Archive for the 'Jeff Jarvis' Category

Speculation on Links, Traffic, and Authority

We can say this: traffic flows along links that we click. For a few years—before google—we could even say this: a link is not a link until we click it.

But now that is wrong because google made links really something else—meaningful signals, not just infrastructure. Links have a deeply important role in pagerank, the backbone of google’s mighty search engine.

Thus the giver of a link tells google that the recipient of a link is notable or significant or worth your time and attention and consideration or engagement. This is authority—on average, at the very least.

Links are signals for authority. That authority is distributed throughout the network, and given Igon values, google built a magnificent business detecting, computing, and centralizing that authority.

* * *

We are not entitled to our own understanding of facts, which take root in the universe. Thus we call facts objective. But we are entitled to our own appreciations of authority. Indeed, appreciation for authority can only take root in ourselves as individuals and groups of individuals. Thus we call authority subjective.

There are very many facts that I will never need to learn or remember. I will rely on google to detect those answers. Like just-in-time inventory, I will have answers only when I need them, when I borrow them, avoiding the mental costs of carrying them in my jammed-up memory.

Likewise, there are very many authorities that I will never need to appreciate. I will rely on google to detect those signals. But unlike facts as stored in someone else’s inventory, something changes about authority when I don’t carry it with me. Something’s lost when I borrow authority—just in time.

Google delivers facts. And facts are facts. But google doesn’t really deliver authorities. It co-opts them.

Maybe this is why Clay Shirky calls it “algorithmic authority.”

So if I were settling a bar bet, I might well say, “Yes, you can trust me. I found that claim by clicking on the top google search return.” The page on which I found the claim doesn’t enter my justification. “Dude, I googled it” might not work for very many justifications today, but Shirky’s quite right that there’s “spectrum” and that “current forces seem set to push [algorithmic authority] further up the spectrum to an increasing number and variety of groups that regard these kinds of sources as authoritative.”

The authority belongs to the algorithm that found the source, not the source itself. Traffic flows along links out to the edges of the network, but authority pulls inward to the center.

* * *

And this is why it seems unfair for folks like Jeff Jarvis to make claims like, “The recipient of links is the party responsible for monetizing the audience they bring.”

News sites should certainly be trying to establish engagement and trust and authority with users who come from google. But insisting that this task is an imperative of the link economy seems to under-appreciate that algorithmic authority centralizes authority. Google pushes the traffic but keeps the trust—or much of it, anyhow.

Maybe the best answer to “What Would Google Do?” goes something like this: build an algorithm that detects and hordes an elusive and highly diffuse resource distributed across a network.

* * *

So Danny Sullivan can jump up and down and yell about WSJ and google and bing: “Do something. Anything. Please. Survive. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t do. Blame others for sending you visitors and not figuring out how to make money off of them.”

Sullivan can exhort newspapers to see google referrals as an opportunity. And they are. Moreover, I have little doubt that many newspapers should be optimizing their pages depending on the referrer, whether that’s google or facebook or twitter or stumbleupon or whatever. But let’s also remember that google changed links. A different kind of traffic now flows along them. And that traffic is fickler—and, yes, less valuable—than we might first imagine.

Calling bottoms, calling tops, calling danger!

Cody Brown just wrote a piece bashing twitter, getting some decent play on a day twitter and other sites took a bruising.

twitterHe lodged a few complaints:

  • Its 140 character restriction is a blunt instrument. The site does not reflect the potential or nuance in which a public can speak to itself online.
  • Usernames are inconsistent and confusing. Twitter is mobbed by impersonators.
  • Twitter will either perpetually be simple insofar as its millions of users will have to hack the service to reflect their own values or it will roll the dice on a focus, put the site through chronic redesigns, and risk a mass user exodus.

I don’t know what to say. I just disagree. I mean, twitter’s not perfect, but it’s so open and promising that many very smart people are building it out, cleaning up messes, solving problems, adding value. I guess if folks are really concerned about why I disagree, we can flush it out in the comments.

Here’s what I tweeted yesterday:

By @CodyBrown, a twitter story of wildly exaggerated problems and wildly vague promises of infrastructure and elegance http://bit.ly/18FxmI

And here’s what I tweeted this morning:

Really, @muratny? I’m sorry, but I think @CodyBrown’s piece is overblown and overwrought. http://bit.ly/dwdG9 And I’m sympathetic!

For me, this is one of those tough cases when you don’t want to blow your credibility—whatever you may have—by sounding shrill or acerbic. But let’s call a spade a spade: the piece is mostly vapid. Its reasoning just doesn’t follow.

And when it does make good points, they’re hardly original. Who isn’t gazing deeply into twitter, wondering which of its deep properties is driving its success and will in the future? Content delivered by streams defined in terms of (mostly) people? Or asymmetrical relationships? Overlapping publics? The collapse of the distinction between discourse and content? And who isn’t gazing deeply into twitter, looking for what will follow? Brown’s answer: something real-time and more elegant like facebook, picking up Dave Winer’s idea and trading in Jeff Jarvis’s words. Okay, great, thanks for the insight! Like facebook! Elegant!

They say calling a market bottom is like trying to catch a falling knife. It’s dangerous, and you never really know. Calling a top on twitter is like trying to predict with the naked eye when a rocket’s upward arc will turn back toward earth. What goes up must come down, right? We all know it’s bound to happen at some point, or maybe not, but no one really knows, and, if the rocket’s hurdling your way, insisting that it will fall is just dangerous. Or just silly.

Free market for the news? Please.

A free market for news would work about as well as a free market for kidneys. So it’s pretty seriously unhelpful to reach for the invisible hand to solve the news business’s problems, as this FT editorial does.

Of all the defects news possesses, here’s but a short, partial list:

Goods with characteristics like these are prone to market failures of all kinds. So the FT should probably feel free to exercise a bit more creativity.

A twig in the eye for sure.

Not by Links Alone

At this unthinkably late hour, many of even the most recalcitrant journalists and newsy curmudgeons have given themselves over, painfully, to the fundamentally important fact that the economics of abundance now govern their world.

For many, of course, stemming that tide is still paramount. Their goal, as David Carr writes, is to squelch the “new competition for ads and minds.” Thus Walter Isaacson’s “E-ZPass digital wallet” and Alan Mutter’s “Original Sin.” Thus Michael Moran’s obnoxious “NOPEC.” Thus Journalism Online. And, of course, thus we have David Simon’s recent call for Congress to “consider relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions” or this call in the Washington Post to rework fair use. I wish them all good luck, but mostly good night.

There are others, though, who think it’s great that the Internet and Google are opening up the news to competition. In fact, “Google is good” strikes me as nearly orthodox among the basically Internet-savvy set of news talkers. Marissa Mayer crows about how Google delivers newspapers’ Web sites one billion clicks a month, and Arianna Huffington insists that the future of news is to be found in a “linked economy” and “search engines” like Google.

In this narrative, Google’s the great leveler, ushering the world of journalism out of the dark, dank ages of monopoly and into the light, bright days of competition, where all news articles and blog posts stand on their own pagerank before the multitude of users who judge with their links and their clicks. Its ablest defender is probably Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? Jarvis was relatively early in pointing out that “Google commodifies the world’s content by making it all available on a level playing field in its search.” In that and other posts at Buzz Machine, his widely read blog, Jarvis allows that Google “can make life difficult” but insists, “that’s not Google’s fault.” The reverence for Google is thick: “The smart guys are hiring search-engine optimization experts and trying to figure out how to get more people to their stuff thanks to Google.”

But defenders of Google’s influence on the broader market for news and newspapers themselves make a striking error in believing that the market for content is competitive. That belief is wrong—not just a little bit or on the margin, but fundamentally, and importantly, wrong.

Which is not to say that news publishers aren’t competing for readers’ eyeballs and attention. Publishers compete with one another all day long, every day—with some local exceptions, the news has always been competitive like a race, and is now more competitive like a market than ever before. But the market for that news—the place where consumers decide what to read, paying with their attention—is not competitive. Google may well be the great leveler, but down to how low a field?

To be very clear, this is far from a neo-classical purist’s critique that picks nits by abusing uselessly theoretical definitions. I am not a purist, an economist, or a jerk. This is reality, as best as I know it. Nevertheless, to say that the market for content is competitive is just to misunderstand what a competitive market actually entails. The market for news content as it currently stands, with Google in the middle, is a profoundly blurry, deeply uncompetitive space.

*    *    *

“The difficulty of distinguishing good quality from bad is inherent in the business world,” Nobel laureate George Akerlof wrote in the kicker of his most famous paper, published in 1970. “This may indeed explain many economic institutions and may in fact be one of the more important aspects of uncertainty.”

Akerlof fired an early shot in a scholarly marathon to study the effects of asymmetric information in markets. What do parties to a potential transaction do when they know different sets of facts? Maybe that seems like an obvious question, but economists in the middle of the twentieth century had been pretty busy worrying about perfecting complicated models despite their grossly simplistic assumptions.

So Akerlof set about to write about how markets can fail when some of those assumptions turn out to be bunk. The assumption he tested first, in “The Market for ‘Lemons,’” was certainty, and he showed that when sellers know more about the goods being sold than the buyers do, sellers abuse their privileged position and buyers leave the market.

Writing in the same year, the economist Phillip Nelson studied the differences between what he called “search goods” and “experience goods.” Search goods and experience goods express a certain kind of asymmetry. For search goods, consumers can overcome the asymmetry before the point of purchase by doing their homework, while for experience goods, consumers must take their time and invest.

A pair of pants, for instance, is a search good—you can try before you buy, and shop around for the pants that fit you best. An apple, on the other hand, is an experience good—you don’t know whether you’ll like one until you consume it, and you can’t really try before you buy.

News articles are experience goods. Just as with an apple, you need to consume the story, reading the article or watching the video or so on, in order to judge its quality. “Stories can vary in length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus,” writes economist James Hamilton in All the News That’s Fit to Sell. “For a given day’s events, widely divergent news products are offered to answer the questions of who, what, where, when, and why.” We can’t know which one’s best till we’ve read them all, and who’s got time for that?

Moreover, a multitude of subjective editorial decisions produce the news. Each reporter’s practices and habits influence what’s news and what’s not. Their learned methods, their assigned beats, and even their inverted pyramids shape what we read and how. Reporters’ and editors’ tastes, their histories, or their cultures matter, as do their professional ethics. Each article of news is a nuanced human document—situated aesthetically, historically, culturally, and ethically.

Ultimately, the news is afflicted with the problem of being an experience good more than even apples are. At least Granny Smiths don’t vary wildly from farmer to farmer or from produce bin to produce bin. Sure, some may be organic, while others are conventional. One may be tarter or crispier than another, but tremendous differences from the mean are very unlikely. With the news, though, it’s hard even to think of what the mean might be. It may seem obvious, but articles, essays, and reports are complex products of complex writerly psychologies.

For a long time, however, as readers, we were unaware of these nuances of production. That was, in some sense, the upshot: our experience of this journalism was relatively uncomplicated. This profound lack of context mattered much less.

Call it the myth of objectivity maybe, but what NYU professor Jay Rosen has labeled the “mask of professional distance” meant that we didn’t have much of a chance to bother with a whole world complexities. Because everyone usually wore a mask, and because everyone’s masked looked about the same, we ignored—indeed, we were largely necessarily ignorant of—all the unique faces.

For a long time, therefore, the orthodox goal of American newspapers virtually everywhere was news that really wasn’t an experience good. When news existed only on paper, it hardly mattered what news was, because we had so few seemingly monochrome choices about what to read. We returned to the same newspapers and reporters behind the same masks over and over again, and through that repetition, we came subtly to understand the meaning and implications of their limited degrees of “length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus.”

As a result, we often grew to love our newspaper—or to love to hate it. But even if we didn’t like our newspaper, it was ours, and we accepted it, surrendering our affection either way, even begrudgingly. The world of news was just much simpler, a more homogeneous, predictable place—there were fewer thorny questions, fewer observable choices. There was less risk by design. Our news was simpler, or it seemed to be, and we had little choice but to become familiar with it anyhow. One benefit of the View from Nowhere, after all, is that basically everyone adopted it—that it basically became a standard, reducing risk.

But a funny thing happened in this cloistered world. Because it seemed only natural, we didn’t realize the accidental nature of the understanding and affection between readers and their newspapers. If, as the economists would have it, the cost of a thing is what we’ve sacrificed in order to achieve it, then our understanding and affection were free. We gave nothing up for them—for there was scarcely another alternative. As a result, both readers and publishers took those things for granted. This point is important because publishers are still taking those things for granted, assuming that all people of good faith still appreciate and love all the good things that a newspaper puts on offer.

*    *    *

But when our informational options explode, we can plainly, and sometimes painfully, see that our newspapers aren’t everything. Different newspapers are better at answering different questions, and some answers—some as simple as what we should talk about at work tomorrow—don’t come from newspapers at all. So we go hunting on the Internet. So we gather. So we Google.

We have now spent about a decade Googling. We have spent years indulging in information, and they have been wonderful years. We are overawed by our ability to answer questions online. Wikipedia has helped immensely in our efforts to answer those questions, but pagerank elevated even it. Newspapers compose just one kind of Web site to have plunged into the scrum of search engine optimization. Everyone’s hungry for links and clicks.

And Google represents the Internet at large for two reasons. For one, the engine largely structures our experience of the overall vehicle. More importantly, though, Google’s organization of the Internet changes the Internet itself. The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization estimates, in this PDF report, that North American spending on organic SEO in 2008 was about $1.5 billion. But that number is surely just the tip of the iceberg. Google wields massive power over the shape and structure of the Internet’s general landscape of Web pages, Web applications, and the links among them. Virtually no one builds even a semi-serious Web site without considering whether it will be indexed optimally. For journalism, most of the time, the effects are either irrelevant or benign.

But think about Marissa Mayer’s Senate testimony about the “living story.” Newspaper Web sites, she said, “frequently publish several articles on the same topic, sometimes with identical or closely related content.” Because those similar pages share links from around the Web, neither one has the pagerank that a single one would have. Mayer would have news Web sites structure their content more like Wikipedia: “Consider how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity.”

Setting aside for the moment whatever merits Mayer’s idea might have, imagine the broader implications. She’s encouraging newspapers to change not just their marketing or distribution strategies but their journalism because Google doesn’t have an algorithm smart enough to determine that they should share the “authoritativeness.”

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s style of following a story over a string of blog posts, poking and prodding an issue from multiple angles, publishing those posts in a stream, and letting the story grow incrementally, cumulatively might be disadvantaged because those posts are, naturally, found at different URLs. His posts would compete for pagerank.

And maybe it would be better for journalism if bloggers adopted the “living story” model of reporting. Maybe journalism schools should start teaching it. Or maybe not—maybe there is something important about what the structure of content means for context. The point here isn’t to offer substantive answer to this question, but rather to point out that Mayer seems unaware of the question in the first place. It’s natural that Mayer would think that what’s good for Google is good for Internet users at large. For most domestic Internet users, after all, Google, which serves about two-thirds of all searches, essentially is their homepage for news.

But most news articles, of course, simply aren’t like entries in an encyclopedia. An article of news—in both senses of the term—is substantially deeper than the facts it contains. An article of news, a human document, means substantially more to us than its literal words—or the pageranked bag of words that Google more or less regards it as.

Google can shine no small amount of light on whether we want to read an article of news. And, importantly, Google’s great at telling you when others have found an article of news to be valuable. But the tastes of anonymous crowds—of everyone—are not terribly good at determining whether we want to read some particular article of news, particularly situated, among all the very many alternatives, each particularly situated unto itself.

Maybe it all comes down to a battle between whether Google encourages “hit-and-run” visits or “qualified leads.” I don’t doubt that searchers from Google often stick around after they alight on a page. But I doubt they stick around sufficiently often. In that sense, I think Daniel Tunkelang is precisely correct: “Google’s approach to content aggregation and search encourages people to see news…through a very narrow lens in which it’s hard to tell things apart. The result is ultimately self-fulfilling: it becomes more important to publications to invest in search engine optimization than to create more valuable content.”

*    *    *

The future-of-news doomsayers are so often wrong. A lot of what they said at Kerry’s hearing was wrong. It’s woefully wrongheaded to call Google parasitic simply because it the Internet without it would be a distinctly worse place. There would be, I suspect, seriously fewer net pageviews for news. And so it’s easy to think that they’re wrong about everything—because it seems that they fundamentally misunderstand the Internet.

But they don’t hold a monopoly on misunderstanding. “When Google News lists one of ours stories in a prominent position,” writes Henry Blodget, “we don’t wail and moan about those sleazy thieves at Google. We shout, ‘Yeah, baby,’ and start high-fiving all around.” To Blodget, “Google is advertising our stories for free.”

But life is about alternatives. There’s what is, and there’s what could be. And sometimes what could be is better than what is—sometimes realistically so. So however misguided some news executives may have been or may still be about their paywalls and buyouts, they also sense that Google’s approach to the Web can’t reproduce the important connection the news once had with readers. Google just doesn’t fit layered, subtle, multi-dimensional products—experience goods—like articles of serious journalism. Because news is an experience good, we need really good recommendations about whether we’re going to enjoy it. And the Google-centered link economy just won’t do. It doesn’t add quite enough value. We need to know more about the news before we sink our time into reading it than pagerank can tell us. We need the news organized not by links alone.

What we need is a search experience that let’s us discover the news in ways that fit why we actually care about it. We need a search experience built around concretely identifiable sources and writers. We need a search experience built around our friends and, lest we dwell too snugly in our own comfort zones, other expert readers we trust. These are all people—and their reputations or degrees of authority matter to us in much the same ways.

We need a search experience built around beats and topics that are concrete—not hierarchical, but miscellaneous and semantically well defined. We need a search experience built around dates, events, and locations. We need a search experience that’s multi-faceted and persistent, a stream of news. Ultimately, we need a powerful, flexible search experience that merges automatization and human judgment—that is sensitive to the very particular and personal reasons we care about news in the first place.

The people at Senator Kerry’s hearing last week seemed either to want to dam the river and let nothing through or to whip its flow up into a tidal wave. But the real problem is that they’re both talking about the wrong river. News has changed its course, to be sure, so in most cases, dams are moot at best. At the same time, though, chasing links and clicks, with everyone pouring scarce resources into an arms race of pagerank while aggregators direct traffic and skim a few page views, isn’t sufficiently imaginative either.

UPDATE: This post originally slipped out the door before it was fully dressed. Embarrassing, yes. My apologies to those who read the original draft of this thing and were frustrated by the unfinished sentences and goofy notes to self, and my thanks to those who read it all it the same.

Reduced, but not that much!

I’m cross-posting my comment left on Nick Carr’s lengthy and good thoughts on the paywall for news:

While I agree that the supply of news is greater than it will be when more than a few smaller papers go dark, I’m not at all sure that the long-term supply of news will be radically reduced. That’s a big reduction!

You write that amateurs and part-timers “can’t do all of the work, and they certainly can’t do all of the most valuable work. The news business will remain a fundamentally commercial operation.” I agree, but I don’t think it has all the purchase you’d like.

The current explosion of content is not just “an illusion born of the current supply-demand imbalance.” It’s not enough that “the labor costs remain high” despite the fact that “the capital requirements for an online news operation are certainly lower than for a print one.”

A more or less intelligent armchair blogger’s take on some news event may be worth only a fraction of a pro’s account. It may me more prone to error. It may be published later. It may hide more bias. But it also may be free and therefore good enough. We now have the option of satisficing our news, and that will likely never go away. (Of course, let’s not deny that an amateur expert’s take on the news might also be more valuable.)

So, fine, “it ain’t going to a purely social production model,” but I’m afraid that might not be enough to protect pure paid content. Even if we settle back to a world in which we have only one-tenth of what we have now, that world will still have hundreds of times more news and opinion than we had when buying a subscription to the newspaper was de rigeur.

Fow what it’s worth, however, I too believe there’s a model according to which we will pay those who create our news. But I see us buying not the content itself but value-added interaction with the content and with the writers and editors.

News Is A Medium. It Carries Our Conversation

Too true, via Clay Shirky:

We’re not just readers anymore, or listeners or viewers. We’re not customers and we’re certainly not consumers. We’re users. We don’t consume content, we use it, and mostly what we use it for is to support our conversations with one another, because we’re media outlets now too.

News outfits need to redesign their information architecture so that it carries our conversation. I’m very much in like with that image—of “carrying conversation.”

What carries our conversation is not the article. In fact, the article is about the worst unit of information for carrying a conversation. What we really want to talk about are attributes of the article. This has always been so. After we read an article about football game, for instance, we talk about the players, coaches, and teams first of all. We talk about the people. We also talk about particular plays and drives or the game as a whole. Or we talk about controversies. The proposition may seem dull, boring, and utterly obvious, but we rarely talk about the article itself. Instead, we talk about the newsmakers in the articles, the topics that characterize them, the locations and events they discuss, the political ideologies they convey, the storylines that contain them, or the authors that write them.

This is, I believe, why stand-alone newspaper sites won’t work unless there’s some underlying universally integrated and federated architecture that can carry the conversation. Individual news outlets will not be able contain the conversation to their independent websites. That explains part of twitter’s runaway success: its asymmetric architecture of following carries the conversation well. Absent that federated architecture—parts of which OpenSocial, Facebook Connect, Disqus, and others are attempting—the future of news will come to be housed under the roof of a some small number of big aggregators. And their architecture—it “elegant architecture“—will fit the conversation, the re-use and re-purposing of authors’ ideas for our own public and private reasons.

The building blocks of news: topics and people too!

I’m glad Jeff Jarvis has returned with a vengeance to his blog. My suspicion is that he’s been saving up this New Building Block piece, making due with fun pointers to the serious topic while buried in his book.

Yesterday, he wrote about (one aspect of) a subject near and dear to my heart. The radical unbundling of the news. In a post titled “The building block of journalism is no longer the article,” Jarvis writes, “I think the new building block of journalism needs to be the topic.”

He’s only half-right, though. As I’ve said way too many times, in way too many ways, on this blog, the new architecture of news—its new elegant organization—is two-fold.

On the one hand, yes, topics are central. We’re talking ideas, brands, memes, beats, events, and more. On the other hand, however, PEOPLE ARE CRITICAL.

Consider these data points:

At the time, I linked to that post, called “Towns are hyperlocal social networks with data (people that is).” That bit of link bait caught his eye, and he excerpted a chunk of it in a follow-up post called “It’s about people” a few days later.

In fact, my post, called “Grokky Jarvis Has Something to Say about the News,” was about more than people. I wrote, “The bits of content must be contingent on the people they discuss. The people, and also the issues, who constitute the story, as it were, must be liberated from the confines of the article.”

Ouch, that syntax makes me cringe, but there it is nonetheless: the PEOPLE and the ISSUES.

See here, here, and here for the details. That’s networked news.

The information architecture must fit

I believe that the news business’s central financial struggle right now lies in its search for a new information architecture on top of which it can monetize its alchemy of products, like raw data, and services, like human and trust. This question of economics will determine, if only roughly, all of the answers to the questions about how we’re going to get our news from the news business, which I construe broadly.

Pinning that information architecture down is hard—for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason: it’s like a fish asking, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” (We’ll miss you, DFW.) The second-biggest reason: moving parts abound.

Let’s go through some of those moving parts—some tried-and-true and some previously latent and maybe unfamiliar—at as low a level as possible. Let’s not pretend to be exhaustive.

(1) Everything Is Miscellaneous. The Long Tail. Infinite variety. Radical unbundling. Micromedia. It’s called personalization, filtering, aggregating, and so forth.

(2) Feeds. Rivers of news. Because browsing and search are less efficient. News is what’s happening, not what happened.

(3) People care about other people. They trust businesses and algorithms, but they trust humans more. We love our friends, our celebrities. We gossip about people with people.

(4) Distribution is cheap. Content is therefore abundant and largely commodified. Attention costs dominate production costs. Fame beats fortune.

These four guide posts, however, can get us far down the right path, but that’s for later.

Whither Tag Clouds?

A few weeks ago, one could do relatively little clicking around the interwebs and notice the tear of pretty tag clouds powered by wordle. Bloggers of all stripes posted a wordle of their blog. Some, like Jeff Jarvis, mused about how the visualizations represent “another way way to see hot topics and another path to them.”

For as long as tag clouds have been a feature of the web, they’ve also been an object of futurist optimism, kindling images of Edward Tufte and notions that if someone could just unlock all those dense far-flung pages of information, just present them correctly, illumed, people everywhere would nod and understand. Their eyes would grow bright, and they would smile at the sheer sense it all makes. The headiness of a folksonomy is sweet for an information junkie.

It’s in that vein that ReadWriteWeb mythologizes the tag cloud as “buffalo on the pre-Columbian plains of North America.” A reader willing to cock his head and squint hard enough at the image of tag clouds “roaming the social web” as “huge, thundering herds of keywords of all shades and sizes” realizes that the Rob Cottingham would have us believe that tag clouds were graceful and defenseless beasts—and also now on the verge of extinction. He’s more or less correct.

I used to mythologize the tag cloud, but let’s be honest. They were never actually useful. You could never drag and drop one word in a tag cloud onto another to get the intersection or union of pages with those two tags. You could never really use a tag cloud to subscribe to RSS feeds of only the posts with a given set of tags.

A tag also never told you whether J.P. Morgan was a person or a bank. A tag cloud on a blog was never dynamic, never interactive. The tag cloud on one person’s blog never talked to the tag cloud on anyone else’s. I could never click on one tag and watch the cloud reform and show me only related tags, all re-sized and -colored to indicate their frequency or importance only in the part of the corpus in which the tag I clicked on is relevant.

But there’re also a cool-headed thoughts to have here. If tag clouds don’t work, what will? What is the best way to navigate around those groups of relatively many words called articles or posts? In the comments to Jarvis’s post, I asked a set of questions:

How will we know when we meet a visualization of the news that’s actually really useful? Can some visualization of the news lay not just another path to the “hot topic” but a better one? Or will headlines make a successful transition from the analog past of news to its digital future as the standard way we find what we want to read?

I believe the gut-level interest in tag clouds comes in part from the sense that headlines aren’t the best way to navigate around groups of articles much bigger than the number in a newspaper. There’s a real pain point there: scanning headlines doesn’t scale. Abstracting away from them, however, and focusing on topics and newsmakers in order to find what’s best to read or watch just might work.

I think there’s a very substantial market for a smarter tag cloud. They might look very different from what we’ve seen, but they will let us see at a glance lots of information and help us get to the best stuff faster. After all, the articles we want to read, the videos we want to watch, and the conversations we want to have around them are what’s actually important.

Right and Wrong on Attention

Wrong: Our attention spans are hopelessly on the fritz.

Right: The internet has brought our world more information choices. Sure, we give the average choice less attention because it’s competing with a larger number of alternatives. But we abandon reading one newspaper article not because it bores us to death but because an alternative article in some alternative publication presents itself as more interesting.

So we may read less of your newspaper article before we decide that another one looks better. The switch results from a marginal cost-benefit judgment between alternatives, not from a stunted conclusion that whatever in front of us is beneath us.

In other words, a fancy counterfactual: Imagine a possible world much like the one in which you posit that people still have healthy attention spans—a world circa 1958, for example, fifty years ago. Now imagine that your possible is world is different from the actual 1958-world only insofar as the people who inhabit it have as many (analog) sources of information at their fingertips as we do (analog and digital) sources of information. I claim that the people in your world give their average information choice about as much attention, not much more and not much less, as we do ours in our actual 2008-world.

Thanks to Jeff Jarvis for inspiring this post.

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