March 19, 2005

Wordsmith Hipsters

Over three years ago, I wrote about seeing Erin McKean, lexicographess extraordinaire, speak at a local bookstore.

Well, reading the NY Times today, I see that she's now editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary. At 33! And still very crush-worthy. Anyway, a decent article on how young'uns are storming the castle of words.

Posted by peterme at 10:23 PM

Folksonomy Talks: Information Architects Surpass Techies

Yes, I'm biased, but, based on the notes I'm reading about the folksonomy discussion at ETech, the IA Summit panel on Social Classification was a far richer and more robust discussion (note: I was on the IA Summit panel).

The etech discussion didn't really get beyond what you can read on blogs.

The IA Summit discussion had delightful grenades lobbed by Peter Morville(PDF), and a good question and answer, where we actually bothered to be critical of folksonomies (discussing how many women with social science backgrounds (Shelley, Liz, Danah) have taken strong issue with the folksonomy-utopianism of all the young white guys), talk meaningfully about extending them (integrating them with other modes of classification), and recognize the visceral poetry of free-tagging (it's all about me).

It's worth noting that the folksonomy discussion emerged from the information architecture community -- a group of people obsessed with issues of structure, shape, accessibility, meaning, utility, and other facets of information. Folksonomies aren't interesting from an "emerging technology" perspective -- they're interesting from a social and cultural perspective. And it seems that Etech is lacking that breadth in perspective in spades.

Posted by peterme at 03:23 PM | Comments (5)

March 18, 2005

Lev Manovich Lecture: Software > Culture

I'm attending a lecture given by New Media scholar Lev Manovich. He's perhaps best known for his book, The Language of New Media.

- the man introducing lev just used the word "interpenetration"

- lev's "powerpoint" is just a text file... which he uses because ideas come to him in his lectures, and he wants to be able to capture them

- connectivity as a response to modernity ... modernity fractured culture/society, connectivity brings it back together

- talking about his projects... in trying to figure out connecting themes, he decided to use "software" and "culture"

- the culture of software is here, it's not just equally distributed

- in order to invent new media, in order to invent alternatives to the mainstream/commercial formats, new media artists and programmers need all the help they can get

- need help from the humanities to understand cultural forms

- new media texts often didn't directly refer to "software", so he and a colleague decided to put software on the agenda

- for academics, the concept of software as a cultural force is still invisible

- you can't understand "new media," "internet," etc., if you don't address software - he's developed a DVD on "soft cinema"

- large commercial websites portray/utilize culture in a way that's software-driven... algorithms determining what content is shown to you

- overlapping windows have become an essential quality of our visual culture

- he steps through these four concepts of form:

1. "Algorithmic Cinema." Using a script and a system of rules defined by the authors, the software controls the screen layout, the number of windows and their content. The authors can choose to exercise minimal control leaving most choices to the software; alternatively they can specify exactly what the viewer will see in a particular moment in time. Regardless, since the actual editing is performed in real time by the program, the movies can run infinitely without ever exactly repeating the same edits.

2. "Macro-cinema." If a computer user employs windows of different proportions and sizes, why not adopt the similar aesthetics for cinema?

3. "Multimedia cinema." In Soft Cinema, video is used as only one type of representation among others: 2D animation, motion graphics, 3D scenes, diagrams, maps, etc.

4. "Database Cinema." The media elements are selected from a large database to construct a potentially unlimited number of different narrative films, or different versions of the same film. We also approach database as a new representational form in its own right. Accordingly, we investigate different ways to visualise Soft Cinema databases.

- using principles to generate aesthetics across different media, and in different contexts

- we see some clips from the soft cinema dvd... in particular, a bit about a woman who loves going through auto car washes

- lev seems very much in the russian constructivist tradition. the video he is showing reminds me of jessica helfand's essay, "De Stijl, New Media, and the Lessons of Geometry".

- he now talks about the new journal Version (the website is a series of massive jpegs. blech.)

- now talking info-aesthetics, the relationship between information and form in contemporary society

- 1. you could start with: we don't need radically new forms, software allows us to reconfigure existing media in new ways

- 2. but that's not really satisfactory (missed why)

- 3. how do people in different fields use computers and software to translate information to new forms that humans can receive and comprehend

- get beyond the old media/new media dichotomy; include bits and atoms, design, industrial design, architecture, etc.; see the tension in the translation of information into form and how it's drives aesthetics in the new media landscape.

q. the lineage of constructivist, the aesthetic from the earlier 20th century, as opposed to art nouveau -- why is that the dominant layout convention?

a. a key logic driving modernity is the logic of efficiency. 1860-1940, engineer is an expert in efficiency. the aesthetics that emerged (bauhaus, constructivists, etc.) at that time were also driven by efficiency. you can use taylorism to make production efficient. minimum material for maximum effect --> minimalism.
what's the notion of efficiency in information culture.
compares OS 9 and OS X.
in OS 9, the interface is supposed to disappear.
In OS X, the interface itself is aestheticized, a baroque aesthetic experience. It's not longer about efficiency... it's about experience... experience design and other things.
the only way to build big-scale systems is to have lots of processes... that talk to each other... it's not efficient, but the system develops an emergence...

q. if new and old media is the wrong dichotomy, what do we call ourselves? we're the center of "new media."

a. well, we must be practical. around the world "new media" is understood. i'm not saying the dichotomy doesn't make sense, i'm just trying to get beyond it. the most interesting work is not in strictly new media, but where new media intersects other fields, like architecture.

other questions were asked, but it got too esoteric even for me.

Posted by peterme at 01:09 PM

March 15, 2005

Applications as Digital Document Genres

A convergence of some thoughts here at peterme.

First off, there's document genres. Genres are "a distinctive type of communicative action, characterized by a socially recognized communicative purpose and common aspects of form."* One way to think about documents is that they are tools for managing information and communication. We use our understanding of genre to help us identify documents that will aid us in addressing a task we're trying to accomplish. If I'm trying to figure out how to get from where I live to where I want to go, I'll utilize a "map" genre, and look for documents whose form suggests I'll find cartographic content.

Then there's Jotspot, a service for cobbling together simple applications, which I recently discussed. If you look in their application gallery, you'll see applications which have a genre-like feel, where you know what to expect before you even use it: RSS Feed Aggregator, Company Directory, Bug Tracker, Blog tool, such as Simple Poll.

And then Jess over a ia/ wrote about Microsoft's development of "application archetypes" in an effort to help developers put together software that people will get.

It's interesting to think of the evolution of digital document genres involving software, and it only makes sense. Physical document genres help me understand information, and, in the case of things like ledgers or forms, even manipulate information in rudimentary ways. The first digital document genres have largely been electronic versions of the old paper-based ones, but some, like the spreadsheet, demonstrated what happens when you add interactivity. If tools like blogs, wiki, and things like Jotspot succeed, they'll put in ever-increasing hands the ability to manipulate information to accomplish tasks... and with that, new genres will emerge as responses to those purposes.

* Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). Genres of organizational communication: Astructurational approach to studying communications and media. Academy of Management Review, 17(2), 299-326.

Posted by peterme at 05:03 AM | Comments (4)

March 14, 2005

Using Document Genres - Good and Bad

One of the things that's essential about genres is how they communicate what you would use them for. Genres are all about setting expectations for content, which is essential when you're trying to accomplish something, and need certain kinds of information to do so.

Genres on the Web must be painfully clear, since we don't have the physical cues to suggest what you will get. This means that links must be explicit. (This all relates to my notions of explicit design... I'm ditching that term, though don't currently have anything in its place.)

Here's a page that intelligently takes advantage of our understanding of genre:

Trend Genre-1

The links down the right hand side use clear genre-related terms like "features," "system requirements," and "datasheet." You have a good sense of what to expect before you click it. It's also well presented -- easy to scan, easy to find exactly what you want to click into.

Compare that page with a competitor's page for a very similar product (I've "zoomed in" on the side bar):

Symantec Genre

Here, genre is not well-used. Yes, a bunch are "white papers," which is a pretty well-understood genre... But you have to read these long links before you understand which genre it is. Also, what's a "factsheet"? What's a "tech brief"? And, "Articles?" Could a genre label be more vague?

Trend Micro's page gives the user confidence. Symantec's page will only leave a lot of doubt. And it's all because of genre.

I also find genre interesting in terms of how it allows an audience to self-segment. One of the challenges of web design is presenting the right content to the right people. If you're selling something technical, you want benefits-oriented content for the business owners, overview content for managers, and technical content for the IT types. But you don't want direct people by role, because a business person might also be an IT person. Smart use of genres allow visitors to self-select based on their current task at hand. You don't have to worry about role.

Posted by peterme at 03:13 AM

March 13, 2005

There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom*

Over two years ago, I attended the Supernova conference, and wrote about a panel I saw on collaborative business. The gist of the panel was that monolithic tools to support collaboration don't work, and that what does work are smaller, more pointed task tools such as email and IM.

Then, just this morning, I read Joe Kraus' post about "the long tail of software", where he explains why he believes there's a huge opportunity in giving people the ability to create simple software tools that adapt to their specific organizational processes. He believes he can horn in on the email+Excel space that runs most small companies today.

Given what I wrote over two years ago, I think there's a lot of potential promise in Joe's post. Joe has a new company Jotspot, which aims to execute on that vision. There's definitely a certain amount of appeal to Jotspot's provision of tools to solve business processes, or to allow you to cobble together a solution on your own.

For a project I just completed, I interviewed 11 people in small and medium-size businesses who currently use Excel and email to run a fundamental aspect of their business (can't say what, specifically). And Joe is going to have a host of difficulties in getting people like the ones I spoke to to adopt a system such as his...
- it's called a "wiki" -- folks in middle management who "own" the spreadsheets in their group don't know what wikis are, and don't want to
- it requires learning yet another new thing -- folks in middle management who "own" the spreadsheets are swamped in their day-to-day responsibilities and i think the idea of learning a whole new markup language would be a strong deterrent

However, Joe has an interesting advantage which is that Jotspot feels "small." It feels like something any individual can adopt and play around with, and not necessarily need some form of approval. Particularly because it's all through the Web -- no need to install software on the company PC and all the hassle associated with that.

It'll be interesting to see where this all heads...

* The title of Richard Feynman's seminal talk that spurred the creation of nanotechnology. Seems appropriate.

Posted by peterme at 01:19 AM | Comments (1)


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Wordsmith Hipsters
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Lev Manovich Lecture: Software > Culture
Applications as Digital Document Genres
Using Document Genres - Good and Bad
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