Steven Johnson, author of Emergence, writes in Salon about blogs and their potential to provide an alternative search-cum-filter into information: “The collective future of blogs lies not in dethroning the New York Times — but in becoming a force that can make sense of the Web’s infinity of links.”
He talks about how blogs could perhaps dethrone Google for finding useful information. He says: “The beautiful thing about most information captured by the bloggers is that it has an extensive shelf life. The problem is that it’s being featured on a rotating shelf.”
We’ve been doing some thinking of our own as part of BlogStreet over the past month or so. Blogs are very interesting because there is much more structure to what’s being written: there are pages (index, archives, comments, categories) which have posts (which can have links, comments and a permalink) and blogrolls (links to other blogs).
There are “Hublogs” — what Johnson calls as “guardian angels”. These are at the centre of “Interest Clusters”. Blogrolls and the story links are the spokes emerging out of the hublogs. Today, blogs are like independent ants — everyone doing their own thing. But there are patterns forming. These are dynamic. Looking at the blog-level, we see some connections emanating out of a blog.
But go up a level, and perhaps the world of blogs will look just like neighbourhoods in cities, with highways, avenues and bylanes making the connections. The neighbourhoods are the ones which we either live in or visit, depending on our interest. This is emergenc at work, where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
The challenge is to build a blog indexing and search engine which recognises these connections, and automatically forms the clusters among blogs. The feedback also comes in from readers who click on various links and strengthen or weaken the connections.
The way to look at this is to separate the process into two: take the blog pages and then represent them into a standardised format (perhaps as nodes and links). Then, apply existing mathematical theory to see which nodes are “stronger” or more central, and how “thick” are the links and what is their direction.
Do this, and we’ll have a very different insight into the information on the web (and the people out there). Because blogs represent people, we will find ourselves coalescing around a certain set of people (our favourite blogs). Websites could never do this because they represented collections of views from different journalists. Most blogs are focused because they reflect a single individual. This will also help us find other people like us, content and opinions on information we are more likely to read. If all this sounds like collaborative filtering, it is — one of the possible by-products of the link analysis and blog lists.
What does it all mean for Readers? One view is projected by Johnson:
You define a few “guardian” Bloggers, perhaps by checking a box when you visit their site. You also instruct your software to watch the activity on sites maintained by “friends” of those key bloggers. You tell the software that you want a medium level of intrusiveness: In other words, you want the system to point out useful information to you, but you don’t want it constantly bombarding you with data at every turn. And then you start using your computer as you normally do: surfing, writing e-mail, drafting Word documents.
Behind the scenes as you write or read, the software on your machine scans the last few paragraphs for high-information text, the six or seven words that make that paragraph distinct from the average paragraph sitting on your machine. If there’s a URL included in the text, it grabs that too. The software then sends a query to the blogs maintained by your guardian Bloggers, as well as those maintained by their friends — say 20 blogs in all — and searches for posts that include those keywords….Let’s say Jason Kottke has linked to a related article; if four other bloggers you’re following have also linked to that URL, Jason’s description of the article pops up beside the paragraph you’ve just written.
This wouldn’t be a recommendation engine so much as a connection machine, tracking the flow of words across your screen and linking them fluidly to other text residing on the Web.
Bloggers are, in a sense, information filters. The additional advantage is that they have their own opinions and insights. This leads to new ideas and innovations in a way which would previously have been unimaginable. There’s much more to Blogs and Bloggers than we’ve perhaps thought of as so far. Johnson gives us a peep into a possible future. We need to out there and build it.