Now blogging at diego's weblog. See you over there!

of blogging and "reality"

[via Dave] an article in the Village Voice, in which the writer, Whitney Pastorek, vilifies weblogs for destroying human interaction and forcing her to check websites all day to see what her "friends" are doing.

First, somebody should point Whitney to an RSS reader. It would be faster for her to check feeds, rather than make rounds on her friends' websites.

The piece is funny, but throughout it there's an undercurrent of disgust, as if blogs were against nature in some sense. I suppose carrying around a tiny four-inch brick of batteries and electronics that interrupts you at will is the most natural thing in the world (yes, I'm talking about cellphones--or does Whitney avoid them too?).

Maybe her friends find weblogs to be a good, unobtrusive way to communicate. Maybe her friends, lacking the ability to publish their thoughts on the Village Voice, have found a way to do essentially the same, thus threatening the uniqueness of what she does. (Isn't that article a lot like a weblog entry, btw?). Or maybe there's something deeper going on here.

The origins of this weblog problem for her seem to stem from her perception that weblogs are cutting down on "real" interaction:

These days, I do not even hear about the stupid stuff that's going onó"I got a haircut" or "My apartment burned down"óbecause the bloggers assume that I have read about it on their blog. Which I have not. And then I wonder why they are not answering their home phone, and immediately assume we are in a fight.


I invite my friends to [literary readings in which she performs], hoping for affirmation and free drinks. How heartbreaking, then, when no one arrives! Phone calls are made: I am sad that you did not come to my event! The bloggers reply, invariably: But I linked to you on my blog! That is just the same as if I showed up in person!

It is not. It is very different.

(Really? It's different to link to a webpage than go to a place and talk to people? No kidding eh? Truly shocking revelation. Thanks for the tip. And as for: "I do not even hear about the stupid stuff that's going onó'I got a haircut' or 'My apartment burned down'---that's the first time I've seen "my apartment has burned down" in the category of chit-chat, or, as she puts it "stupid stuff").

In my experience weblogs enhance real world interaction, not the other way around. I've gotten into conversations because of what I've read in other weblogs, and people have come up to me to talk about what I said at some point--creating new threads of conversations that might otherwise never have happened (this is more marked with people you don't see as often as you'd like, due to geography, or work, or whatever). And let's not get into how many people I've met, online and off, because of my weblog.

In person, issues can be discussed more in-depth. In fact, weblogs are good for a number of things, but they fail a little bit at some types of conversations since it's easy to miss the context of something that's being said (the source of many weblog "fights"). In person, if someone misses the context of what you just said, you explain yourself better. With weblogs, it baloons. Weblogs, on the other hand, have both an immediacy and a pemanence that makes them good for a number of other things, including long drawn-out conversations where ideas are evolving and being exchanged. In the end, they form a feedback cycle with "real world" interaction that enhances both.

But she still feels weblogs have taken something away, rather than added to it. So I thought about it... what's the only way in which a weblog can cut down on your "real world" interactions? When is it that they stifle conversation? When is it that a weblog allows you to say it all and nothing's left to be said in person?

How about when all your conversations center around superficial crap that can be explained in two words and which dissipates after five minutes?

In other words, if a weblog can really kill off "real world" interactions with your "friends" maybe it's time to think if those "friendships" are anything but meaningless chatter about the weather, haircuts, and pretending to be nice to each other.

Weblogs have made you realize that your life is a sequence of interactions that can be replaced by a few hyperlinks and 500-word entries?

Then maybe it means that to be so easily replaced those interactions were actually just superficial drivel. Deal with it. Or not.

But shooting the messenger isn't going to do you any good.

Posted by diego on March 4, 2004 at 7:26 PM

and last monday...

...I talked, over lunch, with Dr. Eugene Wong. So busy I forgot to mention it! It was a great conversation. (This was in the context of an open meeting at TCD, so I ended up talking to him by chance). We talked for about an hour, and it went by in a breeze. When he introduced himself he mentioned he was a Professor at Berkeley (Professor Emeritus, it turned out) and one of the creators of the INGRES database engine (which immediately in my head flagged that he was a pioneer of many of the concepts of relational databases that we take for granted today), and I was of course duly impressed and humbled. Only later I found out about his other activities (e.g. NSF Director). The most striking thing was when we were talking about research in the US, and in replying to a question of his I mentioned I had worked at IBM Research in Yorktown heights in the late 90's. To this he said, "Oh, I worked there too. When they had just opened the building."

In the early 1960s, that is.

So. Much. History.

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on March 4, 2004 at 1:07 AM

social networks: the glue for next-generation internet applications

Bill Burnham (who, among other things, is a managing partner at Softbank Venture Capital) has an interesting piece today on social networking applications. Quote:

Without some kind of application to force the regular use and maintenance of such networks, pure play online social networks are destined to become as stale and appealing as two week old bread.
Maybe. Interestingly I think that his mention of "pure play" has another dimension beyond what he means. I think that social networks as we know them today are, in part, in some weird way, piggybacking on the reality TV craze (or both are riding on an undercurrent of "reality fetish" that has emerged in our society). The idea of "play" (as in playfulness) is more powerful than it would seem, and it's definitely a factor. Partially, it's a game.

Or in other words, entertainment.

Now, this is not my cup of tea, so I naturally drift towards the first part of that quote, that without an application on which the network can sustain itself, it would eventually whither.

Social networks might be overhyped today, but no more so than the web browser was in 1995. Both, in my view, are critical pieces of infrastructure. Further, "social networks" have existed in limited forms online for some time now, so part of what's happening is the realization that the network of a person is crucial and can be nurtured to enhance the online experience in general and certain applications in particular.

What's powerful about this idea, to me, is not what they are today, but what this laser-like focus on their nature enables, just like one of the web browser's more important contributions was not the browser itself (ie., the component) but the notion that an application didn't necessarily belong either on the client or on the server, but could (and should when necessary) be split in two and thus improve the networked experience (ie., applications that embed browser or browser-like functionality). This has been the driving force behind my work in the last few months in fact: to allow people to leverage the qualities of personal networks and make them useful.

What are these qualities? In my opinion, above all, they can carry over a level of trust from the real world. This can then be applied to re-create real-world activities online, even if they still have a ways to go before they enable more than they restrict. Identity is enhanced. Interactions have less "friction" (friction is increased by anonymity, since we have to double-check the information we receive, etc).

There's another factor to take into consideration: that social networks, while infrastructure, are "soft", in the sense that they have no hard boundaries that define them (which lock out overlapping functionality). The web browser, for example, has hard boundaries, you don't generally use two of them, and in the end you don't care as long as it works. Social networks, however, are not only dynamic, as Bill notes, but also multiple and overlapping. Many people don't think twice about running two IM clients side by side, just as they don't think twice about having a group of friends from work and an entirely different group of friends from, say, college. Sometimes these groups intersect and/or interact, true, but they can be, and generally are, maintained and evolve in parallel.

Social networks are the glue for next-generation apps, and done properly they can bring together cyberspace and meatspace much closer than they are today. Explicit social network functionality might not become widespread by itself but for a few exceptions, but their principles and underlying notions will become part of the fabric of interconnected software, just as surely as the web browsing has become part of the fabric of applications today.

In other words, "pure play" social networks (in both senses) by themselves might not be sustainable beyond a few players [1], but their underlying principles will enable enable new types of applications and frameworks that can---and most certainly will be.

[1] If you're skeptical of even that, consider that Opera, with a product in an ultra-commoditized market, has grown to the point of filing for an IPO recently.

Categories: clevercactus
Posted by diego on March 4, 2004 at 12:11 AM

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