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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  1. mrG says:

    I completely agree with the concept of leaving everyone to manage, massage and manipulate their information in their own way, but coming as I do from an AI background, I’m going to caution against asking for a machine to recognize the lingua franca of our respective systems; we don’t want robots making our decisions, and we don’t want robots representing us — the latter is obvious from those automated sales calls we all get and press one for … answering machines. No one likes them, and none of them do their job efficiently, and that is why the idea of the call-center where you hire someone in Timmons to do your hotline support took off like a BC wildfire.As for the former situation, think Black Monday — I am proud to say I had software contributing to Black Monday, the day when the futures markets took a particularly text-book move and all the text-book programmed systems all made the same text-book response at the same time; it was great fun to watch.But I digress. What I really wanted to say is that there are two basic models for using the computer, there is the Star Trek Cmdr Data model of autonomous slaves that do our bidding devoid of any value judgement, and then there’s the Alien model of the Exo-skeleton which I would put as the McLuhan model of extending the body.When I see your nomenclature, yes, it may be confusing, but if I have the means to track it, to link it into my own personalized mental scaffolding, I’ll make sense of it (humans excell at this) and once I have made sense of it, I want the computer to be my memory scaffolding to remember it for me. I don’t want my telephone to make calls for me, I just want my telephone network system to make it easy for me to scan more potential targets faster, and to remember, organize and help me rank the results.Now, if we add social software into this mix, it’s no longer me or the computer doing the ranking, but it is all of us together … or it could be. In our final days at OpenCola, before being downsized into obscurity, Joey deVilla, Paul Kelly and I sketched out just such a relevence/reputation propagation system to apply to the narrow domain problem of “find me more files that I might like” (a very common research problem, not just among Napster fans). We quickly realizedthe technology to do this already existed, we just had to string together existing bitsit was virtually impossible, therefore, to interest anyone in giving us a funding go-ahead because who-ever invents it will quickly be copiedthat last point is a good thing because the value of any network grows with population (not exponentially, because there is dampening due to distance, which is why few of you reading this will remember SimplySara, but it’s still better than linear).What we need is social software exo-skeletons, communications software that serves the body without enslaving the mind (to quote the WmBurroughs NIKE commercial) — existing CMS all force the interface choices, and that upsets the users, really confuses some of them, and as a result, fails to attract participation — compare that to the number of voluntary ‘knowledge factories’ who have joined or even the new Tucows service, or how even just the hint that is ready cause it to soar to the top of the Blogdex.IT managers should dream of such ready and willing participation as the blogs get, but in my experience, they dream instead of ever more expensive ‘cool‘ stuff, and most everyone I know who works for a major information-based business (Dave Pollard included ;) does their best social software work on their own time, in their own way, according to their own rules and mental models.

  2. Pete says:

    Fascinating model. I like it, but could never use it, because I’d spend all my time staring at it… the tantalizing, seemingly weighted red seeds… the significance of the petal inversions… the way innovation seems almost ready to break the glowing circle… and the fuzzy, unknowable cynosure at the heart… Ah, it’s art!

  3. says:

    Read my blog on “Future” … I believe you’ll like it! the way, why do you call your blog “How to save the world”? I think there are TOO many people trying to save the world, and we need to try to coordinate their activities better. Well, I am one of them who has ideas of saving the world too; so I can’t blame you! :^)- Kaleem.

  4. ed nixon says:

    Thanks Dave for another stimulating post. As I read, I started thinking about what I remember of early expert system lore. Particularly the medical diagnostic system called, I think, Mycin. If memory serves, it was a system that encoded a bunch of information that related various antibiotics to types of infection and to the symptoms those infections tend to generate. The system’s task was to ask a practitioner questions about the symptoms, etc. and, by dint of progressive refinement, come up with a recommended antibiotic and a justification/explanation.I’m not suggesting there needs to be a loosely coupled, but still centralized, body of expertise or knowledge that assists community members in establishing some form of equivalence between (or among) their “meanings”. Although maybe something like this in the restricted context of certain “communities of practise” might be conceivable. I’m thinking that the process of understanding someone else is a process of asking questions, getting answers and progressively refining to greater clarity — on the part of both or all parties. The seeds of this process are built into the weblog and socialsoftware concept. However, what tends to happen, in my experience, is that people are more oriented to “saying” in response to others as opposed to “asking”. In other words, the current process — perhaps by its networked, non-face-to-face, asynchronous nature — has a tendency to develop positive, i.e., progressively more unstable or variable, feedback loops rather than negative, i.e. progressively more stable and focused, feedback loops. For example, one manifestation of this might be the seemingly endless controversies that can develop over topics such as technical standards.Thinking about what I’ve just written, I would qualify it by putting it into a “micro” context — the development of meaning on an individual exchange view. Not on the “macro” view of the weblog, social software community as a whole. On the macro level, I wonder if there isn’t a fair amount of convergence to a center and entropy in terms of clear meaning/ understanding? A tendency to the herd while trying to be heard?

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: I agree we don’t want AI making decisions, just making it easier to find helpful people so that we can make the decisions. And we definitely need to differentiate between the desires of technology pioneers, which are vast and sophisticated, and those of the vast majority who will give the technology ubiquity-value, whose desires are modest and simple.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Kaleem: I like your three inventions, and think they will make our lives much easier and more fruitful, but I’m dubious that they will achieve the interpersonal/social advantages you predict. I like your blog name — finally one more pretentious than mine ;-) BTW, I call mine How to Save the World because, in the background between the business, blogging and political & economic posts, I’ve been laying out an environmental philosophy (which has its own category) that I think just might save us from ecological holocaust. This category will eventually evolve into a book, part-fiction, part-prescription.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Pete: Thanks. I’ve been reading your blog of late, and admire your approach to the drug problem, which seems very close to the Dutch model.Ed: I think there are two opposing dynamics at work here. The trend to the herd is language-based, in that people who spend a lot of time together seem to have vocabularies and mental models that converge. At the same time, the global access that the Internet and other media (including the airplane) now provide us is stirring up the pot and exposing each of us to new and divergent views which we adopt into our own mindsets (at least those of us with open minds do). Whether these are in equilibrium or not is an interesting question. I certain don’t see, as some do, an inexorable push to a single homegeneous human culture, and I’m pleased at that.

  8. Jon Husband says:

    Don’t know how to reach you by e-mail, so:Hi, Dave Pollard. I have commented several times on your blog, HTSTWA good friend of mine is the Chief researcher and Knowledge Manager – he has recently carried out and published interviews withpeople like Shoshana Zuboff, Ed Lawler, Ian Mitroff, Jeffrey Pfeffer,Russell Ackoff (if I remember correctly), Roger Martin, and so on….I have suggested to him that it would be interesting for tointerview you.His name is David Creelman, and he is an ex-colleague of mine from whenwe both worked at Hay Management Consultants.So, if he contacts you, you’ll know where the stimulus is coming from.Regards

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