Being Ambushed by Terrell Russell

Gail Taylor told me an excellent story last Saturday that reminded me of an incident at the Internet Identity Workshop this past December. I was doing something that I am deeply opposed to — participating in a face-to-face conference without being fully present. Basically, I was sitting in the middle of the space doing work on my laptop while everyone else was participating in the conference. I felt guilty about it, but I wanted to talk to some people while they were in town, and I had a ton of work to do at the same time.    (LWP)

So I gave a talk on Identity Commons, attended a few presentations, talked to a few people, and spent the rest of my time doing my work and ignoring everyone else. It was actually quite nice. I was sitting in the middle of the large conference room at the Computer History Museum, visible to everyone, with people constantly milling around me. People who knew me stopped by to chat for a few minutes; people who didn’t just ignored me.    (LWQ)

Towards the end of the second day, I was basking in my productive anti-socialness, when a fellow who was sitting at my table started making small talk. It was harmless chatter, stuff that I could respond to while remaining focused on my work, but at some point, it felt wrong continuing to talk without introducing myself. Turns out the guy was Terrell Russell of claimID fame. I knew about claimID, but I knew nothing about Terrell. The same could not be said of him, who had known all along who I was, and who apparently follows this blog. (Hi, Terrell!)    (LWR)

That bastard must have used that knowledge against me, sharing ideas that he must have known would suck me into conversation. Either that, or he was just a nice guy who was passionate about his work. Either way, it worked. I ended up closing my laptop and having a great conversation with him.    (LWS)

What was he doing that I found so compelling? It was his Ph.D. research on Contextual Authority Tagging. The basis of the idea is simple: The best way to identify an authority on a topic is not to ask people to self-identify themselves as such, but to ask others to identify the people they consider to be the authorities. We can leverage this principle to locate expertise by building tagging systems where users tag other users with information about their expertise.    (LWT)

Terrell has thought really deeply about this, and several of his ideas are documented at his website and on his blog. Phil Windley and David Weinberger have also commented on his work.    (LWU)

I heard more original ideas about tagging in that 20 minutes of conversation than I’ve ever heard from anyone else. The one that really struck me was the notion of tag disparities: comparing what people say about you to what you say about yourself as a way of measuring reputation. Sound familiar? It’s a real-life instantiation of the Squirm Test!    (LWV)

I think there are some interesting tools that can be built on these ideas, and I have no doubt that Terrell will build them. There are also some face-to-face group exercises based on these same principles, and I’ve actually done one of them before (described below). You could also apply these ideas towards group evaluation.    (LWW)

I’ve been vividly reminded of our conversation on two occasions. The first happened later that week at the Blue Oxen Associates anniversary party. Peter Kaminski decided to do some social engineering of his own, and instead of asking people what they did, he asked them to tell him about someone else attending the party. Real-life, face-to-face, Contextual Authority Tagging! We actually did this for real at the 2005 anniversary party, where we had people literally stick name tags on other people’s back. It was an idea I stole from Chris Messina, who in turn had stolen it from a previous SuperHappyDevHouse gathering.    (LWX)

The second occasion happened this past Saturday. Gail recounted a story about a group exercise with five people, where each person was asked to write ten words that have to do with “love.” Out of the 50 total words, only three were the same! It was a stark lesson on how challenging it is to achieve Shared Understanding and how critically important Shared Language is.    (LWY)

Folksonomy Taxonomy Philosophy

I love playing The Book of Questions types of games with friends and colleagues, but when it comes to answering those types of questions myself, I’m a terrible waffler. When I play these games with my friend, Steph, she often complains scornfully, “You’re such a ‘P’.” “P” refers to the “Perceiving” Myers-Briggs personality type, which refers to folks who are highly context-sensitive (also known as “wafflers”).    (LNM)

Suffice it to say, I hate truisms (except for that one). You could even call me a “philosophical relativist,” which according to Elaine Peterson, would make me a fan of folksonomies. Also true. And in a metaphysical twist that will drive the less philosophically-inclined (and Steph) crazy, if you were to ask me if folksonomies were better than taxonomies, I would respond, “That’s not a valid question.” Folksonomies and taxonomies are not quite apples and oranges, but they’re not apples and apples either. Debating the two is intellectually interesting, but it obscures the real opportunity, which is understanding how the two could potentially augment each other.    (LNN)

The impetus for this little outburst is Gavin Clabaugh‘s recent piece on folksonomies. Gavin (who cites Peterson’s essay) argues that taxonomies are better for finding information than folksonomies. Do I agree with that? It depends. Clay Shirky outlined some situations when taxonomies are better for search and vice-versa in his excellent essay, “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags”.    (LNO)

What troubles me about the claim at all is that it highlights a distinction that I find to be misleading. In Elaine Peterson‘s essay, “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy,” the main problem she cites has to do with philosophical relativism. Folksonomies allow it; traditional classification does not.    (LNP)

What is philosophical relativism? If I show you a picture of a mono-colored object, is it possible for that object to be both black and white? If you answered yes, you’re a philosophical relativist.    (LNQ)

On the surface, “philosophical relativist” might sound like another term for “dumb as hell.” But, what if the picture was of a person? And what if that person had an African-American father and a Caucasian mother? Now is it possible to classify this photo as both “black” and “white”?    (LNR)

Language is highly context-sensitive. Philosophical relativists acknowledge this. Believe it or not, so do librarians and traditional taxonomists. A taxonomy attempts to make classification more useful by restricting the scope to a single context. If you happen to be operating within that context, then this works great. There are plenty of situations when this is the case (Gavin cites the medical community, which is a great example), but there are also plenty of situations when it’s not.    (LNS)

Folksonomies allow for multiple contexts, but that does not make them inherently less useful than taxonomies. As Clay points out in his essay, in practice, there’s a long tail of tags applied to different concepts. If something is tagged “black” by 98 people and “white” by two, you can be pretty sure that the object in question is “black.” Scale essentially transforms a folksonomy into a taxonomy with a little bit of noise that can easily be filtered out (if desired).    (LNT)

Frankly, I think the concern is less about whether taxonomies are inherently better than folksonomies and more about whether so-called experts should have a role in constructing taxonomies. Gavin also alludes to this, when he describes a conversation with two friends in a San Francisco coffee shop. (I don’t want to out those friends, but I will say that one of them runs a company named after the faithful companion of a certain oversized lumberjack from American folklore. I will also say that Gavin is an outstanding tea companion, and that we’re working on a project that has very little to do with folksonomies, but that will make the world a much better place regardless.)    (LNU)

Gavin’s friends suggested that folksonomies were a great way of collaboratively developing a taxonomy. Gavin partially agreed, but expressed some doubt, stating:    (LNV)

Rather than the wisdom of a crowd, I’d recommend the wisdom of a few experts within that crowd. In the end you’d end up with a more accurate and useful taxonomy, with half of the wasted bandwidth, and in probably a tenth of the time.    (LNW)

I can actually think of many situations where I would agree with this. One is Pandora, the music recommendation service built on top of the Music Genome Project. The Music Genome Project is a formal ontology for classifying music developed by 50 musician-analysts over seven years. By all accounts, the service is extraordinarily good. Chris Allen sang its praises to me at the last WikiWednesday, and it was all the rage at the original Bar Camp.    (LNX)

But having experts involved doesn’t preclude using a folksonomy to develop a taxonomy. Is a folksonomy developed by a small group of experts any less of a folksonomy?    (LNY)

In 2002, Kay-Yut Chen, Leslie Fine, and Bernardo Huberman developed a prediction market using Wisdom of Crowds techniques for financial forecasting of a division of HP. The market was 40 percent more accurate than the company’s official forecast. The catch? The people playing the market were the same people doing the official forecast. The difference was not in who was doing the predicting; the difference was in the process.    (LNZ)

I’m a historian by background. I have a great appreciation for the lessons of the past, which is reflected in my patterns-based approach towards improving collaboration. Five years ago, I reviewed Elaine Svenonius‘s wonderful book, The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization, where I wrote:    (LO0)

Fortunately, a small segment of our population, librarians, has been dealing with the problem of information organization since 2000 B.C. Who better to turn to in our time of need than people with thousands of years of accumulated expertise and experience?    (LO1)

There is a tremendous amount of past knowledge that I’m afraid is being passed off as trite and irrelevant, when in fact it is even more relevant today. How many people building tagging systems know about Faceted Classification? How many of these developers know of Doug Lenat‘s brilliant research on Cyc, or that a huge subset of the Cyc ontology is open source? On the flip side, how many librarians and ontologists are needlessly dismissing folksonomies as not as good, and hence irrelevant?    (LO2)

Philosophical debates over taxonomy and folksonomy are exactly that: philosophy. I love philosophy. I enjoyed Peterson’s essay, and I’d recommend it to others. Curiously enough, David Weinberger, one of folksonomy’s foremost evangelists, is also a philosopher by background. (Read his response to Peterson’s essay.)    (LO3)

However, philosophy sometimes obscures reality, or worse yet, opportunity. We should be focusing our efforts on understanding how taxonomies and folksonomies can augment each other, not on picking sides.    (LO4)

On The Clock Goofiness

At the workshop earlier this week, one woman raised concerns over whether blogging about one’s personal life at work could be considered wasting tax payer’s money. This question isn’t just limited to the government. Many companies ask similar questions about similar tools. For example, a lot of companies were reluctant to adopt IM, because they were afraid that employees would spend all their time gabbing online.    (L93)

There are three problems with this kind of thinking. First, if you’re going to waste time gabbing at work, you don’t need IM. You’ve got water coolers, cubicles, copiers, lobbies, and lunchrooms. Options for wasting time abound.    (L94)

Second, banning a tool prevents you from using it for good or for ill. You have to be rigorous in measuring tradeoffs. In the case of IM, which had legitimate business uses, people’s response to not having access to it was to download freely available software and route around the company firewall.    (L95)

Third, Taylorism is so 1911. We are people, not machines, and people sometimes need to do things like call home from work (which up until relatively recently, government employees were not allowed to do). In fact, encouraging people to feel human can even be productive! Imagine that!    (L96)

This issue came up in response to an observation I made about the importance of play. Play is critical for effective learning, and yet, it can be hard to justify play, especially to the outside world, when your job is to protect national security.    (L97)

Mark Oehlert had a wonderful response to this. There are apparently two words for “play” in German. (I know one is “Spiel.” Can someone tell me the other?) One meaning of “play” describes the looseness that allows a wheel to turn. If there isn’t enough play, the wheel won’t turn. This latter meaning of play can be easier to rationalize in the workplace.    (L98)

We panelists were slightly guilty of playing on the job. The Backchannel (strictly classified) had me cracking up more than once during the discussion. (Did you know that David Weinberger used to write for Woody Allen?) And while this was not a classified event, they asked us not to take pictures of people. This is how we chose to comply:    (L99)    (L9A)

(Photos courtesy of Jay Cross. Clay, we’re missing you. Please correct this!)    (L9B)

By the way, I agree with everything Marcia says.    (L9C)

WikiMania 2006: Quick Hits and Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Wikimania, but it felt distinctly different than last year. A big part of it was personal. The conference was held in Cambridge, my home for four years, so the location itself was familiar and uninteresting. I was only there for three days, whereas last year I came early for Hacking Days, where I had a chance to get to know people better at my leisure. I also had much more on my mind, whereas last year, I was fully present the whole time — morning, noon, and night.    (L0E)

Part of it was the conference itself. It wasn’t as international as last year, but it was still quite good — one out of four attendees were from outside of the States. There were also more visitors, folks new to Wikis who came to see what this stuff was all about. Several of these people were fairly high-level, described by Jason Calacanis as “folks who ride on the back of builders.”    (L0F)

The same held true for RecentChangesCamp earlier this year, except the spirit was quite different. There, the visitors were eager to learn and to participate, and the community embraced them. Here, many visitors stayed at arm’s length, choosing to observe from afar rather than immerse themselves in this wonderful community. At Wikimania last year, a different group of us would go out every night, laughing, sharing stories, mixing with other groups. This year, there were more clusters, more silos. I saw people — especially the visitors — sticking with the folks they knew, rather than mixing with others.    (L0G)

That is not our community’s way, and I found it mildly distressful. To some extent, it’s the price of success — especially true in the case of Wikipedia — and the result of the culture that those not acclimated to Wikis bring to the table. To a large extent, process is at fault. I find it fascinating that a community schooled in self-organization and the value of emergence continues to organize top-down gatherings. If it’s not careful, Wikimania may eventually go the way of Linux World, Comdex, and many other conferences that began as a wonderful, generative community gathering and eventually became a meeting place for fast-talking salespeople.    (L0H)

Despite my standing in the Wiki community, I’m an outsider to Wikipedia, and I only have three ways of encouraging a shift in how Wikimania operates. The first and best way is to become active in the community and in the planning of the next conference. In an alternative world, this would have already happened, but the reality is that it’s not likely. The second and worst way is to preach to the folks in the community, which I’ve been doing. I find this distasteful. It’s my personality to effect change, not to talk about it.    (L0I)

The third way is to create a space where people can learn for themselves and to catalyze that learning as much as possible. This, in a nutshell, is the purpose of Blue Oxen Associates. I’ve had some success in this area. The FLOSS Usability Sprints exposed some folks to effective collaborative processes, including one of the original Bar Camp organizers. I was then able to point to Bar Camp as a model for the RecentChangesCamp organizers, who wanted to bring Open Space to the Wiki community. Both the usability sprints and Bar Camp helped spawn DCamp, the Bar Camp for the usability community. Our “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshops have inspired a number of people to pursue similar event models.    (L0J)

In addition to helping the tech community learn about face-to-face collaborative processes, I’ve also helped other communities — from Planetwork to the World Economic Forum — learn how online collaborative spaces can complement physical ones.    (L0K)

All of this is just the start. I have bigger and better things in the works. More importantly, the meme is starting to spread. I’ve helped initiate some of this, but there are many other sparks, and others are starting to fan the flames. We will learn how to collaborate more effectively. But it will take time.    (L0L)

I’m sounding a bit ominous, and it’s an exaggeration of how I actually feel. As I said before, all in all, Wikimania was wonderful. When you bring great people together and get out of the way, great things happen. Even if there are minor obstacles, great people will find a way around them. This has held true not just for the participants at Wikimania, but for the organizers. I am amazed at the efforts, commitment, and passion of Samuel Klein, Phoebe Ayers, Delphine Menard, and the many, many others who worked ridiculously hard to make this conference happen. The whole community deserves tremendous praise. I hope it continues to do what it does well, while unabashedly exploring ways to improve.    (L0M)

One goal that the Wikimania organizers should have for next year is improving conference Wiki usage among the participants. Effective self-documentation via Wiki is a staple of Blue Oxen‘s processes, and we’ve managed to influence many others about it, including Bar Camp and the Aspiration events. But the best Wiki usage at an event I’ve ever seen was at RecentChangesCamp. The community was already steeped in Wiki culture, and the process encouraged self-documentation. The fact that neither Wikimania nor WikiSym has seen effective conference-wide usage of Wikis is an indicator that something is blocking the community’s natural instincts. It’s also a lost opportunity, as those who attend the conference seeking to learn about Wikis miss out on the chance to experience them first-hand.    (L0N)

Quick Hits    (L0O)

  • I was amazed at the number of speakers who exclaimed how honored they were to be there. Some of them were merely experiencing the euphoria of speaking at a gathering of their peers for the first time. Others were hardened veterans of the speaking circuit, including Yochai Benkler and David Weinberger. Yochai even interrupted his traditional two months beach getaway to speak at the conference.    (L0P)
  • Speaking of David Weinberger, I saw him talk for the first time, and now I know what the fuss is about. He’s a wonderful speaker — self-deprecating, sharp wit, great sense of humor, and very thoughtful. He did a Monty Python-like parody of Lawrence Lessig‘s presentation-style that had the entire audience rolling with laughter, and he managed to slip in references to Hegel and Heidegger without sounding pretentious. But I had two beefs with his talk. (Boy, I’m just Mr. Negativity today.) First, he disputed the notion that knowledge is just in people’s head, citing all the knowledge associated with the artifacts that surround us. I understand the point he was trying to make, but I didn’t like how he made it. Artifacts are not knowledge. I generally find myself taking the exact opposite stance as Weinberger — emphasizing that knowledge is in our heads, because it stresses the human element we so often forget when we think about our relationship to knowledge. Second, he made a hypothesis about Wikipedia editing behavior that practically everybody in the room knew was wrong. He admitted that he was speculating, and gracefully acknowledged his error when informed of it, but he never should have made that mistake in the first place. There were many people he could have simply asked before making such a claim.    (L0Q)
  • The best talk from someone I had never heard of was by Seth Anthony, who spoke about Wikipedia editing patterns. See Ross Mayfield‘s notes for a summary.    (L0R)
  • Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, the IBM researchers who created History Flow, gave an outstanding talk where they demonstrated some new visualizations of Wiki usage. Some of those visualizations are available in my Flickr collection. I particularly found their visualizations of user behavior interesting, because of past suggestions that such visualizations could be a powerful way to help casual readers determine reputations. The biggest obstacle (besides the computing power required to generate these visualizations)? Privacy. Even though these visualizations were based on public data, that does not automatically make it okay to make those visualizations available. Witness AOL’s recent fiasco (and read Tom Maddox‘s commentary).    (L0S)
  • I caught up with Denny Vrandecic towards the end of the conference, and I’m glad I did. He gave me an in-depth demo of Semantic MediaWiki, which he had first proposed (but had not coded) at last year’s Wikimania. The notion of encoding link types in Wikis is not new, but up until I saw the Semantic Mediawiki, the best implementation I had seen was Evan Prodromou‘s WikiTravel. I think the Semantic Mediawiki is a better approach. It’s less expressive than WikiTravel, but more likely to be widely adopted. I plan on experimenting with it and incorporating some of its capabilities into my own Wikis.    (L0T)