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Web and flow - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
Web and flow
Institutional Web Management Workshop 2006
June 14th-16th, University of Bath

A quick summary, before life overtakes me and I lose the impetus:

As a first-timer at the event, I risk looking like a wide-eyed web innocent with the following comments, but I'd still like to say that I thought IWMW-2006 was fantastic: at its best it was like living in some kind of experimental utopian always-online community, and even at its worst (not counting networking-induced hangovers) it was always interesting and thought-provoking.

The big buzzword of the event was "Web 2.0": not a technology, not even a formal methodology, more an attitude, or (allowing myself to be infected by the general enthusiasm) a vision of the future of information. The emphasis was strongly on collaboration, on sharing resources and working together (at all levels -- personal, technological, methodological) to produce something greater than the sum of the parts. It's easy to feel enthusiastic about the benefits of collaboration when surrounded by a couple of hundred excited experts; harder by far, but ultimately the only point of the exercise, to carry that torch back into the office -- or at least blog the brightness and capture the flame on Flickr.

At the other end of the scale from all the shiny new technology, I was delighted to see IRC being used as a force for good. I've loved it since I started using it in about 1997 (scat0324 will probably remember my first tentative steps onto OxIRC, and somebody may even have logged it) and I've found that it's a medium of communication ideally suited to my way of talking/working; but this conference was my first experience of seeing just how neatly and productively IRC can interact with realtime input to the enhancement of both, as the general IRC channel allowed us to interweave parallel debates and comments with the talks and workshops which were taking place.

At a personal level, the conference was hugely confidence-building; I felt as though I'd been weighed in the balance and found, well, obviously comparatively young and inexperienced, but nevertheless on the right track. There were a couple of moments when I really thought yes, I do know what I'm talking about here, I'm contributing something to the discussion, and experts in my field are prepared to listen to what I have to say, and that's always good for the ego. Being able to 'speak geek' helped a lot, too; never underestimate the bonding potential of usenet nostalgia! Though I should note that the thing that broke the ice with the first conference delegate I met (at the bus-stop outside Bath train station) was the "BRETT ANDERSON IS GOD" badge on my bag strap. Call it interdisciplinary networking. 8-)

I've come back with all sorts of ideas: from low-level improvements along the lines of how we can make our wikis more useful, or tools we can use for processing Quark files into HTML; to issues of information architecture, and an even more urgent and more focused sense of the need for proper user-testing and feedback-gathering so that we're at least making an effort to reflect our users' mind-maps; to visions for setting up more active collaborative networks, both internally and externally. It was significant that I probably spent more time talking to my Cambridge colleagues during the three days of the conference than I had done in total during the 2.5 years or so I've been in this job; that's something I want to change in the future. (If we can't even talk from one University site to another, what hope do we have of communicating with the wider world?) Also, I went to the conference hoping to put out feelers for the possibility of setting up a network for Oxbridge 'Informationists' (a term I've picked up via infomatters [relevant blog entry here] and am determined to popularise) and I got some encouragingly positive noises in response; so that's something to pursue more actively between now and next year.

I've also come back with a new resolve to sort out the tagging on this LJ, and to update my shockingly outdated website (and write a monograph on the death of the personal home page). There's really no excuse for the cobbler's children to continue cutting their bare feet on the broken glass that litters the information superhighway.

I'll do a more coherent and comprehensive writeup at some point, which will probably appear here and/or elsewhere; in the meantime, sorry if I've missed email/LJ from you while I was away (feel free to nudge) and I'll do my best to catch up soon.

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Comments
From: rgl Date: June 19th, 2006 02:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I feel very excited because I've just implemented tagging on my big library of MRI scans. Whether the researchers will actually use it or not is another matter.

This also inspired me to re-tag a lot of my LJ, mind you...
From: rgl Date: June 19th, 2006 02:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, and whatever happened to the Semantic Web?
j4 From: j4 Date: June 19th, 2006 03:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
See the intro in that Wikipedia article I linked to. 8-) Basically, Web 2.0 incorporates the concepts of the Semantic Web and a whole lot more besides (and taking a more holistic view). Detractors would probably claim that "Web 2.0" is just a big empty buzzword that means "L@@K! COOL STUFF!" or (more cynically) "please give us money for this poorly-defined project", but I think that's throwing the baby out with the bathwater -- there's a lot of interesting stuff going on with social networking, intelligent information aggregation, user-driven taxonomies ... and yes, there's a fair amount of 'shiny shiny coin coin' as well.

A lot of "Web 2.0" is stuff we've already been doing for years; it's not a new direction as such, it's more an acknowledgement and reinforcement of the direction we're already going in. At the risk of falling even further into potential self-parody, it's a vision for the growth of the Information Age... And there I must stop before your buzzword-alarms break from over-use!

From: rgl Date: June 19th, 2006 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeeesss... The Register is very negative about Web 2.0, as you're probably aware. Just watch Andrew Orlowski as he starts fuming at the mouth (again)!

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/05/25/junk_science_and_the_wisdom_of_chimps/
j4 From: j4 Date: June 19th, 2006 03:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I know the counter-arguments, and in the grand scheme of things, Web 2.0 (or rather the myriad "junk technology" [some of which is pretty useful in its context, some of which is just shiny-for-shiny's-sake] that could be included under that heading) isn't going to end poverty, cure cancer, etc. etc. What it is starting to do is harness the power of distributed knowledge, increase the ease and speed of interpersonal communication (a mixed blessing), and [warning: personal hobby-horse] devolve responsibility for certain types of information away from central authorities, and back to the users of that information; from a moral perspective (in a wider context than the web) I think that's a good thing. No, not everybody can use the internet, I'm not under the illusion that it's creating some sort of utopian egalitarian society; but there are quite enough people who are already using the internet who are whining that it doesn't solve their problems. Now some of the responsibility is being pushed back onto them. Don't like the web? Make a better one. No useful info on wikipedia? Write some.

At the end of the day, though, all these things are tools; sometimes they'll end up in the hands of chimps, sometimes they won't, sometimes the chimps will hit the wrong button, sometimes the people will hit the wrong button, sometimes we'll look from human to chimp, and from chimp to human, and realise that already it's impossible to say which is which... Ahem, hang on, wrong vision of the future. The thing is, tools are neutral; all we can try to do is use them wisely.

I'd argue this better given a) more time* and b) fewer coffee.

* I know, I could spend longer on it, but if I sit on it for too long I'll lose the impetus!
From: rgl Date: June 19th, 2006 04:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, it's OK, I'm not quite as cynical as Mr Orlowski. At least, not about Web 2.0, though I'm not a big fan of Wikipedia, because I think that experts are quite useful if you want to have readable prose. But I'm all in favour of making collaborative projects more easier to use for those experts who aren't computer experts.
bellinghman From: bellinghman Date: June 19th, 2006 05:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Frankly, Andrew Orlowski is too cynical for me - as a result, I've pretty well dropped The Register.

It's one thing pointing out shortcomings, but AO gets hysterical when anyone disagrees with him - witness his calling the rather respected journal Nature a bunch of incompetent boobs when they reported that the error rate in Wikipedia was not actually that much worse than the Britannica's.

(Oh, you want a reference for that? I'm sorry, but I can't hold my nose long enough.)
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 19th, 2006 06:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree or disagree with AO roughly equal amounts of time, but his criticisms of that Nature news article were dead on - it was just a brief Nature news/editorial article which the mainstream media reported as though it were a scientific paper. (That may not have been Nature's fault, of course.) Whether or not its conclusions were correct, and despite his obvious bias, it's fair enough for him to point out that if it had been a paper it probably wouldn't have got through Nature's own peer review.
From: rgl Date: June 19th, 2006 06:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sorry, that was me.
j4 From: j4 Date: June 19th, 2006 03:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
And furthermore (thinking out loud here as much for my own notes as anything, feel free to ignore): one point made in that article is that people are frustrated with the web, with not being able to get information, with pop-ups and spam and so on; that their experience of it is, frankly, rubbish.

Faced with torrents of poorly-organised information, you can either a) throw up your hands and say "It's all a load of rubbish", or you can take a deep breath and start learning strategies for dealing with it, engaging with it, even contributing to the organising of that information, and so giving back to the community that gave you the information in the first place. Which is more likely to a) benefit the individual, and b) act as a force for reform in the information economy?

(Please continue to shoot my arguments down! -- I want to think about the counterarguments, but I also believe in this [i.e. it's at least partly faith rather than fact], and it's always hard to argue against things that you believe.)
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 19th, 2006 06:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
As it happens I'm not really arguing with you... at least I don't think I am. I'm mainly unhappy with the presentation of Web 2.0 in utopian terms, as it is essentially libertarianism - the government which governs best is that which governs least etc (hence Wikipedia). I don't think that's the best way to organise information any more than it's the best way to run a country - some regulation is often a good thing. But on the other hand I'm quite happy to accept that the position we're starting from is closer to the other extreme - an information dictatorship, perhaps - and so the Web 2.0 technologies are moving things in the direction of a more sensible compromise between usability and efficiency/organisation.
From: rgl Date: June 19th, 2006 06:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
That was me too - I think my IP address changed and so LJ logged me out.
jvvw From: jvvw Date: June 20th, 2006 07:37 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure Web 2.0 really encompasses the semantic web - it's almost orthogonal to it in fact (as long as you don't equate the semantic web with all rdf formats). But as there's no precise definition of Web 2.0 it's a matter of opinion I guess.

I think there's something quite religious about the whole Web 2.0 and that's why some people find it annoying as well as the fact it does get used as buzzword inappropriately. If it means people get money to do good things, then I think it's good.

A lot of the stuff you talk about overlaps with a lot of stuff I work in the more e-learning arena. In fact we're about to redesign our university's 'knowledge network' for staff in a more web 2.0 ish type way (hopefully if I get any say in it!)
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 21st, 2006 07:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've also come back with a new resolve to sort out the tagging on this LJ, and to update my shockingly outdated website (and write a monograph on the death of the personal home page).

It's always fun to announce the death of some technology or other (email, BSD, web services)... though they never seem to get the hint, it's a wonderful piece of rhetoric, common enough to have made it worth adding a Slashdot Death Troll template to the wiki. "I just heard some sad news on talk radio - the personal homepage was found dead in its server room this morning." :-)

I agree with jvvw that the semantic web and web 2.0 are fairly orthogonal. Web 2.0 tends to underline things like community, the Long Tail, thousands of competing opinions etc. W3C Semantic-Web-With-A-Big-S tends to emphasise accurate, well-formed or db-generated data. The idea in RDF that one can take a bunch of RDF triples and make logical inferences across them, kind of like in Prolog. If your RDF is based on faulty data, the result might not be worth all that much. There are ways to handle imperfect data but while the approaches are not ultimately incompatible they're no closer to each other than, say, essay-writing vs haiku.

Anyhow... what IRC channel/server do you live on?

-- Em (UKOLN IRC...)
j4 From: j4 Date: June 22nd, 2006 03:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I notice that "the author" hasn't taken the hint about being dead yet either... The bit about the death of the personal home page was partly a bit of a dig at a guy I know who wrote a paper asking whether the home page was the first 'digital genre'.

I'm happy to accept that I may have just got the wrong idea about the relationship between the Semantic Web and Web 2.0 -- in my defence, though, people do throw the terms around fairly freely, so it can be hard to get a handle on what anybody "really" means by it! The way I see it, though, it's a question of whether you're "semanticising" (ugh) the web from the top down or from the bottom up. ... Does that make sense? Or am I just talking out of my RSS? ;-)

I'm mostly on the private IRC channels for the servers where I have my email accounts -- basically local geek networks that grew from the people I hung around with at university -- so I don't really have a 'home' on proper IRC. Tell me where the interesting people (or at least the sane people) hang out, and I'll come along and try to be interesting (and sane)! 8-)
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