Friday, May 31, 2002

Village shops in BlogSpace

As I mentioned in my previous posting I have been asked to explain what the idea I am advocating is going to be useful to people.  At first it seems an easy question to answer, but it quickly gets complicated.  Here is a digest of some of my thoughts.

I guess that like most people who have just come to weblogging I am not part of the weblogging establishment.  More importantly to me, I am also not part of an established community.  Although I have found lots of people talking about lots of interesting things, I do not perceive them as the coherent community that I am looking to participate in.

This is a big problem for me and, I guess, a lot of other people too.  My evidence for this comes from the enthusiam to build and existence of tools such as BlogDex and from the work of people such as DJ Adams (using Blogdex to connect blogs), Mark Pilgrim (using Google to do same) and others.   So far as I can tell these proto-tools are addressing the problem of how to find existing communities.  I am also interested in how to form new communities as well.

I think these are two important factors in the development of a community:

  • a shared set of interests
  • a common identity

At the moment I read a number of blogs from people such as Dave Winer, Jon Udell, Adam Curry and so on.  At one level I could consider these people to be the community of webloggers.  However, as I mention above, this seems to me to be too big and fuzzy a grouping to be usefully considered my community.

This is because our interests do not align strongly enough and I do not identify with them as a whole.  As an example:  I read Dave Winer's blog and follow up many of his links however I do not identify with him any more than I identify with, say, Bob Lewis (an InfoWorld columnist whose opinion's I respect & enjoy).

Clearly in forming the notion of community there is a sense of how strongly related our interests are and how closely we identify with one another and the group as a whole.  I think it is interesting that many of the tools being proposed at the moment invoke the concept of neighbourhood even as the idea of neighbours is an ever fainter one in real life.  However this brings up another point which I'll illustrate with two examples.

A recent BBC Radio 4 program detailed the efforts of one small village in England to save their local village shop which was closing because it was unprofitable.   If villagers only saw the shop as a convenient place to pick up a can of beans then they probably wouldn't have protested too much, I suspect that many of the shops inherent problems were caused by the migration of its customers to supermarkets.  So why did they find thousands of pounds of their own money and fight for thousands more from the government?

They realised that beyond being a convenient facility the shop provided a focal point for the community.  A convenient meeting place where villagers could catch up with each other and share gossip.  They realised that without this focal point their community would be damaged in ways that were unacceptable to them.

On the web bulletin boards often serve this purpose although the very thing that makes them powerful (removing geography as a barrier to membership) is also, too often, their downfall as they become overcrowded and diluted.  However in a democratised publishing environment it is inevitable that there is not going to be a single source on any topic.  People are going to disagree, or just want to say it there way.  That's as it should be.

One way the web has found to cope with this problem in general it to create web rings.  A web ring is a way of linking up a number of web sites that are related by a common theme or interest.  Any visitor to one of these sites can follow the ring to see other related sites.  By joining the ring a site is explicitly making itself part of a community.

Powerful as web rings are they have these problems:

  • as a consumer how do I find sites that aren't in the ring
  • as a publisher do I know there is a ring / have I done what is necessary to join it

Any procedure that requires strong manual intervention on the part of either party is never going to be effective for wide spread use.  Is webring usage still growing?

One thing that these examples demonstrate to me is the value of focus to a community.  Interestly this ties back to my original problem.  I do not have a home community because I have not yet found (or formed if it doesn't exist) the focus for the community I think I would like to be a member of.

So one way of tackling this problem is to make it easier for people to define and/or find a community focal point.  In this case a weblog focal point.

One way would be to simply create web-rings for blogs.  I'm interested in Java so I create a javablog webring and invite others to join in.  This might be interesting but it misses an essential part of weblogging.  Specifically it misses the timely nature of blogs.  It also requires me to say that my blog is about... when in fact no such simple categorization is possible.  So then, what we are talking about is a dynamic ontology.

I would coin the term BlogRing for this, but it's already been coined.  Although in the context in which I am talking, they are misnamed since these are just a directory of plain 'ol web rings ala   Instead I will call what I am suggesting a BlogPlex.

It is my belief that people online, as in daily life, naturally want to form communities and that, where they do not/can not, it is because of a failure of available tools to help them.  Therefore any tool that seeks to address this problem must be:

  • as invisible as possible
  • capable of producing relevant results in a timely fashion

This last point is a little bit obvious but I raise it because it is interesting to understand how we make results relevant.  At the moment the focus seems to be on either:

  1. keywords
  2. key phrases
  3. common links

Whilst keywords/phrases are better than nothing they will suffer from the general problem of the internet: too much content.  Even key phrase searches on Google can produce a morass of information much of which may be irrelevant and daunting.

The analysis of common links whilst interesting unfortunately does not address the central problem of finding your community since, if you are already linking to the same sites, it is quite likely that you are already homing in on the community.  This may be just telling you what you already know!

Your membership of a BlogPlex should be implied by posting something, anything.  The semantic content of your posting defines the BlogPlex that you create (or joins it if it already exists) and new members of a BlogPlex can be automagically hooked up (based on the preferences of each user).

In order to achieve this we must move beyond simple keywords and links and onto an understanding of the meaning (in context) of what people talk about in their weblogs (about which, more later).

If we can achieve this goal.  If we can make it possible for people to build communities from thin air then we will have achieved something powerful and simple:

Village shops in space!


31/05/2002 15:50 by Matt Mower | Permalink | comments: