Archive for February, 2011

[2b2k] Has the Internet killed our theory of medias effect on ideas and culture?

Heres a paragraph from the draft of the book Ive been working on. Its a draft, so contents are subject to settling during shipping.

…as revolution spread from Tunisia to Egypt at the start of 2011, a controversy arose about how much credit social media such as Facebook and Twitter ought to get. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point, had written a New Yorker article in October 2010 arguing that social media are over-rated as tools of social change because they only enable “weak ties” among people, instead of the “strong ties” activists need in order to put themselves at risk. When some media and bloggers credited social media in the Mideast revolutions of 2011, Gladwell posted a two hundred word essay asserting that the influence of social media was “the least interesting fact.” Gladwells comments were a corrective to those who carelessly referred to the events as “Facebook revolutions” or “Twitter revolutions” as if they were the sole cause, but he also disputed those who thought social media played a significant role at all. Given Gladwells standing, and the fact that The Tipping Point is about the importance of social networks, his position surprised many. But, my point is not that Gladwell is mistaken although I think he is. Its that even if we do accept that social media played a role of some significance, its not at all clear what role they played. The more one looks at the question, the clearer it becomes that we dont even have an agreed-upon explanatory framework within which the question might be resolved. And this is true not only of questions touching the Internet. For example, a couple of months after the New Yorker ran the original Gladwell piece, it published an article by Louis Menand that wondered how to gauge the social and political effects of books such as Betty Friedans 1963 The Feminine Mystique. We look at social media at work in civil unrest and we wonder how much the media shape us? How does it happen? Does media influence have the same effects on all cultures? On all strata of society? How much of social unrest in general and in particular countries comes about as the result of having access to information? How much is the result of communication? Of sociality? If there were no social media, would the revolutions have happened, and, if so, how might they have been different?

As the Menand piece makes clear in its discussion of the effect of The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring, and Unsafe at Any Speed, we used to think we knew at least part of how media influence ideas and policy. You write an important book, you go on Dick Cavett and Firing Line, and it changes minds and brings about changes. How? Well, um, it altered “the way we think about things” or some such phrase. We had a lot invested in the power of books.

Now, that theory seems not just hopelessly over-simplified, but wrong. I dont know if thats because single cultural items no longer have the impact that they once did, or if they never did but now we can see how influence actually spreads by following links and through up-and-coming tools such as the Berkman Centers MediaCloud. Or both. Or neither.

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[2b2k] Public data and metadata, Google style

I’m finding Google Lab’s Dataset Publishing Language (DSPL) pretty fascinating.

Upload a set of data, and it will do some semi-spiffy visualizations of it. (As Apryl DeLancey points out, Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas now work for Google, so if they’re working on this project, the visualizations are going to get much better.) More important, the data you upload is now publicly available. And, more important than that, the site wants you to upload your data in Google’s DSPL format. DSPL aims at getting more metadata into datasets, making them more understandable, integrate-able, and re-usable.

So, let’s say you have spreadsheets of “statistical time series for unemployment and population by country, and population by gender for US states.” (This is Google’s example in its helpful tutorial.)

  • You would supply a set of concepts (“population”), each with a unique ID (“pop”), a data type (“integer”), and explanatory information (“name=population”, “definition=the number of human beings in a geographic area”). Other concepts in this example include country, gender, unemployment rate, etc. [Note that I'm not using the DSPL syntax in these examples, for purposes of readability.]

  • For concepts that have some known set of members (e.g., countries, but not unemployment rates), you would create a table — a spreadsheet in CSV format — of entries associated with that concept.

  • If your dataset uses one of the familiar types of data, such as a year, geographical position, etc., you would reference the “canonical concepts” defined by Google.

  • You create a “slice” or two, that is, “a combination of concepts for which data exists.” A slice references a table that consists of concepts you’ve already defined and the pertinent values (“dimensions” and “metrics” in Google’s lingo). For example, you might define a “countries slice” table that on each row lists a country, a year, and the country’s population in that year. This table uses the unique IDs specified in your concepts definitions.

  • Finally, you can create a dataset that defines topics hierarchically so that users can more easily navigate the data. For example, you might want to indicate that “population” is just one of several characteristics of “country.” Your topic dataset would define those relations. You’d indicate that your “population” concept is defined in the topic dataset by including the “population topic” ID (from the topic dataset) in the “population” concept definition.

When you’re done, you have a data set you can submit to Google Public Data Explorer, where the public can explore your data. But, more important, you’ve created a dataset in an XML format that is designed to be rich in explanatory metadata, is portable, and is able to be integrated into other datasets.

Overall, I think this is a good thing. But:

  • While Google is making its formats public, and even its canonical definitions are downloadable, DSPL is “fully open” for use, but fully Google’s to define. Having the 800-lbs gorilla defining the standard is efficient and provides the public platform that will encourage acceptance. And because the datasets are in XML, Google Public Data Explorer is not a roach motel for data. Still, it’d be nice if we could influence the standard more directly than via an email-the-developers text box.

  • Defining topics hierarchically is a familiar and useful model. I’m curious about the discussions behind the scenes about whether to adopt or at least enable ontologies as well as taxonomies.

  • Also, I’m surprised that Google has not built into this standard any expectation that data will be sourced. Suppose the source of your US population data is different from the source of your European unemployment statistics? Of course you could add links into your XML definitions of concepts and slices. But why isn’t that a standard optional element?

  • Further (and more science fictional), it’s becoming increasingly important to be able to get quite precise about the sources of data. For example, in the library world, the bibliographic data in MARC records often comes from multiple sources (local cataloguers, OCLC, etc.) and it is turning out to be a tremendous problem that no one kept track of who put which datum where. I don’t know how or if DSPL addresses the sourcing issue at the datum level. I’m probably asking too much. (At least Google didn’t include a copyright field as standard for every datum.)

Overall, I think it’s a good step forward.

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[2b2k] Jay Rosen on Huffington’s path to somewhere

Jay Rosen wonders if there’s any room in AOL’s buyout of HuffingtonPost for “ideological innovation.” He suggests a four-part policy for AOL’s media:

1. Pluralism. Many points of view.

2. Transparency. All contributors explain where they are coming from.

3. “The view from somewhere.” Media sites will be upfront about their general stand point.

4. “Non-negotiables.” Accuracy, fairness, a fact-checking form for every article, etc.

It may look like #1 and #3 conflict. But, as I understand Jay’s point, pluralism applies to AOL, while having a standpoint would apply to sites like HuffPo and to individual topical sub-sites within HuffPo. (Note that pluralism is very different from balance.)

I like this a lot (surprise surprise!), but I wonder about the right level at which to apply the pluralism criterion. If AOL and other media conglomerates follow Jay’s advice, we will have a bunch of pluralistic hens, with one large, ferociously dedicated Fox in the henhouse.

In any case, I hope AOL listens to Jay. And I hope HuffPo stays ideologically committed, stops running the stupid gossip and pin-up articles, and gets off Obama’s back. But that’s just me.

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[2b2k][misc] Choose your ski resort authority

Great Ski Holidays lets you search for a place you want to go skiing using a faceted system, so you can specify tags such as alpine, beginner, nightlife, and spa. (For my ideal ski resort, the tags would be: free, low, and indoors.) It seems well done, but the thing I really like about it is that you can choose which authorities you want to use: ski review sites, ski resorts & club sites, trade sites & tour operators, and (coming soon) reader reviews.

The site started out as a demo of “Authority Driven Facet Tags” by an enterprise search agency called Metaphor Search. It went so well that they opened it up to the Web public, although it still shows some signs of its demo origins, including some typos, etc. It just adds to the charm.

One of their blog posts actually credits Everything Is Miscellaneous as one of the inspirations, which makes me happy. The post says part of the impetus for developing a faceted system with configurable authorities was experiencing the difficulty of coming up with a single, uncontested geographical classification for the Maldives: Asia? Indian Ocean? And it got worse when they tried to come up with a taxonomy of destination types. So, rather than try to figure out what each user’s unexpressed taxonomy is, they decided to let the user decide which authorities to trust and use those authorities’ ways of divvying up the world. Clever, and not unlike the multi-taxonomy approach taken by some species-of-the-world sites.

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Open access welcomes Nature

A couple of weeks ago, when Nature magazine announced it was starting a peer-reviewed open access journal, PLoS One (a peer reviewed open access journal) welcomed them the way Apple welcomed IBM into the personal computing market:

On January 6, 2011, Nature announced a new Open Access (OA) publication called Scientific Reports. Nature’s news underscores the growing acceptance of OA, as reflected in recent OA journal launches from other traditional publishers such as the BMJ, Sage,  AIP (American Institute of Physics) and APS (American Physical Society). Please spread the word either via this blog post or download this PDF.


Inspired by Apple
.

The Nature entry into the open access field is a big deal. So is Nature’s support of Creative Commons. I’ve had a chance to spend some little time with folks at Nature, and know them to be passionate about making the work of science more accessible. So, this is good news all around.

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Open access welcomes Nature

A couple of weeks ago, when Nature magazine announced it was starting a peer-reviewed open access journal, PLoS One (a peer reviewed open access journal) welcomed them the way Apple welcomed IBM into the personal computing market:

On January 6, 2011, Nature announced a new Open Access (OA) publication called Scientific Reports. Nature’s news underscores the growing acceptance of OA, as reflected in recent OA journal launches from other traditional publishers such as the BMJ, Sage,  AIP (American Institute of Physics) and APS (American Physical Society). Please spread the word either via this blog post or download this PDF.


Inspired by Apple
.

The Nature entry into the open access field is a big deal. So is Nature’s support of Creative Commons. I’ve had a chance to spend some little time with folks at Nature, and know them to be passionate about making the work of science more accessible. So, this is good news all around.

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