Blogging and the Wisdom of Crowds
One of the most highly touted features of the Web 2.0 era is the rise of blogging. Personal home pages have been around since the early days of the web, and the personal diary and daily opinion column around much longer than that, so just what is the fuss all about?
At its most basic, a blog is just a personal home page in diary format. But as Rich Skrenta notes,the chronological organization of a blog „seems like a trivial difference, but it drives an entirely different delivery, advertising and value chain.”
One of the things that has made a difference is a technology called RSS. RSS is the most significant advance in the fundamental architecture of the web since early hackers realized that CGI could be used to create database-backed websites. RSS allows someone to link not just to a page, but to subscribe to it, with notification every time that pagechanges. Skrenta calls this „the incremental web.” Others call it the „live web”.
The Architecture of Participation
Some systems are designed to encourage participation. In his paper, The Cornucopia of the Commons,
One of the key lessons of the Web 2.0 era is this: Users add value.
Mitch Kapor once noted that „architecture is politics.”
This architectural insight may also be more central to the success
These projects can be seen to have a natural architecture of
RSS also means that the web browser is not the only means of viewing
a web page. While some RSS aggregators, such as Bloglines, are web-based, others are desktop clients, and still others allow users of portable devices to subscribe to constantly updated content.
RSS is now being used to push not just notices of new blog entries,but also all kinds of data updates, including stock quotes, weather data, and photo availability. This use is actually a return to one of
its roots: RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer’s „Really Simple Syndication” technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape’s „Rich Site Summary”, which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows. Netscape lost interest, and the technology was carried forward by blogging pioneer Userland, Winer’s company. In the current crop of applications,we see, though, the heritage of both parents.
But RSS is only part of what makes a weblog different from an ordinary web page. Tom Coates remarks on the significance of the permalink:
It may seem like a trivial piece of functionality now, but it was effectively the device that turned weblogs from an ease-of-publishing phenomenon into a conversational mess of overlappingcommunities. For the first time it became relatively easy to gesture directly at a highly specific post on someone else’s site and talk
about it. Discussion emerged. Chat emerged. And – as a result -friendships emerged or became more entrenched. The permalink was the first – and most successful – attempt to build bridges between weblogs.
Not only can people subscribe to each others’ sites, and easily link to individual comments on a page, but also, via a mechanism known as trackbacks, they can see when anyone else links to their pages, and can respond, either with reciprocal links, or by adding comments.
Interestingly, two-way links were the goal of early hypertext
systems like Xanadu. Hypertext purists have celebrated trackbacks as a step towards two way links. But note that trackbacks are not properly two-way–rather, they are really (potentially) symmetrical one-way links that create the effect of two way links. The difference may seem subtle, but in practice it is enormous. Social networking systems like Friendster, Orkut, and LinkedIn, which require acknowledgment by the recipient in order to establish a connection, lack the same scalability as the web. As noted by Caterina Fake, co-founder of the Flickr photo sharing service, attention is only coincidentally reciprocal. (Flickr thus allows users to set watch lists–any user can subscribe to any other user’s photostream via RSS. The object of attention is notified, but does not have to approve the connection.)
If an essential part of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain, the
blogosphere is the equivalent of constant mental chatter in the forebrain, the voice we hear in all of our heads. It may not reflect the deep structure of the brain, which is often unconscious, but is instead the equivalent of conscious thought. And as a reflection of conscious thought and attention, the blogosphere has begun to have a powerful effect.
First, because search engines use link structure to help predict useful pages, bloggers, as the most prolific and timely linkers, have a disproportionate role in shaping search engine results. Second, because the blogging community is so highly self-referential, bloggers paying attention to other bloggers magnifies their visibility and power. The „echo chamber” that critics decry is also an amplifier.
If it were merely an amplifier, blogging would be uninteresting. But like Wikipedia, blogging harnesses collective intelligence as a kind of filter. What James Suriowecki calls „the wisdom of crowds„comes into play, and much as PageRank produces better results than analysis of any individual document, the collective attention of the blogosphere selects for value.
While mainstream media may see individual blogs as competitors, what is really unnerving is that the competition is with the blogosphere as a whole. This is not just a competition between sites, but a competition between business models. The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of what Dan Gillmor calls „we, the media,” a world in which „the former audience”, not a few people in a back room, decides what’s important.
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