Archive for May, 2011

Back to the Forbidden Planet – Exploring in the Digital World

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Back in our youth, when we had more time, less experience and big dreams, I suspect many of us will have spent plenty of time exploring.  No, not the pith helmet “Dr Livingstone I presume” kind of exploring or the gap year partying that passes for the “travel broadening the mind” kind of exploring that goes on these days.  No, I mean time well spent exploring music, literature or some other similar love.

FPFor me it was comics (yes, I know, just how much more of the geek stereotype can I fulfil? Just the sandals and Star Trek insignia tattoo now, and I am complete).  I started reading them when I was 7, and they changed my life.  I fell in love with a particular title (2000AD) which, still running today, represents the absolute peak of British writing and comic artistry in this genre but 2000AD alone wasn’t enough, I wanted more.  Remember, these were the days before graphic novels, VHS/DVD, the internet and more than 3 channels on the telly and there were few places in the country you could go to explore this world further.  In fact, there was just one oasis, aptly titled “The Forbidden Planet” a comic shop in London, some 150 miles from my home town.

The Forbidden Planet became a mecca to me, I would make an annual pilgrimage down to London (or semi annual if my pocket money could stand it) just to spend hours in that store on Denmark Street, exploring the incredible new world that I had discovered.  I still remember the place (it’s in a new location and much flasher now), I remember the layout, the euphoria of so much content in one place, I remember the smell of the floorboards and old paper and the excited apprehension that comes from being the country hick in the city.

The hours I spent in there lead me to all sorts of extraordinary places, new comics, books (even proper grown up ones that normal people read), all things I would never have found if I hadn’t had the opportunity for a tactile, tangible experience of what was effectively curated content.  I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess that all of you will have had a similar experience (or maybe still do), it won’t necessarily have been comics, but I’ll bet you spent a lot of time in book stores, record shops, music shops, motorbike dealers whatever, doing exactly the same thing – exploring.

So apart from a little misty eyed nostalgia on my part, what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that providing the exploratory part of discovery in a digital world is _bloody hard_.  I’m not arguing the semantics here about the value of holding the album cover of your favourite artists new release poring over every detail vs looking at a Jpeg of the same, as I believe we will adapt to getting that experience digitally (and in many ways it can be richer), no this is about coming to a place filled with similar (but not the same) kind of content where you are free to explore your interests. 

As the curators of content, we can do so much, we can provide the path to explore new worlds (both accurately and, as we get smarter, randomly yet with relevance) but we have to work hard to provide the “environmental” experience which becomes so important to us as individuals.  The key actually comes back to the same old thing – “content is king” but in reality what this means (when it comes to exploration) is establishing a broad set of meta-data about individual elements and more importantly, being able to surface this meta-data as well as the specific item as part of the curated content (or search result).  This alone won’t replace those dusty bookstores of our youth, but it will in some way help to form the bridge between the digital and analogue worlds.

In many ways, this is part of the sentiment behind Stefan’s recent allegations that traditional search is failing,  this can easily be passed off as jingoistic hyperbole (as Danny Sullivan tried to postulate on Twitter) but in reality it’s a really important reminder that the web and more broadly the internet is no longer powered by links alone. This is about providing a digital service that is reflective of the analogue equivalent, serving each and every query with a broad result that includes a rich spectrum of responses and associated content, moving us waaaaaaay beyond those 10 blue links once and for all.

Inside Google’s Big Tent

Friday, May 20th, 2011

I spent a day this week inside Google’s “Big Tent” – essentially a high profile event on privacy, hosted by Google, Privacy International and Index on Censorship, with an audience of the very cream of the British digital elite (and me).

I learnt a lot of things of which I’ll share the detail in the moment, but first I thought you should know the headlines:

  1. Eric Schmidt likes Chrome – he says it’s safe and fast.
  2. The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport (and responsible for this country’s legislation around internet use) says the government’s priorities for the internet are speed and mobile.
  3. In other news, the Pope  _is_ catholic and bears _do_ defecate in the woods.

DonkeyI mean seriously, is that the best we can do when it comes to pushing the boundaries of thought leadership around privacy in the digital society?  Thankfully, the audience was mostly cynical hacks and privacy activists – you can imagine how well those points were received.  

Anyhow, with that out of the way, there was in fact an incredible discussion throughout the day on a wide range of local and global topics around privacy and free speech, what follows below are the (admittedly blinkered) takeaways from the discussion that I want to explore further.

  1. It is clear that the law cannot keep pace with changes in technology. If I had a buck for every time someone on a panel said “technology has made an ass of the law” I would have precisely $16.73c.  Although this point was universally agreed, there seemed to be no clear way forward to address this.  Simon Davies from Privacy International had a particularly pragmatic solution – do nothing – effectively let it happen and let them learn. (The context for that point was the discussion around super-injunctions and Twitter in the UK).
  2. Organisation vs the individual. The focus remains to be on what can the “organisation” do to make an individual’s privacy better. Despite pushing from the audience (advocates from Mydex et al in particular) there was little interest in a discussion around what it would mean to put the individual in full control of their information.
  3. Collation vs Publication. There was still a desire to focus on the search engine’s role in collating the content (i.e. the index) vs the actual publisher of the content. I’m wondering why this point is so hard for people outside the industry to grasp.  (see 4 below).
  4. Search is not the internet. Google’s Drummond put this well, “It’s a search engine, not the internet” but the conversation never followed suit. We should have been pushing Jeremy Hunt on the legal changes and leadership required from government i.e. you tell us which is the content we should remove and we’ll do it, the best example being religious extremist content – you want us to remove it, but you won’t tell us what is and what isn’t? Go fish. (My words).
  5. The “Right to be Forgotten” is a jingoistic phrase that not many understand.  Common (mis)perception means that this should allow me to have control about anything about me on the internet.  They forget of course that this conflicts with free speech.  Where we need to move on this discussion is an understanding that individuals should have the right to remove data _they_ have posted about themselves, but not data that _others_ have posted about them.
  6. Privacy Boundaries.  We established at least three clear boundaries around privacy that need to be explored further: Privacy vs Innovation (consensus was that privacy has _never_ impeded innovation), Privacy vs Free Speech (what’s private to you, may be free speech to me – who decides?), and Privacy vs Public Interest (are super-injunctions an expensive waste of time in a digital age).

Like Max Boyce, always said, “I know ‘cause I was there” – but what did _you_ think?

Curation, Serendipity and Rastabilly Skank

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Although typically talked about in the context of museums and artefacts, increasingly curation is becoming adopted in a digital society as the concept of having others select a collection of content for you.  It’s an incredibly powerful concept and as we move forward with search it becomes one of extreme importance as we seek to get the right combination of both relevancy _and_ trust in our results.

rastabillyCuration of content is nothing new, and I’d forgotten how pervasive it was in how we consume content (and has always been) until I started randomly thinking about how one of this year’s big new trends will be cloud based audio (cue Google, Amazon and Apple announcements) and if I get all my music from the cloud, probably curated through some mechanical process like Lastfm or Pandora then is radio dead? Well, of course it’s not. Radio works because (mostly) they have proper people “curating” collections of tracks for specific audiences.  Humans (especially good ones) know that there’s a difference between the Clash and the Sex Pistols and that “Punk rock” is an attitude not a music style, right kids? (But I digress).

This random thought then joined up with something I’d heard earlier in the week from those lovely folks at the Guardian’s TechWeekly podcast – (sure, I’m sucking up to them, but ignore that, they still represent the _only_ place in this country you can go to for proper analysis on the societal impact of technology).  Last week they interviewed the folks at Artfinder (brilliant concept by the way) and whilst they talked about their innovative service, they stopped off to talk about the importance of curation and our old friend serendipity.  Then Chris Thorpe (founder of Artfinder) said “John Peel was probably the ultimate serendipity engine” – talk about the penny dropping (and at the wrong speed too).  For those of you viewing at home in black and white, John Peel was one of the most influential DJ’s in the UK, his tastes were, let’s just say eclectic, he knew no musical boundaries, and his playlists provided the soundtrack to the youth of millions of kids in the UK.  What made Peel brilliant was he knew his audience, knew his music and had the confidence to introduce new material (new to the audience, or new to the world, it didn’t matter.)  Ironically for this anecdote, it was Andy Kershaw or Mark Lamarr that played this role for me and given that unlike John, they haven’t yet shuffled off this mortal coil, their continued absence from the airwaves remains a national disgrace – can you fix it Jem? – (BTW – You need to follow Jem if you want the best curated experience of all that BBC radio has to offer).

So back to the point, why is all this radio nostalgia important?  Well think back to what I just said – curation works best when it is done with:

  1. good knowledge of the audience,
  2. good knowledge of the subject and
  3. the courage to introduce something new.

These are the very essence of discovery in the digital world and yet another signal about why, even with the best machine learning systems and algorithms, you still need the human/social signal to get it right. It’s easy to generate a list of “likes” of seemingly connected content, and it’s easy to play to the “herd”. What’s hard is to make it properly personal in a way that will resonate with the individual and take that concept of personalisation to the next level. 

This, my friends, is our challenge, if we are to truly get beyond relevancy, introduce trust and become the ultimate mechanism allowing the curation of the web for individuals, we have to figure out how to make search the enabler (note not owner) in how this happens.

Besides without this or Peel’s incredible talent, how am I ever going to find the next Rastabilly Skank

The other side of social search

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

listenI have a friend, (hard to believe I know, but it’s true) who is the only person I have ever met that can accurately predict whether or not I will like a particular band, album or piece of music. He sends me links and information on bands I’ve never heard of and would likely never discover and makes accurate predictions on the extent to which I will like them even though he knows I’ve never heard of them, never mind listened to them.

It’s a great service for me and saves me no end of time (but equally costs me a lot of money, because when he’s right, he’s absolutely right and I end up buying the entire back catalogue) but what’s really interesting about this, is that it represents a principle of a very different type of social search to the one we’ve been discussing recently around the aggregation of “sentiment” (Facebook “likes” in our case) around a given topic.

The importance of this new approach is that it deals with the assumption that “your friends are like you” that is implicit in the current method of introducing the social signal to search. Although at a high level, this assumption may be broadly right, at a more granular level it’s often completely wrong. My social network is made up of friends, family, colleagues (old and new) and a few other random acquaintances – to make the assumption that all these people are “like” me is, generically, probably true, but at a more specific level it is hideously wrong – for example, one of my brothers supports West Ham United and listens to the Smiths. Not following WHU is probably self-explanatory, but like Mitch, I must confess I never went through a Smiths phase. But I digress, my point is that just because someone in my network likes these things, does that mean I do? Of course not, generically you might infer that our connection may imply I like football and 80’s indie music but to be explicit about it would just be silly.

A new piece of research from our friends in MSR Cambridge is focusing on this principle, using a technique called “prediction extraction” to solicit opinions from friends as to whether they think the individual in question would like the item in question before they have even experienced it.

This approach is based on the observation that “although your friends are not you and may not have the same tastes as you, they are likely the people who actually know you best”.

You can read the detail of the approach here but essentially it offers a number of advantages, primarily around the accuracy, quality and coverage that the harnessing of this tacit knowledge brings, the real trick however is how to extract this information in a way that is easy and rewarding for the contributor and seamless for the consumer.

Predicting your friends opinions is nothing new (Mum _always_ knew best, right?, and it augments rather than replaces the “wisdom of the crowds”, but it does offer a new way of providing accurate, insightful predictions around the relevancy of a given topic or item to the individual. Going forward we’re going to need a range of these techniques if we are to truly humanise the way search provides us the answers we’re looking for.

My friend and music sensei doesn’t like the same music as me (can you believe he only has _one_ Men They Couldn’t Hang album?) but he does know me well, and he loves music – this combination alone could save HMV’s fortunes (and likely bankrupt me!).