ARCHIVE: March, 2005

Bloglines introduces “unique to me”, What are microformats good for?, and Naming

Big news out of bloglines. They announced an update yesterday that allows users to track packages (yes, UPS, Fedex, etc.) through their service. They also hint at future additions: “Bloglines readers can look forward to collecting more kinds of unique-to-me information on Bloglines in the near future, such as neighborhood weather updates and stock portfolio tracking.”

So, what does “unique-to-me” mean? I think it means more granular RSS feeds in the form of things that only matter to you. In other words, these feeds have a single purpose only, to update you on something that you’re interested in, most presumably personal content. For packages, you’ll only need them for a short period of time and you’ll throw them away. For stocks, you’ll probably always keep an eye on it.

Talk about aggregation! This is the future: watch it.

Also, I’ve been interested in Eric Meyer’s Emergent Semantics presentation at SXSW, where he talks about microformats as a way to bring together bottoms-up semantics. Here’s a good microformats intro page at technorati. As I mentioned the other day, Bud Gibson is working on xFolk, a folksonomies microformat.

What I’m not sold on yet is the usefulness of microformats. I don’t have any use for them yet, and as far as I can see there has been a lot of pushback on the “nofollow” microformat. But what about the others? I know of, but what use is it? Any ideas out there? I’m new to this stuff…

In other news, gets funding. Excellent! Now we’ll have more things to investigate as Joshua S. beefs up his already great system.

Also, I haven’t said anything about Ajax yet because I’m still amazed at how simply naming something could be such a big deal. Take a gander at the Q&A of Jesse James Garrett’s Ajax article in which he basically severs all ties between him and the technology, presumably as the result of all the press he received.

But the lesson here is clear. Naming is hugely important, because it allows people to communicate more concretely about something they, in some cases, couldn’t talk about before.

Question: What Web Design Conference gets you Molly, Eric, and iPods?

Answer: the User Interface 10 Conference, whose web site I just helped produce:

Cool features of the conference:

  1. One word: iPod
  2. You can learn great stuff from cool people and excellent speakers like the unequalled Molly & Eric
  3. You can see proof that I do actually have a day job, and that I’m not an independently wealthy freelance designer with no contracts (like some of you seem to believe)

Before you go check it out, let me make a disclaimer to all those code jockeys out there…just don’t look at the code: it is in a functional state only, not a presentable one. You’ve been warned.

User Interface 10 Sneak Preview

Follow-up: Designing Hierarchical IAs

A summary of the interesting answers to the question I asked last week: When designing, do you create hierarchical information architectures? The comments led to many more questions…

Continue Reading: Follow-up: Designing Hierarchical IAs

Seeing the Communication Forest through the Folksonomy Trees

Sometimes all we need is a little confidence booster. When we’re down, feeling a little like we’re heading down the wrong path despite our gut feeling, we need someone or something to remind us just what the hell it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it. In other words, we need to glimpse the forest through the trees.

That came, for me, this morning, in the form of a blog post by Adam Bosworth. I’ve been following his blog ever since I listened to the January 14th Gillmor Gang podcast with him as guest. Bosworth is Google’s VP of Engineering, and is one of those folks who is very well-known within his community but hardly-known outside of it. Anyway, his schtick is databases: the man is a database guru.

But it wasn’t Bosworth’s credentials that impressed me. It was his way of explaining things. He talks about things in an interesting, very straightforward way. For example, this is an excerpt of the blog post that I read this morning, where Bosworth tidily explains the nature of communication as it now appears on the Web:

“Then the promise should be that anyone can connect to any information or application or anyone else and that any application can connect to anyone or any application or any information. We got anyone to anyone early in the form of email and more recently in the form of IM and of Blogs. IM adds real time communication and presence and Blogs add broadcasting to the world along with a dialog with the world. We got anyone to any application from the esteemed Tim Berners Lee in the form of HTML, HTTP, and URL’s which changed our world. I say applications because there wasn’t any standard way to ask for information. We got, unfortunately, any application talking to anyone (we call this spam). Web services in one form or another are letting applications access other application although, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think that the standards are too prolix and that a lot of the action will come out of REST and RSS.”

But that wasn’t the most exciting part. The exciting part was his views on folksonomies, which he had heard a ton about at two recent conferences: ETech and PCForum. This is a sliver of what he had to say about folksonomies:

“And the web is now rapidly becoming the place for people to collaborate. Wiki’s are growing like wildfire. Folksonomies(tagging) are causing people to quickly and in an emergent bottoms up way, come together to build taxonomies that work for them and surprisingly rapidly become stable…”

Read the entire, most interesting post here. If you’ve been reading my stuff for more than a couple weeks, you’ll notice that Bosworth echoes some of my thoughts on folksonomies and taxonomies: namely, my suspicion of top-down taxonomies and my belief in people to classify their own stuff how they see fit.

And now you might be saying: But why are you excited by this? Well, I’m excited by this because I truly believe that we’re figuring out how to build a democratic world, here: the tools of democracy.

Bosworth’s bullishness on folksonomies, wikis, and collaboration in particular and his optimism in general gave me confidence that my recent musings on folksonomies have not been all-for-nought. Surely, us pro-folks people are optimistic about emergent…well, emergent everything…but it sure is nice to know that this big thinker is digging this stuff, too.

On other fronts, Bud Gibson has more on his xFolk microformat that I pointed to yesterday.

Also, for those users out there, check out Linkbacks.

Happy Spring!

Tags, Autolink, and Microformats

Danny Sullivan over at is skeptical of the benefits of tagging. After all, he points out, we’ve had the meta keywords element in HTML for years and most Search Engines started ignoring it after so many people abused it. He sees tags as no different, suggesting that they’ll be abused before long.

I agree with this to some extent. I remember when I first heard of tagging, I wanted to know, “how is that different than meta tags?”. I think we’ll see in the coming months…and we’ll also see some interesting things on the kind-of-related “microformat” front. Microformats are basically an “extension” of XHTML that leverages a standard format so that aggregators can understand them (and people thought the semantic web was bunk). For example, Bud Gibson is proposing a new XFolk microformat for folksonomies. Interesting stuff!

Over at Steve Rubel’s Micropersuasion (a blog I’ve been reading recently), there’s a raging debate about Google’s new Autolink feature. In the post Steve suggests that because of Google’s size and apparent willingness to tread on unclear ground (by overwriting or rewriting links within a web page), that there should be serious cause for concern. He doesn’t see it very different than when Microsoft tried a similar thing not too long ago.

This is a tough one. I think the answer will lie somewhere in the middle of the two warring camps. I think that user choice is correct (of course), but I don’t see a tool that rewrites links as the answer. I would OK with a tool that allows users to overwrite say, on a site-to-site basis or even more granular than that, but only with direct user control.

What I’m afraid of is users seeing changed content without realizing it (kind of like users thinking that Windows = computers without realizing that there are many more choices out there). This serves to make all of our content less valuable because users will make associations that just aren’t there: in an extreme case it will serve to dilute our content to the point of no value. So, at the very least, the Google Autolink should be turned off by default…and now I’m just reading this very good overview of the situation at which elucidates my argument (and others) more comprehensively than I was going to. Go read that.

Back to Rubel’s site: I was interested to see David Sims takes my notes from yesterday concerning Google and apply them to his argument(scroll down a ways). He even points out that I wasn’t talking about Autolink, but I was talking about where value comes from, and that’s through user choice.


Flipping through the 2nd edition of the Polar Bear book, I found an interesting section that portends the use of bottoms-up, user generated, emergent navigation systems, my latest muse. I did not expect to find such a passage, given Peter Morville’s recent talk on folksonomies at the IASummit, but nonetheless both he and Rosenfeld we able to portend the coming change in navigation systems even a couple years ago.

The passage begins on page 355. Here it is:

The practice of information architecture has come a long way since the early 1990s. We began with highly centralized, top-down approaches, attempting to leverage careful planning into stable solutions. We did some good work, but learned the hard way that change is a constant and surprises should be expected. More recently, we’ve been exploring bottom-up approaches that tap the distributed intelligence within our organizations to nuture emergent, adaptive solutions. The following table compares classic or “top-down” IA to modern or “bottom-up” IA:

Classic IA Modern IA
Prescriptive Descriptive
Top-Down Bottom-Up
Planned Emergent
Stable Adaptive
Centralized Distributed

As we struggle with these ideas, an interesting question arises. Do we create information architectures or reveal them?

So, given that the 2nd edition of the Polar Bear book was published almost 3 years ago, the authors have certainly had time to get used to things like folksonomies coming along and stirring things up. After all, the table displayed above is no less than a great overview of the differences between taxonomies of the classic IA and folksonomies of the modern IA. So, my dear reader, why is Morville still bearish on folksonomies…? Even the wonderful folksonomy video post by Peter Van Dijck doesn’t shed light on this.

Dan Bricklin (co-creator of Visicalc, the first spreadsheet) on the February 4th edition of the Gillmor Gang, quickly talks about how information architecture has changed. He mentions that Google was the big surprise, cutting through the riff-raff in a time when much research was being done on automated taxonomies and hierarchical systems.

Bricklin makes a distinction that I think is hugely important: automation. Automation means “automatically controlled”: to be automated means to have controlling decisions made without conscious or voluntary intervention.

But what about Google, you ask? Isn’t that automated? Surely, people aren’t sitting there deciding which links to give a higher pagerank to, right?

Actually, that’s exactly what’s going on here, but the people in question don’t work for Google. The people in question are the ones making the decisions about what is valuable to them by publicly linking to another URI. (In other words, the people actually making the web sites.) This is the important part of Google, and it is NOT automated. What is automated is the aggregation and display of this behavior. It’s a subtle, but vital, difference.

Also, at the E-Tech summit’ creator Joshua Schacter brings up another important point related to this topic (folksonomies in particular). As quoted in Cory Doctorow’s impressionistic transcript:

“We have different axes of why you’re tagging, what you’re tagging and how it happens. Flickr you mostly tag your stuff for your own purposes, in Technorati, it’s your stuff for others’ purposes, and in Delicious, it’s others’ stuff for your purposes. They’re different things, they don’t necessarily flow together.”

One of the things that this tidbit shows is how different folksonomies can be, even though they’ve been lumped together by those talking about them (including me). Given that, and the growing interest in these things, it seems as though we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of bottoms-up architectures.

Deciding What Features to Implement: Let Features Emerge From User Behavior

Part two of the series “Deciding What Features to Implement”. In this edition I observe a powerful new class of features that emerge from the aggregated behavior of a web site’s users: emergent features.

Continue Reading: Deciding What Features to Implement: Let Features Emerge From User Behavior

An Open Question for Information Architects

Hey Information Architects, I’ve got a question for you…

Continue Reading: An Open Question for Information Architects

Scoble Questions WASP, Opera

Via Dave Winer: Robert Scoble brings up some interesting points in a post about the new Opera/WASP campaign called the Acid2 test. The test is being proposed as a way to get all browser makers supporting the same standards by having them test their browser against a full-featured web page that contains elements and styling that aren’t supported consistently at the present time.

Scoble, a Microsoft employee, is somewhat upset with WASP for not letting him in on the party beforehand. And given his status as the Microsoft liason of late and his influence around the blogosphere, it does seem odd that nobody talked to him first. He seems to really want to help, and he’s got the ear of the right people in Redmond. That said, the WASP seems like a rather mysterious group.

Another thing: this issue is one of those tough ones where a relatively large company has little incentive to do something other than “it’s the RIGHT thing to do” (it has not been shown what Microsoft would gain from this). I’ve long been frustrated by these sorts of things, and I wonder if publicly challenging them might not be the best thing to do. This reminds me of a recent spat between Joe Clark and Anil Dash about the accessibility of the Movable Type interface. Joe was calling “bullshit” on Six Apart because he had been after them for 6 months to comply with certain accessibility standards, and they hadn’t done what he asked.

I know that sometimes it does help to get the crowd involved, the “media” if you will, but I usually find that there is a disconnect between what the company sees as valuable and what the requesting party sees as valuable. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft is “encouraged” by the ACID2 test.

So I wonder: what is the incentive for Microsoft to change their CSS 2 support? Is the only incentive because WASP wants them to? Or because they don’t want to look bad to developers? Or because WASP wants the media to get involved (as is already happening on Cnet) and then Microsoft would look bad to a lot more people? Also, where is the user in all this? Are they going to see any benefits?

Another tactic might be to directly link what Microsoft really wants (to keep/increase their marketshare) with what goals WASP is selling (standards compliancy). The question is, though, does standards compliancy lead to marketshare? Well, what does the success of Firefox tell us? Was Firefox’s marketshare gain only a security issue, a developer tools issue, or a standards-compliancy issue?

Why We Can’t Compare Folksonomies to Search

Jon Udell has provided what is perhaps the best example of both the usage and the issues within the bookmarking service. I highly recommend you check this out! Especially if you’re a folksonomy skeptic…

The more I use and observe other folksonomies, the more I realize that we don’t use them to find “stuff”. We use them to discover “personally-related stuff”, which is really hard to do with a search engine. As I mentioned yesterday, Peter Morville’s slides from the IASummit seemed to try to compare two representative services, Google and Flickr, with the implication that folksonomies can’t Search as well as, well, Search can. (Morville compares the services on the axes of “quantity”, “quality”, and “findability”) Anyway, I think he’s absolutely right about that. Search is the best Search…

However, I think that comparing them this way is like comparing a Humvee and a Corvette on gas mileage and speed. It doesn’t really tell us everything. I think he gets the usefulness of folksonomies wrong: we don’t use them to help us Search like we do with Google.

In Search, we have no idea who the results belong to before we get to them. They are simply the most relevant results to whatever words we type in. Highly useful, of course. But not Personal. In folksonomies, on the other hand, we get to discover content based on who is tagging it. This is powerful because now we can judge content in terms of who is tagging it, and not just how relevant it might be to some algorithm that doesn’t take into account who-knows-who. Just like the movies, we tend to value the judgments of people we know (or are familiar with online) more than people we don’t know.

Speaking of Google, their new customized news pages are going to change the way people get news. The idea isn’t new, just ask Yahoo. But what is different here? It’s the news, of course. Just news. All news. Your news. And they don’t even have RSS feeds yet!

Take a look at a personalized news page that I whipped up in about 3 minutes (easy as cake). I’ve got two customized sections, one for “blog” and one for “folksonomies”.

The Web is becoming the Aggregation Nation.

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