Category Archives: Social Networks

My Twitter ‘Wordle’

‘Wordle’ created from my Twitter tags, created using

Natalie Portman on Harvard

Natalie Portman on Harvard.

The thing about school that upset me most, I think, was the “international student body.” When you visit colleges in high school they all boast about how many countries they have represented there, but what they don’t tell you is that those students are all vacationing together in places like Saint-Tropez. I mean, it’s fine to have a rich international component because that’s part of the world too, but having traveled so much after graduation, I’ve met all these people from different countries; it would have been so amazing if my class at Harvard had included a little of that as well. I mean, the students are diversified in terms of geography and race, but not really in terms of class – class diversity is practically nonexistent. It’s disappointing, particularly at a place that’s really devoted to providing you with an outlook on the world.

The Insularity of American Bloggers

Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices wonders why "the American blogosphere actually talks about less of the world than the mainstream media does."

Why don’t American bloggers link very much to bloggers around the world? People in the room suggested there are 2 main reasons: One reason is that they don’t know where to find the good blogs from other countries – unless Instapundit or somebody has linked to them. Another reason is that people don’t have enough context or knowledge about events going on in foreign countries to blog about them.

Rebecca proposes one solution.

The Global Voices project, with our Index and Aggregator, is trying to provide a solution to the first problem. The other problem has to do with lack of context. How do you get people linking to fascinating posts on Armenian or Bahraini blogs when they have no context about the situations in Armenia and Bahrain? This is more difficult and there are no clear solutions. One idea that came up in the session would be for bloggers who blog for global audiences to provide links on their sites where people can go for more information about their country – and recent news about their country. The GV wiki should probably do a better job in providing links to reliable contextual information.

Some months ago, I similarly asked "why linguistic and cultural barriers exist around still imagery, when" [it seems] it would be a more easily translatable medium."  (See "Translating Photography," Parts I, II and III.) Maybe it is time for an art-related, global voices project too?

Assiduous Networking

I was fortunate to have fellow Zoer Jessica Lipnack share her thoughts with me about a recent conference on social networking. Jessica is CEO of NetAge, a Boston
consulting firm, and co-author with Jeff Stamps of many books, including
Virtual Teams and The Age of the Network. (And, I might add, a generous person, who has given me advice on how to gestate a nonfiction book idea on which I am working.) She told me one presenter called bloggers "assiduous networkers." I also like what Jessica shared about the conference’s last speaker, independent consultant  Bill Ives.

The last guy is a dedicated blogger, who wins us over with his opening confession. He’s seriously technologically inept, as in he doesn’t know how to retrieve his voicemail on his landline. But he knows blogs. What do blogs bring organisations? He’s interviewed people in
business, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] large and small, entrepreneurs, individuals, and has found that
everyone says the same thing: When I need to know something, I don’t go to the
enterprise KM [knowledge management] system. I go to the smartest person I know. And those people are
blogging all over organisations.

He gets my best-of-show award for this single comment: his blog is
his “personal knowledge management system.” He begins with a simple post, to
which he can add links to documents, to other URLS, to discussions, to anything,
all in context, dated, and easy to search. (He’s designed his feeds from other
blogs to bypass Outlook and go directly into his blog.)

He mentions that the “Forrester analysts,” those fine folks at
MIT who brought us system dynamics modelling, have started blogs, that in
Kenya, there are group blogs; and, since it’s January, there are blogs for the
rest of us, “mind over platter” and “thinking thin."

During the week, he blogs about Portals and KM; on the
weekends, it’s art and cooking. The last words in the handout, his, are a
variation on the greeting card that our old friend from Digital showed this
morning: “You are who links to you,” the caption on the network map of his

Search and the Need for Editors

More commentary on why we are going to continue needing human intercession in the parsing of information.  Peter Norvig, Director of Quality Seach at Google, speaks on the problem of how to ensure proper "tagging" of information.

One challenge is ensuring consistency, even in seemingly minor issues on spelling, style (for instance, how names are written and presented), "correct" transliteration from one alphabet to another and the "proper" handling of abbreviations. Any one trained at the grindstone of a newspaper know how such style, grammar and spelling rules are knocked into heads. Not everything published on the Web goes through that same vetting process.

Somebody’s got to do that kind of canonicalization. So the problem of understanding content hasn’t gone away; it’s just been forced down to smaller pieces between angle brackets. [...]

Another, is battling intentional deception on the part of some people tagging the information on the Internet.

The last issue is the spam issue. When you’re in the lab and you’re defining your ontology, everything looks nice and neat. But then you unleash it on the world, and you find out how devious some people are. What this indicates is, one, we’ve got a lot of work to do to deal with
this kind of thing, but also you can’t trust the metadata. You can’t
trust what people are going to say. In general, search engines have
turned away from metadata, and they try to hone in more on what’s
exactly perceivable to the user. For the most part we throw away the
meta tags, unless there’s a good reason to believe them, because they
tend to be more deceptive than they are helpful. And the more there’s a
marketplace in which people can make money off of this deception, the
more it’s going to happen. Humans are very good at detecting this kind
of spam, and machines aren’t necessarily that good. So if more of the
information flows between machines, this is something you’re going to
have to look out for more and more.

Hold that Grammar: Rules and Expression

Posting Philip Pullman’s recent column on the Zoetrope discussion boards seems to have stirred debate on grammar and its proper role in both creative expression and the teaching of language. Where do rules help expression, and where do they hinder it? Along these lines, I have been following Clay Shirky’s discussion on "tagging" (and other ways of classifying and ranking the reliability of text and images) with interest, especially his entries in which he debates "top-down" versus "bottom-up" hierarchies. In a recent entry, he talks about language as an emergent system. He mentions John Marks, who writes:

Human languages are spontaneous
orders which have many important similarities with science – particularly if we
accept the view of science as a redescription of the world. Natural languages
are not designed; they are the products mainly of evolutionary rather than
constructive rationalism. The artificial languages for which this is not true -
mathematical and computer languages – are special cases, which lack many of the
essential characteristics of natural languages.

Languages deal with and describe the natural world, a world which is so complex that any individual
attempt to describe it, and make sense of it, can only capture part of it. In
order to survive, each individual must make some sense of his environment, most
fundamentally by acquiring a language. But the language of each individual (his
idiolect) only functions effectively if it forms part of a wider structure such
as the language of a group, a region or a nation. So our languages are complex
decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. And we use them
confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how
they develop. A framework of rules governs the forms which natural languages
take. But these rules are concerned with the structure rather than the content
of what we say.

To John’s point about structure versus content: I recently read McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, which argues that grammar and spelling did not become "important" until the advent of movable type, largely because they helped replicability. Prior to that–in the "manuscript" age, writers were a lot more "flexible" in their writing so that they could explore different meanings. It’s no surprise that McLuhan was a huge fan of James Joyce, who exploded some of these conventional notions about how the writer and reader interacted. (Reading McLuhan has given me newfound appreciation for Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake).

I agree with Philip Pullman. I think too many teachers over-emphasize doctrinaire writing over creative expression. It’s important to teach grammar and spelling, too, of course, since for better or worse, they are the mark of an "educated" person, but too much grinding of the rules also results in stilted expression.

Fellow Zoer Kirsten Snipp gives her perspective as an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher.

I don’t think that most people would argue with the general idea that
the basics are necessary for survival in society. The perfect example
of this comes from McLuhan as you pointed out. The more systematized a
system becomes, the more necessary it is to follow the system in order
to be generally understood by others using that same system. In other
words, it isn’t that creativity isn’t important, but before quantum
physics, there’s balancing a checkbook. Still, as Pullman points out, a teacher’s slavish adherence to
(grammatical) structures can be destructive. I pointed to studies which
show (red pen marks crossing out bad grammar) don’t even do anything to
improve bad grammar in the first place. (Though to be fair, I’m talking
from my experience about second language writing.)


BUT it seems a little bell-the-cat-ish. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in
this thread, the biggest question for me as a teacher is HOW to do
that, given the constraints inherent in most classroom situations. AND
- even if you can achieve that goal (which I think I manage to do
sometimes in a few wonderful transcendent moments every now and
then;-)) how do you further protect that budding creative voice from
the RULES, e.g. ‘don’t use passive voice,’ ‘first person narratives are
amateurish,’ even when these structures are used grammatically?

I asked Kirsten whether she thought Asian students tended to be more rules-based (given how the education system has evolved). She said it rankles her when people complain about how the grammar of the ESL students is "atrocious."

The students DO know the grammar. They do, do, do, DO KNOW
the grammar. The problem is, they aren’t taught how to apply it to
their own writing, nor are they taught a systematic approach for
analyzing their own written productions. They simply spew and the
teacher is meant to pick through the gunk for undigested grains [...]. There simply
isn’t any level of evaluation on content, because the reining idea
seems to me to be – don’t bother to even THINK about content until the
form is perfect. If that isn’t a life-sapping method for approaching
anything, let alone writing, I don’t know what is.

When I taught classes in Beijing, I found that my students really craved grammatical rules, as if that were the secret to communicating in English. Thinking too much about grammar (and spelling) too early can get in the way of communicating, however. My father’s grammar is probably much better than my Mom’s (certainly his written English is better), but my Mother is the extrovert of the two and fearless about speaking to people. It’s interesting to me that many people thus consider my Mom’s English "better." Additionally, a lot of Taiwanese I know have decent written English skills, but have trouble communicating via spoken English (even though as I talk to them more, I realize their vocabulary is reasonably extensive. English teaching in Taiwan has traditionally focused on written and rules-based English, though, and very little on the colloquial). Another thing I noted is how some people change personalities as they shift from language to language. I used to have students who were confident and talkative in their native language, who would become shy and quiet as they shifted into English or another foreign language. Again, another real-life example of how people change given the context. How then does language affect place within the network hierarchies that Clay and others have been analyzing?

Translating Photography, Part III

Another part of the dialogue between J.S. Oppenheim and me on the cultural and technological barriers that keep still photography from being more easily “translatable.”

J.S. Oppenheim:
Without question, the interpretive engine for all that we experience, music included, is the verbal part of language. In college academics, “comparative literature” has been around formally for more than half a century and pursued without being so defined from the moment the first scholar translated an ancient text to a modern language (or the first time a war chief intercepted a message from the enemy camp with the strange language).  At this juncture, it sounds like the field — Eastern semiotics with a branch in photography — is wide open for The English, lol,  at the primary level and ready for translation at the secondary.  I can pull one or two volumes by, for example, writer Yasunari Kawabata from my shelves: why shouldn’t I similarly see the works of Japanese photographers and others on the shelves at Barnes & Noble? I look forward to the day when the world that is becomes the world fully represented on my shelves. The double fate of English fits its people’s political predicament: how to have a dominant distributed tool or two without in fact dominating the diverse language cultures that access them for discourse, diplomacy, and trade.In that XP OS accommodates diverse language platforms, I suspect the search engines able to respond in kind and possibly in response to traffic. However, the greatest suspension of disbelief in the Star Trek shows so popular in the U.S. has been always the convenience of having other species speak English (and enjoying too the tools called “universal translators” that could find equivalence from any grammatical signal from any source in the infinitely multidimensional universe). In reality, it’s a tortuous issue with so much of every culture’s identity and value expressed through its language. We want a world better fit together.  While part of that may entail working through or sharing a common and expedient language–without evidence to the contrary, I believe it is indeed English–we do not want it to have the one outlook, political system, religious faith, or aesthetic drift imbedded in that language.

We are still far from perfect language translators, but they have come a long way. I marvel at what translation engines such as those on Google allow you to do, for instance: you can read through many European-language newspapers and get the gist of the articles. The stumbling block, of course, is that language is living and breathing:
ever changing as we invent new uses for existing words, incorporate slang and import words from other languages. Words, like people, change with context and time. Translation engines don’t yet cut it, because the AI behind them work on fixed meaning and context. (You get the gist, but grammar and nuance are garbled.) Because of those
challenges, we will continue to see friction in our lingual, textual–and it seems visual border crossings.

(I just finished reading Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenbery Galaxy, and one of his themes is that the invention of movable type pushed us into nationalism as language became more easily homogenized (repeatable). Readers and writers–and governments–came to demand standardization. Grammar and spelling became doctrinaire, where they used to change quite flexibly to suit the meaning the writer was trying to convey. The
book gave me newfound respect for James Joyce’s experiments in works like Ulysses. So I guess good literature gets us to think differently, and good photography gets us to see differently?)

What will get us to view images (and text) more readily across such lingual and textual boundaries, I think, is the serendipity that the Internet brings as it pulls us into contact with people who are able to navigate borders with which we would otherwise be unfamiliar.

[See also Translating Photography, Part I] and Translating Photography, Part I.]

Silicon Valley 100 Buzz

Auren Hoffman surveys the buzz created by his Silicon Valley 100 list. He also talks about the criteria that he used to generate his list.

1. Integrity.   These are people known for their high integrity, honesty, and strong commitment to ethics.
2. Connectors.
3. Salespeople.  They are naturally inclined to spread ideas.
4. they are all connected to the Bay Area.  I believe it is much easier to "tip" an idea in a few zip codes
5. early adopters.   they like to try new products and ideas.

Joi Ito has archived an audio file of an interview with Auren.

Translating Photography, Part I

Several of us on the photography wing of Zoetrope, the Francis Ford Coppola online workshop, recently got into a discussion of what constituted "good photography." I mentioned how woefully ignorant I felt about Asian and other non-U.S./Euro-centric photography: that I worried how my "aesthetic sense might be too culturally narrow." I referenced the Coincidences blog and Philbert Ono’s site on the rich history of Japanese photography. Eventually, fellow Zoer J.S. (Jim) Oppenheim and I began exploring the reasons for why linguistic and cultural barriers exist around still imagery, when you might think that it would be a more easily translatable medium. We also ultimately touched on points that I thought were relevant to the discussion of social networks and how they affect the transmission of content, so I thought it would be relevant to Jim was a good sport, and said I could quote him at length here.

J.S. Oppenheim:

Those who lead with a new technology, and photography was exactly that just 140 or so years ago, establish its benchmarks. Those who are able to promulgate their technologies similarly do that "show you how it’s done" thing because, well, they can literally do that through developed publishing and trade systems. Finally, ultimately, technology as language — how we exchange ideas with one another — may follow the language that as a technology establishes itself as lingua franca. The English, by hook and crook, blast and battle, and for a while not a little leadership in the opium trade as well, managed to make the world amenable to their presence. At the same time, it seems to have given the world some in-common tools — a dominant language and multiple modalities for communicating — that in turn has enabled the world to send a very strong bounce-back signal of its own. You can bet that American photographers, by and large, know very little about peer and peer philosophies elsewhere, and we/they are curious as all get out about that.

You know, you can’t tell the guy next to you about the fire you’re both watching.  In order to communicate, there has to be a more distant relationship between recipients in light of the content delivered. That is to say — in my infinitely parenthetical way — your photograph of my backyard does not qualify as travel photography from my perspective, but a photograph from your backyard appearing, and as it literally does, on my desktop south of Baltimore very much does.

This is a fascinating period to watch for how the world gets to know itself through other than the movement and mingling of armies and traders whose experiences and stories once framed what Everyman could know about other places.  There’s no precedent for the World Wide Web.  National Geographic? Life Magazine? Playboy and Vogue in every language? Not even close.  Heretofore, international publications represented, at best, the discerning but not omniscient minds of a comparative handful of editors; this medium has thoroughly democratized the development and distribution of content.

It’s not worse for "China, Thailand, and the Philippines" except where Draconian policies on speech squelch the signal: the web is the open gate to a gregarious species not only capable but perhaps destined to work out a plan for itself that knows no boundaries.

One of my favorite photographers, Sebastiao Salgado, might be called one of the forefathers of the Photographers of the World who may have lost whatever national character they had when they began their careers. One might expect to see more of such photographers but, lol, with different sounding names.

I have had a terrible time mastering even beginner French, but with photography among other arts, I say other languages (than Anglo-European) welcome here. As the vernacular goes, "Bring it on!"

Visual Revision and Authoritativeness

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang points to a discussion on how visual depictions of the volatility of revisions to a wiki entry might be used to gauge veracity. Matt Jones surveys the discussion. Clay Shirky has an excellent piece on "authoritativeness." He says that Wikipedia has neither a personal reputation behind it ("the authority of, say, Coleridge’s encyclopedia was the original one: authority derived from the identity of the author") or commercial branded authority (like Britannica).

So, is Wikipedia authoritative? No, or at least not yet, because it has
neither the authority of the individual merchant or the commercial
brand. However, it does have something that neither mechanism offers,
which is a kind of market, where the investment is time and effort
rather than dollars and cents. This is like the eBay model, where
people you don’t know (no Mom’s Diner effect) can sell unbranded things
like art or one-of-a-kind clothes (no Levis effect). EBay can do this
because the syndication of user attention and the possibility of
recourse for bad behavior keeps people generally honest.