Are we going in the right direction?…

A very well respected member of the web world, Andy Rutledge, has recently been asking some very interesting questions. Firstly about social (or anti-social) media and secondly the moral questions surrounding technology being the way we are slowly killing ourselves.

Both essays are well worth reading. And you know what, I have to agree with a lot of the points he makes. We’re rapidly approaching the point where a large percentage of the Western population have a lack of basic communication and real-life social skills, responsibility and awareness of wider isues because of the comfortable cacoon that the current technological civilisation affords them. It should not be that way.

There’s a fable about the frog sat in a pan of water I heard once. As the water gradually warms up he enjoys himself, thinking how lucky he is to have his own private heated pool. It’s only when the water is reaching boiling point he realises his mistake. How far are we from boiling point?

Off-road web technologies…

The internet is often described as an information superhighway. And on any highway there are vehicles, lots of different types of vehicles. I started to think about this over the last few days and realised that the two (server-side development) technologies I spend most of my time using these days represent two wildly different ‘vehicles’. And because I’m not averse to writing ill-thought out ramblings about the web, here are my thoughts.

ASP.net is a SUV

ASP.net is Microsoft latest attempt to take a lead role in web development. It’s a newer, shinier and much more powerful version of the old Classic ASP which I spent too many years using (and still do, regularly). It’s big and clever, does all manner of things for you, comes with a huge array of complex features, and is very picky what it runs on. The latest version of IIS for Windows only, please. (And yes, I know about Mono. Just bear with me.)

In short, ASP.net is a lot like this:

Sports utility vehicle

Yes, the Sports Utility Vehicle. Big, shiny, covered in chrome and brushed titanium. An interior made of plush leather with rare wood facias, and lots of slick gadgets. They say it will take you off-road anywhere, but let’s face it: these things are only owned by rich people living in posh suburbia. The dreaded Chelsea tractor factor, as some people have said.

They guzzle fuel, pollute the landscape, and if something goes wrong it goes really wrong and needs an expensive trip to the specialist garage to mend. No hacking away with a spanner and roll of gaffa tape on these, no way. But they have their good points. They are incredibly sophisticated, so don’t worry about reversing into a lamp-post because before you hit it a polite computerised voice will say “You’re just about to hit a lamp-post. Are you sure you want to do that?” and then offer you a latte.

They are comfortable; really really comfortable. You get so used to being inside one that when you have to drive in a Lesser Automobile you feel dirty. In fact they are so clean and nice to be in that you forget there’s an engine with messy things like oil and fuel squirting around in little tubes. Unscrew a little cap to check the oil? Not me, I just say “E-mail me a current oil level reading, car” and it does it.

And, let’s face it, everybody is jealous. They see me driving one of these and they know I’ve Made It. I must be some celebrity, or a director of a large company, because those sorts of people are the sorts of people to have these kinds of cars. I see them stare at the car from behind my tinted windows, as I press a touch-sensitive button to turn the air-con down just a fraction. And when I get home, I just twitch my left nostril a bit and the wrought-iron gates leading to my 400-yard drive swing open, and my digital TV automatically turns itself on to Footballers Wives. Bliss.

PHP is a Land Rover

PHP, on the other hand, is an old technology. Originally put together by just one bloke, and is now one of the foremost technologies in use on the web. From the page linked above:

Today, PHP is being used by hundreds of thousands of developers (estimated), and several million sites report as having it installed, which accounts for over 20% of the domains on the Internet.

Its open source roots, huge collective of developers, and ‘hackable’ nature have meant it is often the first server-side technology beginners have been able to get into without a steep learning curve.

In essence, PHP is quite like this:

Land Rover, the original and best

The classic British Land Rover. Originally built to be as simple to fix as possible, it has been a stalwart of not just the British Army, but many armies around the world, for over 50 years. It’s basic, uncomplicated, rugged and tough – exactly what you need for driving across difficult terrain. It’s so modular that what you can’t fix or find spares for you could probably make yourself. In fact I have a friend who makes spares for his Land Rovers in his garage using nothing but some simple tools.

So there you are, parts of your engine strewn across the desert floor after a particularly amorous rhino mistook you for a mate. It could have been worse – you have a set of spanners, a roll of gaffa tape and a flask of tea. Two hours later you’re back on your merry way, stroking your goatee in satisfaction and thinking of your collection of model steal engines waiting for you back in good old Blighty. What-ho.

Landys are classics, up there with Spitfires and red telephone boxes, pints of bitter and fish ‘n’ chips. They are reliable, and even when it does break you don’t need Jim to Fix It for you). But they aren’t comfortable or plush or stylish. They aren’t the sort of thing you turn up in to take a young lady to a restaurant. But they are just the thing to pull a posh SUV out of a muddy field with.

People also stare when you drive a Landy. Most people wonder why you don’t buy a ‘decent’ car, but those in the know understand. It’s not about the bells and whistles, the leather and chrome. It’s about an intimacy with the vehicle – knowing the nooks and crannies, knowing not just what everything does, but how and why. Landy’s hardly impress anyone, and turning up to a high-powered sales meeting in one will make people think you’re losing the plot. But put one up a mountain or in a desert and you’ll see why the heard of a free beast must run wild.

Folksonomies – a different perspective…

There’s been a bit of brou-ha-ha recently over and essay on folksonomies written by Elaine Peterson, Associate Professor and Information Resources Specialist at Montana State University. She talks about the disadvantages with using folksonomies – the posh word for data tagging – and ends with this bold statement:

Folksonomy is a scheme based on philosophical relativism, and therefore it will always include the failings of relativism. A traditional classification scheme will consistently provide better results to information seekers.

(Boldification mine.) I don’t believe this is completely true, however I don’t believe it’s completely false either. And the reason? Well, anyone can hit a nail in with a heavy screwdriver, but using a hammer is much better. That’s right, it’s horses for courses between taxonomies on the right and folksonomies on the left.

Elaine Peterson makes some claims about why folksonomies are a dodgy classification system, but I believe in a lot of instances they don’t matter. She says:

The issue is that adding enough of those individual interpretations [how each user views a particular piece of data] through tags can lead to inconsistencies within the classification scheme itself.

Of course, different people can have different views on particular data and that’s a great thing. For example, one of my favourite bands could be labelled in any music shop under “rock”, “folk” and “jazz”, depending on which album, or indeed which track, you listen too. How would a traditional, inflexible taxonomy handle that?

The fact is it wouldn’t, you get what you’re given whether you like it or not. I’m not saying there aren’t times when that kind of classification isn’t needed, as it is.

For example, part of what I do during the working day involves the set of codes used to categorise every ailment, illness and disease known to man. ‘H33’ would mean something very specific, and it would have a parent, and that would have a parent, all the way up to the major groups – cardio-vascular, muscular etc. In that case, a very specific and rigid classification methodology is not just useful, it’s vital.

However, when it comes to things that people interact with in a more random and rambling manner, tags are the way to go. What Elaine Peterson sees as the weaknesses of folksonomies, I see as it’s strengths. For instance:

  • …user assigning a heading of “San Francisco”, while another uses “Frisco”…
  • …spelling white horse as whit horse…
  • …tagging White Horse when the image is of a white cat…
  • …using an esoteric tag known to very few…
  • Each Internet user is bringing to bear on the item a different linguistic and cultural background…
  • There are no right or wrong classification terms in a folksonomic world

That, to me at least, is wonderful. Let’s use these apparent ‘wrong’ things to make sure we cover every base. I may want to search for ‘Frisco’ and not ‘San Fransisco’, I may discover a fantastic picture of a white cat when I’m looking for white animals. I might find some items relevant to me based on esoteric and culturally-specific search terms. And that is all good.

If you want something more specific, or you want to reward tags that are more ‘right’ then by all means have some weighting in there. So, if only one person has tagged my picture as ‘whit horse’ and a thousand have tagged it ‘white horse’, guess which one has the higher weighting? But don’t penalise someone just for having a different opinion to you about something.

When it comes to the ever-expanding world of internet user-driven applications (a la Flickr etc) tagging is not just a useful tool, it’s vital to the growth and reach of the system. Tagging allows people to search and find, discover, create connections they would never have thought of by themselves, follow unexpected paths. And maybe they’ll find something that is just perfect.

I don’t believe any inflexible, rigid categorisation structure will give you that: the joy of unexpected discovery.

Increasing user interaction with websites…

I recently gave a presentation entitled “Increasing user interaction with websites”. Because I’m all into savig the earth, recycling and being a Jolly Nice Chap, here it is.

I did it in the quite wonderful S5 system by the esteemed Eric Meyer which I will no doubt be using again very soon, and works best in full-screen mode. Try pressing F11 on your keyboard, you might like it.

Connecting…

Several conversations over the last few weeks have set my mind a-racing about the whole nature of what I do. Yes I’m talking about the web, but looking at a much larger picture than just the technology used. The web is transcending the bits and bytes it is made up of, much like books transcend the paper they are written on or a CD of music transcends the plastic it is printed on.

For me the web is about two main things: people and information. It provides the means to connect between those things in ways that weren’t even dreamt of just a decade or two ago.

Connecting information to information gets a pretty technical subject very quickly (web services and the like) so I’ll not delve into it now. Some other time maybe.

Much more interesting is connecting people with information – pretty much anywhere and any time – is a far cry from the days when the privileged few wuld travel to a great city to study in the library. Now the information of the entire world, or at least a large and growing percentage of it, is available to anyone with a computer and internet connection. Classic novels, government survey results, people’s intimate diaries, school meeting minutes, all available to you and I.

But the greatest single power of the internet in my opinion is connecting people to people. The web is about facilitating communities where there wasn’t even communication before, enabling people to meet, talk, share and learn together. No wonder there are so many who seem to spend their whole lives online, it’s a lot easier than going out and finding such a breadth of communities in the physical world.

Today I saw something, a picture, that speaks to me of this immense power we wield. Here it is:

Just a postbox? No, it’s the postbox that allows people to share their innermost secrets with the word, to release their deeply-hidden desires and shames. Thanks to PostSecret, thousands have people have been able to put into words (or rather, put onto a postcard) something they haven’t been able to tell anyone face to face. The web provides one of the biggest oxymorons of our age – global intimacy.

And this is what I want to do. Whether I’m developing a commercial website, open source software, e-commerce system or whatever, I want to make sure I provide a tool that will not only connect people to information, but connect people to people. Make people feel at ease, make them feel like they are a valuable individual, make them feel like someone sympathetic is listening, make them feel they have a voice.

The web truly has done that; given a global voice to the people. And the people are talking.