startup dedicated - ostensibly enough - to helping freelancers, but which was rapidly failing to address the hard problems and instead started to fall into the trivial. I think Meecard was a tiny - but clear - representative of the bigger changes that are happening around us.

The Lull

There is a sense we’ve peaked on the growth curve that grew out of the last dot bomb crash. As a utility, Flickr was the first great hope, and Flickr is now mature. As a trend, blogging was the biggest, and blogging is now mature (worse, it’s consolidating into big money media). The excitement was justified - we’ve achieved great things with communication - but it has now gone.

What new ideas do we have to look forward to? RWW - among others - look toward the ’semantic web’ and ‘mobile’. Sound familiar? It’s the same story we’ve heard for the last few years, and the time still isn’t right (although bless you iPhone, you’ve just about made mobile realistic).

Web 2.0’s great success is in the reduction of cost, which means many more people can get involved. So competition is up, but you can’t solve the big problems on a shoe string, so purpose is down. Inspired by TechCrunch and Google, we’ve created a world where people are intensely competing to produce frothy fluff. Who’s winning? No one.

So the excitement has been drained, there’s nothing on the horizon, and our once passionate community is broken by greed and competitiveness. It turns out the problems don’t stop there, as we are realising the things we thought were important - and I’m looking at you AJAX - are in hindsight actually a huge step backward. In the race to move to cloud based services (a ‘good thing’), we’ve caused ourselves and our consumers immense pain trying to replicate the desktop experience with broken technology. I.e. all that effort and we have user interfaces that move us back over a decade.

The devil is in the details. The feeling that progress is somehow slowing is increased by simply ‘making stuff’. On paper, it’s easy to say “the Web will change the world”, but the more you try, the less clear the picture gets. Hope and belief wanes as realistic cynicsm sets in. This isn’t helped by us being at the point of the timeline where the big experiments of ‘05 and ‘06 are now having to prove themselves, and many are failing.

We’ve made identifying the ‘next big thing’ even harder by never truly defining what ‘this thing’ is. We call our time “Web 2.0″, but no two people can agree on exactly what that is. For me, it’s the transformation of the Web into a two-way communication medium (cloud services, AJAX, RSS, social networks, etc. etc. are all just technical manifestations of this). Without a collective understanding of where we are; we cannot attain the closure we need to move on.

The Loss of Purpose

The Web we have created is chaotic. That in itself is a beautiful thing, because it’s a mechanical manifestation of us. But it’s also hard. We either solve easy problems (reducing friendships to button clicks, turning desktop apps into distinctly shitter web apps, aggregating aggregators) or the hard problems (making sense of all this chaotic data, transforming how we interact with it). For the millions of startups on shoestring budgets, that’s not actually a choice.

Worse, there is no actual demand for the hard stuff. Joe Bloggs has been conditioned to using a single white text box to use t’internet. Anything more complex and the fear of the unknown outweighs the promise of any benefit (Twine, bless you, you tried - you really did).

Small budgets, loss of direction and a lack of demand is reducing us to incremental evolution. We are creating cheap, easy solutions that solve simplistic consumer problems; and somehow justifying them as the Second Coming. I’m looking at you Slide, with your $500 million valuation; and don’t even try & hide Facebook, we all know you think you’re worth more than Ford (that little company that actually makes some stuff).

Ironically, this lapse into incremental evolution is self fulfilling. We on the bleeding edge are effectively just making it sharper, and in the process further distancing ourselves from the mainstream (and I’ve been as guilty as the next bloke…). This creates an echo chamber, where only other occupants of the bleeding edge are talking/regurgitating; whipping up more enthusiasm for the aimless evolution. More disconcertingly from the POV of our well-being, this disconnect from reality creates an unpleasant sensation that what we do doesn’t actually matter to our friends and peers; and the truth is, it doesn’t.

How can we actually be accelerating the number of startups and products when apparently there is no real purpose? Money, or rather, the promise of money. The advances of Web 2.0 toward democratic hyper communication (another ‘good thing’ - kind of) mean that everyone knows about the success stories, and everyone thinks it’s easy, and so they too can get involved. We’re creating nothing of significant value and yet we’re trying to profit wildly from it (and if that sounds familiar, just think ’sub prime mortgage’).

This is more personal, but I sense the continued movement of society towards out & out greed, individualism, rat racing, imminent economic implosion, etc. is a further niggle on people’s minds (especially, I suspect, geeks who are naturally sensitive to such things). In practical terms, this means that when the ‘work’ is grinding you down, there’s no ‘life’ to restore your happiness. I.e. we’re losing our support structure just at the time we need it.

The Hope
This is a brazenly harsh and negative post, a ‘fuck you’ to the zeitgeist. But it’s also an afront my optimistic nature. If it wasn’t, I’d quit. In truth, I firmly believe all the things the Web promises are doable, and hugely exciting. We just need to step back (or have the froth of Web 2.0 burn itself off - I don’t care which comes first) and re-focus on the bigger pictures.

Web 2.0 has done wondrous things. It’s transformed computing into a user-centric two-way social medium, and transformed business into something truly warm and responsive to the needs of customers.
But it’s still only doing this in any significant way for geek-culture (I particularly love Upcoming and Twitter as mechanisms to unite a previously ‘anti-social’ section of society), and only in a handful of cases for the consumer mainstream (Facebook, MySpace). Really we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. For one, someone needs to bring it to the enterprise - the huge volume of people who really need it. Enterprise suffers with a perception problem, nothing more - blow away the dust and the big monolithic systems; and you have something that will suddenly blossom and emit intense beautiful light ;)

I make a great play of the cruelty of a loss of direction. Maybe we’re simply consolidating. We can’t know what era we’re in until it has passed. I am quietly hopeful that the valuable things will consolidate, the shit will evaporate, new foundations will be laid, and the free thinkers will be released to once again do their thing (including those bright young things currently trapped in formal education).

When we finally stop chasing vampires and spiralling into ever more geek-niche territories - i.e. when we pull our collective head out of our collective arse - we will see the big, important and blissfully meaningful problems we can tackle. The economy/recession/poverty, global and personal empathy, 3rd world health, education for all who want it, personal happiness/stress - the usual suspects ;) We’ll have to change how we work, more collaboration, a return to intelligent/hard problem solving, and greater ties between the Web 2.0 enclaves and the mainstream; but that is all part of the great challenge. Maybe the Web isn’t so bad after all.

In his original post, Paul Robinson asked this be tagged ‘thevisionthing’ and passed onto 5 other people (of which I’m gate crashing!). Like Paul, I’m not optimistic this is a worthy of a meme (or even if that wouldn’t cause some kind of fundamental dichotomy), but the people I respect and whose opinion I’d love to hear on this are, James McCarthy, Stuart Gray, Peter Cooper and Thomas Vander Wal (and if it isn’t too conflicting with a Startup Clinic - or even if it is - Ryan Carson).

Update 28/03/2008
In my rant about taking the easy road - solving the easy consumer problems - I overlooked an alternate viewpoint of the world we’ve created. In giving up trying to create hard algorithms to crunch our problems, we’ve resorted to just using people (user-generated content - e.g. people doing all the filtering on Digg). In other words we’ve inadvertently transformed the first-world populance into some kind of giant Mechanical Turk. But then Wikipedia is a genuine generational phenomenon, so I’m not really sure this is actually a problem… ;)

Citations (as linked) and Loganix.


Forget Social Networks, I want a Community Network

I previously went into a little detail about why I like Northpack so much. As a very quick recap, Northpack is possibly the first well made geographically-orientated blog aggregator (certainly the first I’ve been part of), and I have been very charmed by its existence.

I began musing what I’d like to see Northpack do next, but to be honest, I’m content with a utility that just visualises the discussion going on around me. Perhaps it would be nice to see more focus on the people behind the discussion, and the events that are happening - and neatly tying that all together, but really there is little more expansion that appeals to me.

It then struck me as a shame if Northpack could not be shared with people outside our region. I choose those words carefully, because it is imperative to me that Northpack does not become inundated with ‘noise’ - spam or blogs from people not within a short drive (that would undermine the point & the magic). The only realistic option is to white label the product, so each region can have its own community represented.

However, white-labelling felt somehow restricted. As if the bigger picture - or at least a bigger opportunity for fulfilment - was being overlooked. Then it struck me, I wanted to see a joined up network of communities: a community network.

The motivation is that I like the local factor. I like the little hub of activity, with its own unique interests and players, and I like the self-containment and self-management of that. But, the reality is I travel all over the UK and I have friends and colleagues all over the UK, and so I want to see what is going on in their communities (and I suspect many of us are like that). But crucially, I want that small community feel to remain intact. I want to ‘dip into’ the communities.

At the end of my working day, I want to be able to virtually fly around the UK. I want to see what issues have affected the different communities, what events have been going on, what interesting things are happening.

More practically, if I’m about to travel somewhere, I want to be able to immerse myself in that community before I arrive. I want to understand what has been going on there, who are the people I should be making an effort to get to know, what events will be going on when I arrive, what interests people and what conversations do people enjoy. It would be almost like someone giving me a unique local information pack when I arrive at the city gates.

Visually, I imagine a large Google Map of the country, and I can click on a city, and a HUD will be displayed showing recent blogs, recent chatter (Twitter), and the events that are going in. If the community network is sophisticated, it’ll highlight which of those blogs, tweets and events my friends have written or will be attending. I will have a ‘news stream’, where I’ve given it several locations (my home, places I work, etc.), and it’ll tune the feed of blogs/tweets/events to things within a 20 mile radius of each location (and perhaps I can define the strength of each location to determine how many updates I want from there).

From a financial and management perspective, the technology can be centrally managed, but each community needs to represent itself. So, a handful of local socialites in each city/region create a community, spread the word, manage the events and filter the quality. Revenue wise, the system can make money promoting local news, services and events, with the community network owner taking a cut, and the rest going to the local representatives.

At a high level, it bridges the gap between existing local ties and the global nature of the Web. It heightens an individual’s sense of community, without the community itself feeling isolated from the rest of the country/world. It allows an individual’s output to find a new and appreciative audience, without being instantly lost in the noise of the global players. It feels like something that is missing from the Web, something that is not currently being fulfilled. I want it.


Northpack: The Local Blog Aggregator, Is Global Passe?

Northpack - a geographic community based blog aggregator for the North of England - is proving that local opinion is a powerful attraction, flying in the face of the zeitgeist that “global is good”.

To clarify, local is also in vogue, but only where it directly represents ‘things’ - Craigslist for exchange and jobs, Yell/Yelp for local listings. I don’t want to generalise too greatly, but there is a trend - especially amongst libertarian-orientated geeks - to eschew national borders where possible. Nowhere is this more greatly felt than the exchange of ideas. The notion that someone should restrict communication to something so arbitary as where you happen to live is, on the surface, almost offensive.

So, when Northpack sprang up in my neck of the woods, I saw that the idea would help create a sense of community, but I didn’t actually think it would be interesting. In other words, I supported the idea but wasn’t particularly excited about the reality. Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt increasingly compelled to blog about this new sensation: I’m drawn to checking Northpack whenever I check Techmeme (the day’s global cream of news stories), the micro with the macro.

Why is Northpack compelling to me? Is it that we’ve hit upon some previously unknown seam of talent? Frankly, no (and I include myself in that). Then where is the draw of a local blog aggregator?

  • Most importantly, there is a sense you can reach out and touch the author. We might never otherwise cross paths at an event, or I might never find out where our shared viewpoints over a short chat, but blogs give us a greater opportunity to understand who someone is. What matters is that I can then intentionally seek that person out at the next event. And even more importantly, there isn’t the sense that you’re hassling them (like, say, if you were to approach Mike Arrington), because they’re local, they’re like you.
  • Your voice can be heard. Blogs are heavily subject to the power law curve, where the top 1% of blogs get all the traffic. First, with an aggregator you’re only as good as your next headline, so everyone has equal chance. Second, you’re not competing against the profilic output of the commercial blogs; you don’t need to fight (too hard) to be seen. This all culminates in a sense of community. Previously, your blog might not have got traffic, but now you’re participating and conversing with people you either know or could easily meet.
  • Finally, you can get a sense of important issues to those around you. Similar to Twitter, you can passively intake hot topics from the headlines that float passed you. This can be the basis for future conversations, either in your own output or flowing back into the events you attend.

What kind of blog posts work? This is likely to be the most personal aspect of this post. For me, I’m not so interested in reading generic general guides (e.g. CSS techniques, IE tips) - I generally go to the source with the global reputation for that. I do enjoy the opinion of my peers on global issues, I like posts that are truly unique to things in the region, and as an extension to that, I like to hear about personal & business successes (and failures if properly reported) in the region - because somehow that is more empowering.

Why does it need a specific aggregator? Why not just meet people and add their blog to your reader?
Because time is precious. The local reading list is probably not on par with the globally-competitive output you subscribe too. I’ve certainly never felt compelled to check out someone’s blog, even if it’s on their business card. And, I don’t want the overhead of discerning what is local and what is global when I’m scanning my Google Reader. Finally, I don’t want the burden of manually adding people’s blogs. I like my local output to be self-contained and self-managing, so I can dip into it when I feel like it.

I also love the idea that I could travel around the country (or the world), and ‘dip into’ different communities as I arrive in them. So I could go into leedspack, then birminghampack, then brightonpack, etc., picking up a sense of the community I’ve just entered, and discovering the people to make my first introductions to.


By intent or by accident, Northpack has - and is the first to my knowledge to do so - shown that a local blog aggregator is an important concept in its own right. I hope the Northpack people seize the opportunity.

(I went to elaborate on what I like and what I’d like to see in a new post, Forget Social Networks, I want a Community Network)

1 comment

The World in My Living Room

Having just come away from Barcamp Cambridge - a distinctly different flavour to existing Barcamps (heavily science/hardware influenced - and more interesting for it) - I’ve been left with one simple but immensely appealing idea.

Simon Ford had presented a microcontroller that can be easily customised and hooked to the Web; which opened up a discussion on the possibilities that it could achieve.

We hit upon a digital photo frame - the ones that show a slideshow of digital images in your living room - hooked into the Web, specifically to an RSS feed of images.
The most delightful use-case was to be able to see the pictures your friends are taking, as they are taken, beamed into your living room; via a service like Flickr. This would be great for anyone, but I can really imagine a more senior family member appreciating it - someone who may not want to use a computer but does want to be kept in the loop of family activities.

Taking the idea to its extreme, you could even have a simple two buttoned device to go with it - a red and green button - for a HotOrNot style service. Only rather than rating beauty, you’d just rate your appreciation.
So, red would ensure you don’t see the image again; and green would increase the chance of your social group seeing the image; a kind of collaborative filter (like a Digg for photos, just without the cumbersome Web interface).

How would you sell it?
A good strategy to strike a deal with Flickr/Zoomr/Facebook type services to promote the product on their sites; as that would be targetting customers that can immediately use it (as opposed to buying the product, then having to signup and learn a new Web service). A mail order service is also far more in the reach of a startup than existing retail channels.
Once these ‘early adopters’ have it (even though the Flickr community runs into a healthy tens of millions size userbase), they can give it the credibility to spread into the mainstream. In particular, for family members who may not yet be very Web20, it would make sense as a gift item (”here grandma, use this and see my photos” - perhaps with some tag filtering…).


* Update 29/08/2007

Although this would complicate such a beautifully simple product; there is a lot of very cool stuff that can be done, right now, in this space.

For instance, it could be an all in one ‘Family-O-Scope’ or ‘Friend-O-Scope’, that beams the latest (public) happenings of loved ones into your living room.
So, you’d see new pictures, film reviews, events that are connected with your friends as beautifully rendered ’slides’ of information, with an overlay of that person’s face. If you want, you can zoom in on that person - e.g. to render their Meecard - to get a general overview of what they’re doing.

Even more emotive would be a world map view; where people’s locations are mapped out; and the latest occurences, geographically, ‘pop’ into view as they happen. E.g. a friend travelling in Nepal takes a photo, and it ‘pops’ up over Nepal in my living room map.

Market-wise, it would be the appeal of something like the Facebook news stream, but on a mega-mainstream scale. Crucially, it does not require the product-owner to be active in creating content; just the people they know (and it seems all of the younger generation do this naturally). The challenges are making it attractive, making it easy, and stripping out the noise. I mention noise because right now, I feel the Facebook stream alone is a little overwhelming, and I don’t want that same attention-stress carried over into the more peaceful areas of my house. Such a product must be ’serene’.

This would represent a much bigger user-experience challenge than the original photo frame, but it’s broadly the same concept. Anything that is friend/family orientated deserves not to be cocooned in your computer.


A Better Approach to Vertical Search

One idea has been circling the back of my head for nigh-on a year, but I know I’ll never have time to act upon it. So it is shared here in the hope that some other talented type might run with it.

Very briefly, it’s a browser extension that hijacks the searches you do at individual websites to provide highly focused results drawn from many sources; opening up an exciting new type of search.

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A Better Child Protection Extension for the ‘Grey Web’

Glaxstar have officially announced TGW, a Firefox plugin that allows parents to control what their children do online, and to extend those capabilities as the child gets older.

Sam’s post can be found at Glaxstar launches child friendly browser plugin and Om’s at Building a Safer Web with GBrowser.

The Glaxstar plugin restricts Firefox, and allows parents to remotely moderate their child’s requests to view a page. In addition, it has global trust lists, and a mini social network of its own, that allows a parent to share their child’s sites with other parents.

Meanwhile, Paul over at Segala is building Content Labels, a mechanism for a site to be validated and given a certificate that reveals who it is suitable for. The site itself reveals this certificate. This is both an interesting and scaleable approach.

Now, what’s the point?
Glaxstar is advancing an immature market, and will surely gain market share. However, by and large the market is still primitive. It’s “good sites” and “bad sites”, black and white. Last time I checked, the Web was grey (go to Google and search ‘beaver’… you may find a cute river-dwelling mammal with a passion for construction… or something equally furry but a little more, erm, well, you’d be surprised to find one building dams).

These extensions should allow restricted access to sites; depending on the profile of the user. This is something that has been tried before, but always on a site by site basis: a policy that is confusing, hard work and destined to not scale (so I’ve got a suitability profile at Google, but what about at BBC News?).

The ’standard’ would be built around two concepts, ‘content’ and ‘actions’.

  • ‘Content’ would be in manageable chunks, think blog posts in a page. The extension would define the content suitable for the current user, and the site would make it trivial for the extension to omit unsuitable chunks of content from the page.
  • ‘Actions’ would be things like ‘Add a friend’ or ‘Post a message’. This is potentially hazardous to a child’s safety. The extension would automatically inhibit the action, and send it to the parent to be moderated. If the parent approves, the action is completed.
    In both cases, all the sites would be doing is added a little bit of markup, or perhaps special URLs, that the extension can interact with.

Yeah, but that sounds like work. Why would my site bother?
Largely it comes down to this, parents are getting more savvy. You can either be blocked, or you can participate.
More subtley…

  • Your site might largely target older teens, and therefore be deemed unsuitable for a younger child. But what if you want some parts of your site to appeal to younger children (and their parent’s wallet)? It’s much less work to just maintain one site, but let it be ‘trimmed’ by this extension to make it safe for the younger audience.
  • Similarly, you no longer have to design, implement, test (and use to confuse) your own parential child locks at your site.
  • It is excellent PR. You are seen to be participating in being child safe.
  • As Glaxstar is already doing, you can be ‘rewarded’ for participation by inclusion in the white lists. So, parent Jon whitelists your site, and parents Phil, Marie & Jane see your site and start using it. It’s natural promotion.
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Numb Nets: Can a Social Network Destroy My Relationships?

The current crop of social networks are failing. They are not compelling enough to make us use them to their full potential; because they can neither convey nor stir emotion.
(Note: This is really about true ’social life’ services, rather than utility services like LinkedIn)

And that seems strange, given most social networks represent my friends and relationships: the basis for most of our emotions and activities.
The best effort in this field, Facebook, leaves me numb. It reduces friendships to lists and statistics. It can even induce guilt, by encouraging you to look at photo’s of which you had no part. The computer strips friends of their personality, to the point that you no longer associate their social network representation with a real person. They become little more than virtual possessions.

Of course, this largely only affects friends that you cannot see so often.
But that opposes the true benefit of social networks: that they maintain ties with people irrespective of geography or time; reminding you of the good old days, and helping facilitate future events.

For a social network to succeed at doing this, all your friends and peers must utilise it whole-heartedly. And for that to happen, it must be compelling.

What would make me want to use a social network?

  • The Human Touch
    A social network is nothing but a collection of people, and it should never let you forget that. I want easy interaction - the definition of human - via inbuilt instant messaging and email. I want ‘impact’, I want it to evoke strong emotions about people in my network. That means not just photos and stories, but video, music and audio. I also want spontaneity, but social networks discourage this. They permanently store everything, forcing you to think about the impact of what you say. Such whimsical thought is a core part of the human touch.
  • Remembering Society
    We tend to naturally filter; either as a defence mechanism or a bonding mechanism. All contacts are not equal. We meet and get on with many people, but tend to compartmentalise them into manageable groups. Social networks are not good at this.
    I hesitate to post comments to Facebook, as it will be made public to all my contacts, whereas it will only be appreciated by a small group (and may even be offensive to others). Groups also strengthen bonds; a photo that can be seen by everyone is impersonal, whereas a photo that is only available to a select few is a meaningful token.
    There is also a question of your entitlement to participate. If you’re invited to read someone’s story, or to see their photo, you relish it. If you merely stumble upon it, you no longer feel a part of it. You become disconnected. (Note: that does not mean you should ‘invite’ individuals - simply allowing only some groups access has the same ‘validating’ effect).

Enough high-level, what sort of features would that make?
(This is not an exhaustive list, the devil is always in the details…)

  • Seamlessly provide rich media
    Text and photos do not have sufficient impact. People should be encouraged to share videos of events, music that captured a mood, and personal touches, like a voice message. Combinations, such as music over video, have even greater effect. When a person is mentioned, this media should be presented as a montage to evoke strong memories of your relationship with them.
  • Inbuilt interactivity
    Currently Facebook will not let me instant-message my friends, nor will it let me easily communicate with them through GTalk, AIM or MSN. This dehumanises your network, but also misses another important element: instant messaging is private, allowing a far more relaxed and natural conversation than public comments.
  • Automatically pull people around ‘things’
    For photos/music/videos/etc., a social network should pull in everyone that is mentioned. E.g., if an instant-message conversation is started, and ‘Tom’ is mentioned, then Tom’s photo should appear, and he may be invited to join in.
  • Encourage expression and spontaneity
    Twitter excels in capturing the offbeat, largely by accepting input from wherever you happen to be (your browser, your instant messenger and your mobile phone). More importantly, it is the personal stories and how ‘things’ make people feel (e.g. an old photo) that are truly relevant. By this point, you’re no longer reminiscing known facts, you are sharing new emotions and redefining relationships.
  • Promote new relationships between strangers, based on a human connection
    A good example being where two strangers are in the same photo, as they clearly move in similar groups.

Most importantly, I want a social network to augment my life; not to be a second life which needs maintaining through the artificial realm of my computer. In fact I want to forget my computer is there. I simply want the most minimal barrier possible between me, and the things that matter (friends and peers).

Update 04/03/2008
In the last year Facebook has come a long way. Either that or I’ve changed my expectations of it. I now infrequently check it to see news, photos & videos of friends; and more often, social events - and that satisfies me. Of course, with the introduction of Facebook Apps (after this post was originally written), Facebook has diluted from a pure representation of friends to something very noisy, but Apps now seem to have fallen from grace, and it’s returning to a more useable environment.

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Exploiting Community Knowledge in Digg (Update: Riff on BBC News too)

Ostensibly, this is a Digg Vs. Slashdot post… simply, Digg has poor comments, and Slashdot has interesting ones.

Digg is back under the radar following Kevin Rose’s OpenID announcement at FOWA. What struck me was that Kevin seemed like a genuinely community minded guy. He was very polite to everyone he came across; and seemed to genuinely love bringing people together.
In the new Web, community is business.

So what’s the problem? Digg has a generic audience. Slashdot is the hardcore geeks.
As Yahoo Answers has shown, there is both demand and value in people sharing knowledge in a useable way. On Slashdot, in times gone by, it was a great place to gain insights into trends and demands in the tech business world. You could quite literally define a business from what people openly contributed in the comments.
As Digg gained popularity, people have migrated from Slashdot… only their comments have not followed.

The solution? To visually recreate the sub-communities within Digg.
For any post, I envisage entrepreneurs wishing to discuss it, as well as developers, marketeers and many others (e.g. doctors).
Lets say I classify myself as ‘entrepreneur’… for any post, I will see other comments by fellow entrepreneurs with bigger text and a different colour. It means I can read a continuous ‘entrepreneur’ conversation; without losing the diversity of other comments.
With these more focused sub-communities, I feel a greater sense of belonging, and thus more inclined to to contribute. I also feel that my comments are likely to connect with like-minded people (and not just the ‘Digg idiots’). All in all, it is encouraging both more comments, and deeper comments.

The value? For Digg it means I am more likely to use it, and it can further solidify it’s “pro community” boast. For me, I can bounce ideas with like-minded people on current topics. And for the industry, it is fostering open collaboration, reducing network barriers, identifying new trends, and highlighting problems that need to be solved.

(As an aside, this is yet another good way to distill the news - by leveraging that implicit data: if you’ve called yourself an ‘entrepeneur’, then you can opt to see mostly posts that have a lot of comments by fellow ‘entrepreneurs’.)

Update 04/03/2008
This post now seems laughable, largely because Digg has become a teen hangout and as such, has suffered an exodus of everyone else (Reddit seems to have taken something of Digg’s former clientelle). It’s not black & white, but it’s clear community demographic has played a part in its downfall.

Update 06/03/2008
In writing this, it is perhaps wrong to focus on Digg. I see this being important for many commenting systems. It is a way of taming the overload. For instance, suppose BBC News were to allow people to comment on the day’s stories. It’s a compelling ability: people like to debate the news. The problem is that BBC New’s readership is so high that any comments would soon become a mob-like mass of screaming voices and ultimately, useless. However, if it could be split down into demographics - age, location, interests, then people could debate in a much smaller group that they are more comfortable participating in (with some random cross pollination of demographics for good measure, so the gene pool doesn’t become too similar).

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