Bradley Horowitz vs. Ze Frank on Participation Culture

Do you ever have posts sitting around in wordpress for months at a time, delayed for one reason or another? This is one of them, and after re-reading it, I think I’ll go ahead and post it, but remember that it’s kind of a warp back in time to October 2006.

Yahoo! Open Hack Day was a massive, massive success, and i’m glad to have been a part of it. Now that i’ve had a few days to rest and reflect upon my experiences, I want to discuss an observation of Bradley Horowitz’s that has stuck in my mind.

Bradley’s one of the foremost advocates for social search development here at Yahoo. He’s one of the brightest minds around, and always makes my head spin a little bit when I talk with him. You can check out his Keynote presentation here (warning, this was 4GB to download!). Around the end of minute five, Bradley says some really interesting stuff. First, he showed the famous grainy video clip of a monkey trained to perform martial arts kicks in the context of what the worst-case scenario behind user-filtered content could produce. Then he went on to show some beautiful photographs from Flickr’s Interestingness, as a way to demonstrate the better side of what can be efficiently extracted from collaborative participation. His point that these photos bubbled to the top because of implicit user activity is key; as he mentions, the aggregate human cost of photo moderation borne by the user community on Flickr dwarfs anything possible by simply paying employees to review and rate them.

Ze Frank, seen in this video speaking at TED, a design conference, seems to also think hard about the new culture of participation on the Internet. Ze often invites his viewership to participate with him on various flights of fancy, including making silly faces, creating short video clips, playing with flash toys and drawing tools, etc. During his TED presentation, and also at various times on The Show, Ze talked about the hold that various groups have on the perception of art, and how many people are able to participate and create in a new culture without being ostracized by an established hierarchy. He seems to hold that the “ugliness” which seems to permeate MySpace is, in fact, a manifestation of participation outside of the boundaries of hierarchical editorial control. Thus, his position seems to be that the silliness and ugliness of the huge amount of web “design” on myspace depends heavily on perspective. At the minimum, he seemed to believe that participation culture removes barriers to experimentation that could lead to an overthrow of traditional design aesthetics.

These perspectives seem to be at odds. On one side, Bradley appears to be advocating the harvesting of social participation to come to results that select traditionally valuable content. In other words, using New Media platforms to efficiently perform the job of the Old Media publishing empires (Kung Fu Monkeys should be buried!). On the other side is Ze, who seems to be advocating not only a disruption of Old Media distribution through mass publication, but also seems to be leading a charge to disrupt traditional aesthetic values (Kung Fu Monkeys are beautiful, and should be encouraged!).

I think it’s an interesting contrast, and I worry that i’m mischaracterizing the arguments of each.

My personal viewpoint is a bit more nuanced. I believe that one day, web platforms will also be able to efficiently cluster their users based upon interests or tastes, similar to how Flickr can cluster tags to disambiguate meaning. These clusters will probably be designed not around user surveys or self-reported demographics, but instead will most likely be extracted through efficient methods of recording implicit participation information over the long term. There may well be a cluster (which I would belong to!) of folks that do enjoy Kung Fu monkeys, and there is almost definitely a cluster that find it degrading and offensive. The difference here between traditional preference filtering and clustered audiences is similar – one requires a great deal of potentially inaccurate user feedback about their preferences, whereas the latter acts more on implicit activity, and is thus more likely to produce the desired effects.

Not only would such a model be able to try and target clusters of preferences among users, but it would also allow for users to participate in cultures in which they feel welcome from the beginning.

7 thoughts on “Bradley Horowitz vs. Ze Frank on Participation Culture

  1. Gordon, I can speak for me 😉

    My argument is not so much that Kung Fu monkeys = bad, or that they should be “buried.” But in a world where “anyone can say anything to everyone at once”, our most precious commodity becomes attention. I remember sitting at the Harvard Cyberposium Conference a few years ago when someone said… “It’s getting to the point where every moment of our life can now be digital recorded and preserved for posterity…. [pregnant pause…] Unfortunately, one doesn’t get a second life with which to review the first one.”

    Coming up with the right tools to help me get to what matters to me becomes essential. But I don’t want to get prescriptive – what matters to the fans of Kung Fu monkeys is… Kung Fu monkeys! And we should be providing tools that help that community as much as any other…

    Another way of putting it… I’m disinclined to subscribe the a Flickr feed for the tag “baby”. Just not interested in seeing random babies, thank you very much. But my brother’s baby? My neice? Cutest baby ever! I want to see every picture of her that exists!

    Death to the monoculture and long live the long tail! Long live low-brow humor, stupid pet tricks and mentos and diet coke! And Ze Frank…

    My point is that tools like Flickr interestingness allow us to leverage aggregate attention for the benefit of each user. I love interestingness, and use it as a sort criterion for just about every search I do on Flickr… But Flickr also uses a social graph with varying coefficients (me, family, friends, contacts, public) to provide another dimension that helps direct my attention to the right babies. 😉

    I think my thesis is simply that in democratizing the creation of content, we’ve created a high-class problem… There’s too much “on”… 500 channels, maybe. 500M channels? Never. The flip side of this wonderful revolution in publishing, destroying the hierarchical pyramid of participation, is that we (our industry) have a burden to provide people the means of actually getting to the content they want to see… (Perhaps sometimes, even before they know they want to see it.) This ought to keep us busy for a lifetime or so…

    I think you captured my view pretty much in your closing paragraph. I’d guess Ze Frank agrees with us mostly too.

  2. Hey Bradley, thanks for the clarification! I remember being a bit disoriented at the time by all this, so I apologize if I come across as putting words into anyone’s mouth. I thought it was an interesting contrast and i’m glad that it’s bringing more understanding of these topics – well, to me, at least. 🙂

    I like the points you’re making in your response. As you are explaining, these viewpoints might just be perspectives on different aspects of cultural change that are not entirely inconsistent. In fact, it creates a strong opportunity for information providers to intelligently include social context in information ranking. In addition to aggregate behavior metadata, there is the personal “social distance” component that one can include to individually customize ranking based on a user’s network or group affiliation – thereby revealing interesting babies that are related or interesting particularly to you. It does sound to me like everyone is on the same page about that, and that it will be a problem that perhaps does not get solved well even within our lifetime.

    I’m guessing that there’s a middle ground between a super-specific (and expensive) personalized ranking component, and simply taking advantage of aggregate information. Aggregate boosts have a tendency to self-reinforce as communities that take hold in a corpus of information or “stuff” will feel more welcome than outsiders to that community, thereby creating websites that tend to serve one market above all others. In the short term, I think we’ll see some of these broad brush groupings of Internet users, and in the long term, perhaps we’ll get closer to the ideal of completely personalized information. The most obvious example of this I can think of is right-leaning vs. left-leaning political content on the web. Although very few people I know would agree that these capture all shades of lifestyles and opinions, they match expectations well enough with products to sustain audience attention.

    It does raise some interesting issues about all of our attention potentially getting stuck in ideological mindsets by design, if we don’t attain escape velocity from efficient subdivision of our population into lowest-common-denominator markets. But that’s a bit outside of the scope of this discussion. 🙂

    Thanks again for keeping the subject alive. This conversation encapsulates a lot of recent reading i’ve been doing about current cultural changes and social software’s role, and i’m glad to be getting a better grasp of the concepts at play.

  3. The reason why WordPress does that is because you accidentally pushed Save instead of Publish. This bug was introduced a couple of versions ago and it truly makes me want to bite someone.

  4. Ah, I didn’t mean to imply it was accidental, Laura. 🙂 Although that does occasionally happen to me, in this case I think I just didn’t feel the post was finished enough until I just looked at it again yesterday.

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