Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

August 8, 2003


Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 13:04
The greatest challenge for developers of Social Network Enablement software will be to allow each of us to portray our knowledge and our network(s) any way we want to represent them.
networksTo let us represent our knowledge and our networks our way is consistent with the principles of a World of Ends. It is also consistent with the requirement, as I’ve described earlier, that social software work with the content of everyone’s weblog/personal knowledge profile regardless of how we choose to organize that content, i.e. regardless of how our ‘mental filing cabinet’ is laid out and indexed. This is a critical design point: We do not want or need a centralized ontology or taxonomy that each of us is forced to adapt to. We should be free to organize our own stuff any way we want to, and the software should do the heavy lifting. So, for example, when my friend Gary Lawrence Murphy goes looking for knowledge about ‘connector tools for social computing’ (his term), the system needs to ascertain that this is substantially what I call on my weblog the ‘expertise finder‘ component of ‘Social Network Enablement tools’. Our mental filing cabinets are organized differently, but that shouldn’t prevent the software from making the equivalency connection.

This is all about communication and accommodation of how our brains represent things differently. It’s about how we personally categorize and search for information in real life (not the impoverished keyword-popularity world of Google) and how we listen and interact orally and in writing with people in real life. In every conversation we translate from what we perceive the other person’s ‘mental model’ to be, to our own mental model, a process that learning experts call internalization of information. To be truly useful, to enable our weblog/personal knowledge profile to be a true surrogate/proxy/stand-in for us, social software needs to use AI to map, assess equivalency, and translate between our different terminologies and styles of knowledge organization. This would represent a big advance in software development, and will need to involve linguists and semantics in the design process as this company has been doing.

What does this mean for the networking components, the ‘connecting people-to-people’ aspects of social software tools? It means that each of us needs to be able to represent our networks our way, and let the software draw the bridges, connect the dots between them. It means, just as there must be no standard taxonomy to which all our blogs must conform, there must be no standard, mandatory directory format for our networks. The Dewey decimal system of knowledge taxonomy sucked. The old hard-copy Bell phone book sucked (and still does). The last thing we need is to replace these old, inflexible, restrictive tyrannies with new ones.

Here’s a practical example of what’s needed. The diagram above shows my mental model, how I represent my social networks (only in my head, I’m not that anal). In the diagram, the position around the circle shows the nature of my relationship with those in my network, and it’s multivariate: it encompasses the geographic nature of the relationship (people who are neighbours vs. those elsewhere in Canada vs. those I’ve never met in person and have no idea where they live). It encompasses the intellectual nature of the relationship (what interests I think we share). It encompasses the genealogical nature of the relationship (family versus non-family). And it shows, via proximity to the centre, the strength of the relationship — the closer to me in the middle, the closer I perceive the relationship, and that’s important information too. You’ll notice that Gary appears more than once (in red).

I’m sure Gary would represent his social networks very differently. He may have a flat alphabetic personal address book/phone directory with e-mail addresses beside the phone number and a 1-5 star system for representing nature or strength of relationships, for all I know. The critical point is that this shouldn’t matter. Good social networking software should accommodate both of our ways of representing our networks, and help each of us identify useful new contacts, connect with others and add people to our networks the way we want to.

I can hear the software developers throwing up their hands in frustration. Let me say it again: When you force people to adapt their mental models to a standard model (inevitably a complex one to accommodate a variety of lowest-common-denominator specifications), a standard model dictated by the technology and its designers, you will get no usage, or at best reluctant, inefficient usage. Video conferencing technology is a perfect example. It’s too complex, too counter-intuitive. It doesn’t work the way our eyes work. The webcam, once it can be made unobtrusive, portable, and self-referential (so the viewer can see me, and what I see, without my intervention), it will become ubiquitous where videoconferencing failed. Eyes open, eyes shut. Camera on, camera off. That’s all the controls it should have. The software should do everything else automatically. World of Ends.

Same with social networking software. It has to allow each of us to map our knowledge and our relationships our own way. I’m not proposing my graphical representation of networks, above, as a standard. On the contrary, I’m proposing that there be no standard, but instead a sophisticated mechanism for translation that sits invisibly (to us) behind each of our weblogs, and behind each of our network lists, and allows them to be interpreted and used by everyone else using their mental models of what things should be called, how knowledge should be organized, and how networks should be delineated and depicted. And note that this software needs to reside at the >ends, not in some massive central location:
my way

Maybe this is asking too much, to expect technology to accommodate personal styles of thinking, communicating, and organizing. I think we can and should ask no less. The technology is there to serve us, damn it. And imagine what the ‘translation’ software could teach us about how we communicate and how we learn, and about the ‘signal loss’ in both and how it could be reduced!

So, to the dismay I’m sure of software developers everywhere, it’s time for us all to get selfish and insist on having it our own way.

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