Community and social computing
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As our developerWorks Community Editor, I'm faced with issues which are part talent management and part information management. Aside from all the regular issues of focusing effort and developing content to build a stronger community, I'm facing a happy problem of having so many enthusiatic contributors: what happens when there's too much to read?
It isn't hard to see this problem is evident; just try googling on a topic and see how many hits you get. Would you really want to read anything more than 100 entries?
In talking with James Snell and others a few weeks ago regarding corporate blogs, wikis and other such tools, we agreed that there are typically two ways of looking at who should contribute. We both agree everyone should be able to do so; but when you start running into large numbers, how do you organize this information?
First, there's the top-down approach where you pick the topics and find people to contribute to each category. This is quite commonly used; dW does this in our many zones.
Then there's also a bottom-up approach where you want topic experts to self-emerge from a population.
This second approach is harder to figure out, but the answer may not be as complicated, especially when you have a large population and numbers on your side.
I think the idea lies in building a Reputation network, modeled on trust. Each individual essentially would rate how a particular interaction with a potential expert turned out (in two types of trust, which I'll discuss later). You can then average all the trust ratings per candidate to determine their reputation. The number of interactions combined with this average trust rating describes their reputation.
Those with higher reputations automatically emerge as "experts" in whatever categories they want to focus on. The process is democratic and self-emergent within the community. For that matter it also automatically helps to define topic areas that people are interested in.
That's the basic principle. I'm quite sure there are many ways of looking at this, so I'd be curious to hear counterpoints.
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I came across an interesting article in the current issue of THE FUTURIST magazine titled Extra-Preneurship: Reinventing Enterprise for the Information Age. The article by David Pearce Snyder, former CIO of the US Internal Revenue Service, starts out:
"Information technologies are toppling traditional hierarchical business-management systems. The new model for twenty-first-century management will be extra-preneurship--virtual networks based on collaboration and self-actualization that will add value to all current and future jobs. THE FUTURIST's Lifestyles Editor describes what this shift will mean for individuals, corporations, and the world economy."
What I found interesting was not the expounding on Linux, the open-source model, etc., that we have all heard before but the need to consider that the nature of how people work is changing. In particular the idea of "extra-preneurship" where the traditional structure of businesses are transforming into virtual collaborative networks.
I gainsay, this has relevance to one of my other continuing interests of service-orientation in business (and technical models).
Think of it: consider the specialization of work functions into specific tasks or task areas, each as a type of service. On the pure software level, services are very strictly defined, but on a business level, they exist as well. A combination of services therefore becomes a process flow (in business and in software).
A virtual collaboration can also be thought of as a workflow of processes and services, from simple levels such as consulting, to more complex multi-organization workgroups (e.g., standards organizations).
These collaborations are specific communities and uses of a community model. In fact, they integrate their human element services (thoughts, interactions, communications, contracts,
expertise, etc.), with software services (blogs, forums, instant messaging, wikis, etc.)
From a high-level, these services blend across each other into useful workflows that are arranged and rearranged per the needs of the users themselves. This is the same process that applies service-orientation to business and IT operations.
What may be missing is a development environment to build such communities with such workflows. Just like we have tools for business analysts to define process flows, and developer tools to define sequence diagrams, we need tools that allow a user to build such workflows out of the available members of a community, the available software services of the community, and the necessary means to arrange them together and define rules of behavior.
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The basis of community in my mind is in the interaction between people. The tools, mechanisms, processes, and communications we use are the outward expression of these interactions. A community really lies on a subliminal level in the form of the trust we develop directly with other members of the community.
For the most part, this trust is an implicit factor that we associate mentally with another entity (a person or a group). However, to externalize this factor into a meaningful measurement that many others can relate to can only be a rough approximation. Beyond that, to normalize that measurement across anyone, anywhere reduces it to a lowest common denominator of trust.
This is still important, however. By indicating how you would rate trust between yourself and another person, and by sharing this rating with others, you describe the relationship network around you. Metcalfe's law states that the usefulness, or utility, of a network equals approximately the square of the number of users of the system. This is useful in understanding the context in interactions between people. Context after all makes the difference between princes and purloiners.
You can build a complex directed graph by combining the various relationship networks of all the individuals in a community. However, that just becomes increasingly complex with each person you add. From Metcalfe's law, the possible number of connections is squared, making huge numbers of connections.
A simpler way is to create an aggregate trust rating per person across all the ratings they receive from others. Each entity thus has a single rating factor.
Actually, two rating factors really. You need to ask after the result of any interaction:
1. Helpfulness - Was this knowledge source helpful? Do you trust that they were providing the information in good faith and for your benefit?
2. Usefulness - Was the information provided by the knowledge source useful to you? Did the information help? Can you put it to use?
A person can be a source of useful information but be too busy to help people get that info. On the other hand, a person can truly want to help but not really know much about a subject.
How do you apply these ratings? Keep it simple: rate 1 through 5, lowest to highest, on each of these factors per interaction you have with someone.
What you really end up getting over time, is a measure of the reputation of an entity as well as the number of people they interact with. By measuring recurring interactions with the same knowledge source, you can also measure how loyal people are to that source.
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I spent the weekend watching the 4th of July Independence Day fireworks from our new house with friends. We bought a lot which is about 1.5 miles behind this hill where the City of Tucson shoots its fireworks from, so we got an excellent view. The housing subdivision is all sold out but so far we're the only house on the hill. Our neighbors is a community that allows only those over 55, so we're the youngest people on the block by about 20 years.
It feels slightly lonely even when near so many homes. We bought a large acre lot so we wouldn't have to be too close to our neighbors. Many subdivisions here have houses within 10 feet of each other. That's too little privacy, even in suburbia, especially when you're new.
Sometimes blogs feel the same. There are so many bloggers out there but not everyone crosses the street to meet the neighbors. It is not possible to know and follow everyone around; it is difficult enough to even follow several dozen blogs.
However, the secret is in how people interact in the first place. We are only starting to investigate better means of social networking and understand what actually drives people to connect. If you read Duncan Watt's Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, or Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, you can start to understand the mechanics of social behavior. These plus about another 12 books are my summer reading right now.
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Science fiction movies and TV shows have come a long way from simple puppets and men in ape suits. It even seems like the industry is starting to become nostalgic about those old movies (e.g., Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds, and upcoming King Kong by Peter Jackson).
A friend of mine brought around a hilarious B-movie spoof called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (None Can Stand Its Mental Power!). It was complete schlock, with such classicly idiotic dialogue like "Yes, honey, I am a scientist and now I shall go do science." B-movie's typically have bad dialogue, cheesy plotlines and very cheap effects. (This one had an evil skeleton that walked around puppetlike which you could obviously recognize as left over from a medical school model).
Some B movies can still excel. To get away from the stigma of B movies, they are now sometimes called "independent films", although I'm not sure if that does it any good.
Ever since watching Clerks, a decade ago, I've found a whole new respect for these movies. Made on a budget of $27,000 I believe at a convenience store that the director actually worked at, it was the first independent film which I thought should have gotten an Oscar for best screenplay.
Take George Romero. Dawn of the Dead is still considered one of the best zombie (B) movies of all time. But it spawned a whole new generation of such movies from the Evil Dead series to the absolutely hilarious Shaun of the Dead. With his new release (that I have not yet seen) Land of the Dead, Romero was honored with an ovation at the pretigious Cannes film festival this year.
On US TV, the remake of the Battlestar Galactica series loses the idealistic, sophomoric drama, and heavy stock footage reuse from the late 1970s series, for a significantly more hard-hitting drama that poses the tough questions that sci-fi at its best tries to bring forward.
Like War of the Worlds, the Battlestar Galactica series has a non-human force that easily overwhelms the skills and ability of humanity. In this case, this force is the Cylon "race" of intelligent robots that humankind created to handle warfare. After many smaller wars, the Cylons retreat for years eventually returning with new self-designed models that are very humanlike. More significantly, they develop the notion that God has created them to replace humans with a more organized civilization.
These are the tough questions that the legends of sci-fi like Asimov, Niven, Wells, and others posed. Too often today, the sci-fi stories are simply covered up with cute relationship drama, and special effects (e.g., the new Star Wars series spent too much time on these elements rather than building a deep story).
Whether probing the classic futuristic themes or just providing entertainment, many of these same shows have developed a very healthy community of faithful followers. Some of them have even become some of the biggest brands in entertainment (e.g., Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.)
If you follow Douglas Atkin's theory as described in The Culting of Brands, many leading brands have similar features whether it is a company, an organization or a religion. These include ideas like:
Atkins' talks about how such activities exist in many leading organizations like JetBlue, Apple Computers, Harley Davidson and others.
Can you see any of Atkins' elements in movie and TV show fan followings?
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I saw a truly priceless rug today. We stopped by after lunch at a rug store next to the restaurant just to look. After looking over a number of 8x10 rugs, the owner took us up to his safe where he keeps the heirloom ones. He pointed out a particular antique rug which is one of two remaining in the world. It's about 500 years old from Tabriz, Iran, and probably over 30 feet long. According to him there is no real price on it but the only other one is in a museum in Europe. I couldn't tell the difference from a $9,000 rug but that's art. It's worth whatever price you put on it if someone wants it bad enough.
It's amusing to cosnider there's very little parallel for it in the software world. When developers create something from their minds, we sometimes call it "a work of art". The cost can be high but we don't really sit there and appreciate it as much.
Consider the idea of service-oriented computing where you build an "application" from a combination of components or applications each described as a service. It's no where near the analog of a painter's choices when it comes to colors, even if it does take as much thought, exasperation and suffering. But I guess I can take consolation in that the term "starving developer" hasn't caught on with the general public.
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Marshall Goldsmith has an interesting observation in this month's Fast Company (print edition): Can you listen?
He gives the example of what differentiates great leaders like attorney David Boies: he knows how to listen.
Here's a way of testing yourself:
Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and count slowly up to 50. If you can listen to yourself only counting and not thinking of anything else, you might possibly be a good listener.
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As Grady pointed out, DARPA has it's Grand Challenge to build autonomous vehicles that can drive themselves. I'm rooting for the Stanford Racing Team simply because they use a Volkswagen T-reg named Stanley.
I remember back in the 1980s looking at an illustrated book about the future with descriptions on how robots will become part of our everyday lives in the 21st century. Although we don't quite have androids doing our shopping yet, we do have self-driving cars, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, bomb sniffers, pets, flying spybots, and even soccer players. These ordinary robots make the old Disneyland Tomorrowland ride look like a joke. We're catching up to our futures already. Now if only that moonbase was ready with a basketball court.
I was talking to Bobby Woolf earlier today regarding the different generations of what we all call the Web. Bobby blogged on Web 2.0, the current conversation on a move from a focus on content to one around APIs. There are blog sites, conferences and other activities all around how services are present the great idea of how to work with the Web.
Bobby describes three generations:
I've tested the Web since 1990, starting with a very early
text-based browser that Berners-Lee first released that predated even Lynx. Then Mosaic, Mosaic 2.0, Netscape's alpha browsers, Netscape Navigator, Spyglass Mosaic, HotJava (Sun's original Java-based browser), Opera, Mozilla, and a few others. Over the years, I think there were probably a few other "generations" that came and went:
The benefit of the services Web is that it ties applications in more obvious and neutral ways that specific programming APIs, scripting languages and plug-ins. More significantly as Bobby indicated it brings a widely considered design pattern of the Model-View-Controller (the Observor-Observable pattern to be accurate); the separation of a presentation element from a communicating element and the execution elements of the design. Most programmers are familar with it and its benefits. The news now is that business people are beginning to take notice of its benefits too.
PS: Know any other trends in information presentation and interaction on the Web that came, went or stuck-around?