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.