The infancy of social technologies

3 08 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Alex Pickering Transfer Company, early moving ...

Image via Wikipedia

The last 20 years saw knowledge workers adding a steady stream of tools to their repertoire: increasingly sophisticated office suite software, email, the Internet, instant messaging, voice over IP, Web conferences, and, in the last decade, a number of social technologies in the form of blogs, wikis, social networks, microblogging and others. Google+ is just the latest addition to the mix, introducing some interesting ideas to a space that seemed to be quite mature already. Nobody knows for sure if Google+ will ever dethrone Facebook and Twitter, but the buzz it created showed something already: our allegiance to any Social Platform in particular is as reliable as that of a mercenary just waiting for the highest bidder. Taking a step back, it becomes clear that we came a long way since the days where Wikipedia sounded like a misplaced hippie idea transplanted from the 60s. But make no mistake: we are still witnessing the infancy of social technologies, and there is much more to come.

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, stated in an interview to the Harvard Business Review magazine earlier this year (May 2011):

Peter Drucker said that the toughest job for knowledge workers is defining the work. A century ago, 80% of the world made and moved things. You worked as long as you could, and then you slept, and then you got up and worked again. You didn’t have to triage or make executive decisions. It’s harder to be productive today because the work has become much more complex.

I have no idea of how much that percentage changed since then, but I suspect that in much of world, a significant number of workers now “make and move” knowledge and information, as opposed to physical goods. Of course, this is no earth-shattering statement, but what is sometimes missed in this obvious assertion is that the same kind of inefficiencies and constraints that limited the production and distribution of “things” one hundred years ago can be observed in the way we deal with knowledge and information today. By visualizing information as a “thing” that can be produced, distributed and consumed, we can better understand how far we still are from an efficient knowledge marketplace.

While we spend countless hours debating if email is dead, if IM is a productivity booster or killer, and if Twitter and Facebook and Google+ will be here 5 years from now, the fact of the matter is that each new social technology brings new mechanisms trying to solve the same problem: reduce inefficiencies in the way we create, capture and move information. While MySpace has likely gone the way of the Dodo, like Geocities did before it, they both introduced some memes and patterns that are still alive today. Wikipedia, blogs, podcasts, Friendster, Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare all contributed to this mix, and social business platforms are continuously incorporating several of those concepts and making them available to knowledge workers.

FedEx, Amazon, and Walmart all created a very efficient ecosystem to move goods by reducing or eliminating obstacles to efficiency. They make the complex task of moving goods a painless experience–at least most of the time. For the non-physical goods, we’re not even close to that. Information flows are inefficient across the value chain. Compared to their counterparts in the physical world, our mechanisms to digitize information are precarious, the channels to distribute it are cumbersome, and our filters to screen it are primitive.

However, eliminating inefficiencies does not necessarily mean eliminating barriers altogether. Sticking to the physical goods metaphor, while there are items that you want to distribute to everybody, like water, food, sanitation, and medication, there are others that you need to control more selectively (flowers for your wife or Punjabi-language TV shows to a Punjabi-speaking population). Some of the problems we attribute to email or Facebook communications are simply a mismatch between the medium and the nature of the message, not an intrinsic failure of the tools themselves. The Google+ concept of circles and streams are a good start, but still very far from perfect. After spending a few minutes there, you will notice that you are still getting more information than you wanted in some cases, and not even a small percentage of what you need in others. That would be unacceptable today for physical goods: just imagine you receiving all sorts of unwanted books or groceries or clothes by your door everyday, but not having a way to just get the few things you need to live a good life.

Thus, before you get too carried away with the latest and greatest social technology darling, be it FourSquare, Tumblr, Quora, Zynga, or Google+, know that we still have a long way to go. If the knowledge mountain is the Everest and social technologies are the tools to climb it, we have not even got to Kathmandu yet.





The Age of Disinformation

2 08 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

My Room - Looks Like I've Got My Work Cut Out ...

Image by raider3_anime via Flickr

Coincidentally or not, after I covered the topic of Q & A services in my last Biznology post, I’ve heard complaints from three different acquaintances about the low quality of knowledge in Yahoo! Answers, one of them mockingly calling this world where everybody is an expert “the age of disinformation.” Another friend of mine has recently complained about getting mostly useless content–with zero editorial and zero user reviews–from reputable sites whenever he Googles “<non-mainstream product> review”. Has filter failure become so prevalent that, despite all the information available to us, we are no better off than we were 20 years ago, when content was scarce, difficult to produce and difficult to access?

Three months ago, my wife called me from the grocery store, asking if a product has the expiry date of “11 MA 10″, does that mean May 10, 2011 (which would be good, since it was still April), or March 10, 2011 (which would mean that the product was way past its “best before” date)?

Naturally, my first instinct was to Google it, and inevitably I ended up getting a bunch of entries in Yahoo! Answers. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom I found:

“March. May has no abbreviation””I think it means May 11. Unless it’s on something that lasts a long time, like toothpaste. Then it’s probably 2011″

“march” (wrong, the right answer, I found later, was “May 10, 2011″)

“most likely March cuz May is so short they can just put the full month”

“I believe it’s May… I think March would be Mar”

I finally started ignoring any result coming from Yahoo! and found the definitive right answer: the format NN AA NN is a Canadian thing–I live in Toronto–and it’s the doing of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. You can find the whole reference here. Apparently, to get to a month abbreviation that works both in English and French, that government agency decided to use “monthly bilingual symbols.” The problem is, if you don’t know the context, and if you are not accustomed to that convention, you might mistakenly assume that MA is March, JN is June, or that the two numbers at the beginning are the day, not the year. When it comes to food safety, relying on a standard that is easily subject to misinterpretation is something that you probably would like to avoid.

On the other side of this spectrum, the product reviews posted at Amazon are typically very reliable. Amazon reveals a lot of information about the reviewers, such as “real name,” their other reviews, the “verified purchase” stamp. Also, many filtering and ranking mechanisms are provided, such as the ability for other users to comment on reviews, vote for helpfulness, and say if a comment added to the discussion, or it’s abusive, or if a given reviewer should be ignored.

Unfortunately, Amazon is the exception, not the rule, one of the few sites out there where everybody knows when you are a dog. Twitter’s verified accounts seemed promising, but since they closed the program to the regular public, unless you are a celebrity, you are out-of-luck proving that you are not the person behind that account with your name and your photo. Of course, sometimes having a verified account may play against you, like Rep. Anthony Weiner found out in the last few weeks.

Reflecting over the low quality of information generally available, I concede that skeptics have reasons to not hop into the social media bandwagon mindlessly. But what we are really observing is just an amplification phenomenon, and a moment in time that many decades from now will be seen as the infancy of social technologies.

Since the first pieces of “persistent” content started being produced as rough drawings in some pre-historic cave thousands of years ago, the bad outnumbered the good by orders of magnitude. Creating good content is the exception, and social media amplifies all kinds of content. In part, there are lots of bad Yahoo! Answers because we always had a high degree of disinformation in the world. The only difference is that that disinformation can be easily spread, but that also applies to the good content.

On top of that, the same way natural ecosystems are in a constant state of imbalance but trend towards an equilibrium, information ecosystems will find themselves in apparent disarray from time to time. The original Yahoo! Search, editorialized by real people, once dominated the Internet. It soon became inefficient, and then the PageRank-driven Google search took over. It worked really well for several years, but it’s now also showing its age. Better filters will be developed to overcome the current deficiencies, and this battle will never end. The dynamic between quality of content and quality of filters will perpetually behave like a pendulum, as they always had.

Is this the age of disinformation? Yes, but no more than any other in the past. The fact that, by producing more content in general, we also increase the quantity of good content, should make us optimistic that we are better off today than we were yesterday. If the cost of coming up with one more Mozart is to produce thousands of Salieris, so be it: we may end up finding that Salieris are not that bad after all.





From the batcomputer to Quora: the quest for the perfect answering machine

1 08 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

When Quora announced earlier this month that they were eliminating their policy against self-promoting questions and answers, some analysts wondered if that was opening the gates for spammers to dominate the conversation. The reality is that the whole evolution of Q&A services is not much different from what Google and other search engines have been experiencing throughout the years. It’s a battle to separate the wheat from the chaff, where the chaff keeps finding creative ways to look like the wheat. Keep reading, and you’ll find why developing the perfect Q&A engine should not be our real objective here.

As a kid, I spent my fair number of hours watching re-runs of camp TV shows, including the classic Batman TV series from the 60’s. I remember how the batcomputer was able to answer any question you asked it, no matter how weird or convoluted they were. For those of you who never had the privilege (?) to see the precursor of IBM’s Watson, here it is, courtesy of YouTube (it’s a long video, so you may want to jump directly to the 2:20 mark):

Yes, you saw it right. The bat-computer was fed a bunch of alphabet soup letters and gave the dynamic duo the answer they were looking for, where they should go next to complete their mission. However, as a sign of things to come, Batman then tries to go extreme and feeds the bat-computer with the Yellow Pages directory book, but—oh the horror—the batcomputer fails miserably trying to get them a more precise answer for their subsequent question.

More than 40 years later, our quest for the infallible computer has not changed much. Watson could easily answer Jeopardy! questions about song lyrics and book topics, but choked when facing more nuanced themes. That was not very different from the 18th century “Mechanical Turk”, which was capable of winning chess games, solving puzzles, conversing in English, French and German and even answering questions about people’s age and marital status, but had its fair share of defeats.

I concede that services like Wolfram Alpha, ChaCha and Quora raised the bar compared to early players such as Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers, but they all come short to address complex, subtle or fringe questions.

If you don’t believe me, just try yourself. Use your favorite online Q&A service to ask a question that you can’t easily find in Wikipedia or via a quick Google search and let me know if you get anything meaningful back.

Quora gave many of us the hope that we would be finally getting a high-quality, well-curated Q&A service. It’s becoming increasingly clear now that, albeit a step forward, Quora is not the know-all oracle that we were looking for.

Are we going to ever find the perfect Q&A service, where more nuanced questions will get satisfactory responses? My guess is “no”, but not even Adam West’s noodle-eating batcomputer would know the answer for that.

In fact, at the end of the day, that answer is not relevant at all. As we make strides in the information technology journey, our fundamental objective is not to replace people with machines. Our real target is to free us all from as many mundane and “automatable” tasks as possible, so that we can focus our efforts and energy more and more on the tasks that only humans can do. Having increasingly smarter systems that can answer most of our trivial questions are not a sign of our defeat to “our new computer overlords.” It’s rather a great opportunity to re-define what being human actually means.





From the batcomputer to Quora: the quest for the perfect answering machine

1 08 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Cartoon Maze Card

Image by andertoons via Flickr

When Quora announced in May that they were eliminating their policy against self-promoting questions and answers, some analysts wondered if that was opening the gates for spammers to dominate the conversation. The reality is that the whole evolution of Q&A services is not much different from what Google and other search engines have been experiencing throughout the years. It’s a battle to separate the wheat from the chaff, where the chaff keeps finding creative ways to look like the wheat. Keep reading, and you’ll find why developing the perfect Q&A engine should not be our real objective here.

As a kid, I spent my fair number of hours watching re-runs of camp TV shows, including the classic Batman TV series from the 60’s. I remember how the batcomputer was able to answer any question you asked it, no matter how weird or convoluted they were. For those of you who never had the privilege (?) to see the precursor of IBM’s Watson, here it is, courtesy of YouTube (it’s a long video, so I’m taking you directly to the 2:20 mark):

Yes, you saw it right. The bat-computer was fed a bunch of alphabet soup letters and gave the dynamic duo the answer they were looking for, where they should go next to complete their mission. However, as a sign of things to come, Batman then tries to go extreme and feeds the bat-computer with the Yellow Pages directory book, but—oh the horror—the batcomputer fails miserably trying to get them a more precise answer for their subsequent question.

More than 40 years later, our quest for the infallible computer has not changed much. Watson could easily answer Jeopardy! questions about song lyrics and book topics, but choked when facing more nuanced themes. That was not very different from the 18th century “Mechanical Turk”, which was capable of winning chess games, solving puzzles, conversing in English, French and German and even answering questions about people’s age and marital status, but had its fair share of defeats.

I concede that services like Wolfram Alpha, ChaCha and Quora raised the bar compared to early players such as Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers, but they all come short to address complex, subtle or fringe questions.

If you don’t believe me, just try yourself. Use your favorite online Q&A service to ask a question that you can’t easily find in Wikipedia or via a quick Google search and let me know if you get anything meaningful back.

Quora gave many of us the hope that we would be finally getting a high-quality, well-curated Q&A service. It’s becoming increasingly clear now that, albeit a step forward, Quora is not the know-all oracle that we were looking for.

Are we going to ever find the perfect Q&A service, where more nuanced questions will get satisfactory responses? My guess is “no”, but not even Adam West’s noodle-eating batcomputer would know the answer for that.

In fact, at the end of the day, that answer is not relevant at all. As we make strides in the information technology journey, our fundamental objective is not to replace people with machines. Our real target is to free us all from as many mundane and “automatable” tasks as possible, so that we can focus our efforts and energy more and more on the tasks that only humans can do. Having increasingly smarter systems that can answer most of our trivial questions are not a sign of our defeat to “our new computer overlords.” It’s rather a great opportunity to re-define what being human actually means.








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