In a recent post about social graph (a process by which computers scour the internet to identify relationships among various account holders on web 2.0 sites like blogs and social network) Tim O’Reilly discusses the effect that this new technology will have on privacy. He thinks social graph will have a positive effect on net users. In his estimation, the data already exists on the internet. Social graph technology just makes it easier for anyone to connect the dots between your blog, your myspace account and your Facebook friends. Therefore, social graph will make people more aware of their vulnerability to privacy intrusion. He suspects that social graph will impel net users to modify their behavior such that they will advertise fewer of their unseemly acts or thoughts online.

I agree. I really think that the truth always emerges online. You can’t hide on the internet, be you a good or bad netizen. The good folks (most net users) will have to be more cognizant of their online activity as their social relationships become more visible. At the same time, the bad folks (those who seek to exploit the online activities of others) will have just as difficult a time hiding their nefarious work.

Transparency is a great thing.

Let’s face it web search engines are oftentimes frustratingly useless (don’t get me started on Technorati’s useless search engine). Take my recent Google search for “vga cables“. What I wanted to know is what the heck is a vga cable. What I got was a bunch of links to sites where I can purchase them. I thought perhaps a different sort of search engine might do me better, so I typed the following into Ask.com’s search box: “What is a vga cable”. Supposedly Ask understands plain English, so I expected to get results that looked like definitions, not store fronts. Alas, I was wrong. Ask’s results were nearly the same as those of Google. Please, somebody help me.

Dah-tah-dah…Jimmy Wales to the rescue. Well, it’s been almost a month since Wikia Search launched an alpha preview of its new-fangled search engine. By coincidence, I happened to discover Wikia Search on the very day of its release. Though the search engine wasn’t very useful (indeed, TechCrunch panned it fairly badly), I was incredibly excited about its potential (and it has a pretty interface, too).Wikia Search interface

Grass-roots works when enough people care. I figure that there are millions of people like me, tired of crappy search results. It may take a while for Wikia Search to mature, but once it does, it will break the Google monolith. Google doesn’t improve its search because it has no competitors. It’s acting like any monopoly would. This is a call to arms to all you wikipedians and fellow-travelers! Let’s hasten the fall of Google search (or preferably, it’s improvement).

For a while, I thought that politics was the way to change the world. I don’t mean that I wanted to run for office. When I think of politics, I think of a broad range of activities (supporting politicians, running for office, protesting against the government, vandalizing corporate property, etc.). My flavor of political activity was protesting (usually by sitting in a bar complaining about the state of the world, but occasionally with picket signs and marches). Since my early teenage years, I’ve felt the need to rebel against the status quo. Where this spirit came from, I know not. My mother is passive. My father is pure status quo. Perhaps they were a bit too old to become hippies, so they have maintained their 1950s conformity throughout their lives. But as I was saying, I’ve got the rebel streak. Not too long ago, my interest in politics really came to a head. I became involved with people whose lives are centered on political protest and organization. Loosely, they could be described as socialists. I guess I would loosely describe myself as a socialist (or more specifically, a libertarian-socialist). I thought that this was the way to change the world. Organize and scream and eventually things may change. Now, I disagree.

What brought about this change? Well, though I was “fighting” for a world that was rid of hierarchy (i.e., a world of power differentials), my methods were centered in the struggle for power. Protesting, even when “non-violent”, is a very active, very powerful endeavor. Indeed, what drives protesters is the notion that, through collective power, a group of individually-weak people can unseat a group of stronger (albeit, fewer in number) individuals. I now see the paradox: a power struggle to eliminate power.

So what is the alternative? Well, I think that technology is a great alternative. Direct action, like protesting, can cause quick results. Think about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It took a few months for the boycotters to achieve their victory (desegregation of buses), but given how monumental this victory was, I would say that this was a rapid response to direct action. The problem with direct action is that it doesn’t always achieve the intended results (consider all the strikes that end in the employer’s favor), and even when the results are positive, the tide can easily turn a short time later.

Technology, on the other hand, has a more insidious, but longer-lasting effect on humanity. For instance, the national highway system gave birth to American suburbia, but the roots of this change lie in the invention of the automobile, decades prior to the Eisenhower’s highways project. It took many years for the automobile to transform the average American from city-dweller to suburban kings and queens, but that process continues unabated.

Democracy, that wonderful ideal that replaced hereditary power, arose due to technology. By selling technology (like books, for instance), the Europeans of the Middle Ages began to get rich again, and with their new wealth, the burgeoning middle class had more time on their hands to think about how rotten feudalism was. Eventually (centuries later), the Enlightenment arose, and with it came the death of many kings. Again, I argue that without technology, this slow but lasting change might never have occurred.

So back to me. The rebel in me has always been there, and it continues to thrive. However, the geek in me, has come to the forefront lately. I now realize that geeks may be more effective than passionate protesters. “Experts” are losing their livelihood to Wikipedians. Professionals are giving way to amateurs. How is this happening? Via technology. I am certain that blogs and wikis and the like are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to anarchic technologies. The geeks, if properly encouraged, will continue to flatten this world of ours. I still have the potential to live another 70 years. I think that if I last that long, I’ll begin to see the real results of what we’re doing now with our blogs and wikis and social networks. Hopefully the rest of you social software enthusiasts will keep this in mind. One blog post will not change the world, but with time, our combined work will profoundly influence humanity.

I love kimchi. Never heard of it? It’s a spicy, fermented Korean dish made primarily of cabbage. It is delicious, but quite smelly (for an interesting personal anecdote about kimchi, please skip to the end of this posting). You might be asking yourselves what these nuggets of culinary knowledge have to do with my blog theme, anarchic technologies. Well, let me tell you. A couple of years ago, I decided to learn how to make kimchi (to the chagrin of my then roommate). Interestingly, my favorite kimchi recipe site comes from a geek in Australia named Greg Lehey. (For those of you who winced at the word geek, I assure you that I use it affectionately, as one geek to another would.) Thanks to Greg, my homemade kimchi turned out just right. (In fact, I still have a small jar of that original batch sitting in my fridge.) Greg’s web site intrigued me. He likes computers, beer and kimchi (a man after my own heart). So I started fishing around and came across this excellent rant whose file name is ./reverse-horror.html. In this clever essay, Greg details his dislike of documents that are reverse-chronologically ordered. So as I was surfing the blogosphere today (which is uniformly ordered in a reverse-chronological way), I thought about Greg and his rants and his kimchi.

Is Greg justified in hating reverse order? Will backward become the new forward? Film and movie writers have tried it (see the famous backward episode of Seinfeld, entitled “Betrayal”, or the film Memento). So what about blogs? The way these things are written (i.e., they are serialized) differs from traditional reading materials. Today, most books and articles are usually published in one fell swoop. Thus, reading from beginning to end is the natural method (except for you cheaters who flip to the back page to see who done it). Blogs take us back to the days of Dickens and others, when novels and other publications were parceled out in discreet chunks. (Indeed, I just read a great book about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was also published as a series of volumes, but thankfully released in forward, alphabetical order.) In my opinion, the serial nature of blogs is refreshing. The anticipation of next week’s installment keeps me interested in the author’s work. However, do all readers prefer this order?

I understand the common explanation for why blogs are in reverse-chronological order: to obviate the need for scrolling. If blogs were published in forward order, readers who return frequently to the blog would have to constantly scroll (or, worse yet, page) to reach the newest content. For this same reason, I like to keep my email list in reverse-chronological order (so I don’t always have to scroll to the bottom to see the unread messages). This works well for the reader who sits at the edge of her seat waiting for the next blog post to bubble up. What of the rest of us? When I come across a new blog, I usually arrive there via a link from elsewhere. Sometimes the posting that I read is the author’s most recent, but frequently it’s a past posting. If I like the article and want to read more from the author, I naturally click on the “home” link. What usually appears on the screen at this point is a pretty header and the most recent posting. I usually walk away dissatisfied at this point. How am I to fully grasp what the author is saying if I don’t have the context of her previous writings? I would really like to start at the beginning and work my way forward. This is exceedingly difficult on most blogs. The most egregious blogs force me to scroll to the bottom of the page, click on the “older posts” link, and repeat ad infinitum. The more friendly blogs have archive links in a side panel (which, though they too are usually in reverse-chronological order, eliminate the need for repeated pagination). Why can’t I just get a resort button? Is it so difficult?

Whoa! Now I’m ranting. So I guess Greg has a point. Reverse-chronological order ain’t for everyone.

On that note, let me end with my amusing personal anecdote about kimchi. I bought a jar of it one day, put it in my backpack (to save a plastic grocery bag), walked outside, and forgot about it completely. Eventually I went back to school (I was studying medicine at the time). While loitering in the med school lobby, I ran into a woman on whom I had my eye. I struck up a conversation and shamelessly flirted with her. All seemed to be going well and I was exceedingly pleased with my social skills when I noticed her nose start twitching. Curious, I sniffed at the air a bit. Yikes! It smelled awful. I figured something must have died in the corner of the lobby (you never know what you might find in a med school, like the waste basket in the anatomy room that says “human parts only”). I suggested that we move down the hall. Still it reeked. Again, I suggested that we move to another location, but to no avail. Eventually she wiggled her way away from me and I sat there in the terrible stink. Then it dawned on me! The kimchi! The kimchi! Drat that kimchi! You know, I never did hear from her again.

For those who have read my about page or one of my previous posts, you’ll know that I dislike hierarchy. Thus, it would be a good bet that I prefer grass-roots activities as opposed to top-down actions. Notwithstanding your bet, I think that for the majority of current companies, a top-down approach to the promotion of social software is preferred. Does this sound paradoxical? I have heard that social software applications like wikis are creeping into companies via grass-roots efforts. Typically, you hear that a few geeks at the company adopt wiki or blogging software, then, with momentum, the applications begin to be used by others in the organization. This is great. Grass-roots rocks. I’d much rather see things get done this way than from a management directive. However, most companies have strong hierarchies. Its the status quo. So I question how effective grass-roots can be. Sure, perhaps an organization will decide to roll-out blogging company wide after a successful pilot by a small group of devotees, but will the other workers use it? I have a feeling that most company-wide investments in anarchic technologies fail to achieve significant adoption by users. I know that in my own organization this is glaringly the case. Would not user adoption be more likely if management gave some incentives (whether these motivations be carrots or sticks or both)? My practical nature tells me that in this instance, top-down is OK.

Practicality aside, I think that management promotion of social apps has a certain appeal, albeit an ironic one. How great would it be to see the people in power promoting something that presumably weakens their power? I love to see people sacrifice their power. Indeed, I would argue that sacrificing power is one of the most beautiful types of human action.

In my previous post, I wrote about the relationship between work flow and anarchic technologies. In proofing my text, I was reminded of the second chapter of Donald Norman‘s book Things That Make Us Smart (published by Addison-Wesley, 1993) in which he discusses the human phenomenon of “flow”. It’s a state of being that goes by many names (most of them being related to sports): “in the zone”, “in the groove”, “on the ball”, etc. It’s a wonderful mindset. As Don says, “It is an enjoyable state, for when attention becomes so intensely focused upon the thing of interest everyday worries and fears are transcended and all else recedes.” Wow, Don just captured what I love about flow: no worries, no distractions, focused thought. Sadly, for most of us, flow is limited to those times when we are sitting in front of the TV or film screen. Yes, it’s great to “zone out” with a flick, but it’s much more useful to experience flow when doing something productive. I have a terrible time achieving flow when reading or writing, and I suspect that others find this difficult also. I do, however, frequently experience flow when doing certain computer activities. Namely, when I’m busy coding HTML or doing other such tasks, I often get in the zone.

Why do I bring this up? Well, all these ideas made me reflect on how technology can help one achieve flow. Mundane tasks such as coding can be made enjoyable if one can achieve flow while doing the tedious work. Coding by hand in a simple text editor is terribly boring. That’s why I use a special text editor that simplifies the work. Indeed, the editor is so good that when I use it, I frequently enter that flow state. Coding no longer seems like drudgery. What I wonder is if the designers of social software consider the idea of flow. From my experience, I would bet not. For instance, I am using WordPress to create this blog. Although I don’t have experience with other blog hosts, I would bet that this is a pretty good one. The site has powerful tools and it is relatively easy to use. That being said, I have yet to experience anything remotely like “flow” while interacting with WordPress. For example, I find myself clicking through all the menus to find what I want. It’s not easy to maintain flow when you’re lost. Is it the nature of blogs and blogging software that prevent me from achieving flow? Is it just that blogs and I don’t mix? Perhaps other bloggers get in the groove. One way or the other, I reiterate that social software designers should ponder how they can help their users achieve flow. What better way to get people to return again and again to your product?

I’ve been digging around the blogosphere to learn what’s already been published about the use of socially-oriented technology in the work place. One name that was repeatedly mentioned is Andrew McAfee (a Harvard professor of business). I have yet to extensively peruse his blog, but I was really impressed with his most recent entry on widening the flow. In this posting, he builds upon the work of his friend Michael Idinopulos, who argues that “in-the-flow” wikis enjoy heavier usage than “above-the-flow” wikis. By “in-the-flow”, Micheal means work that is part of one’s daily routine. Email would be “in-the-flow” for most people, for example. Hand-writing a letter would be an example of an “above-the-flow” activity.

CIOs beware! If you’re considering purchasing an enterprise wiki (or similar technology), you should consider the expectations for how the wiki will be used. Thinking in terms of flow is, in my opinion, a great way to judge the pros and cons of spending money on a new app. If I were a CIO, I’d sit down with other management types and discuss how best to make the wiki be an “in-the-flow” tool. It would be in my best interest to encourage heavy usage if I wanted to avoid be blamed for purchasing a useless novelty. Thankfully, I’m a lowly worker who needs not worry about such C-level concerns.

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