12 August 2009

The logic of the Mall

Robin Good announced today on Twitter the "Real possibility that FriendFeed.com will be shut down for good - Streamy replacing it?" Now I have never been a fan of feeds nor feed aggregators. They always struck me as a kind of extended TV Guide - lots of choice, but little useful information. I am happy to admit, however, that this is a personal foible, and should not be considered, in particular by me, as a fundamental flaw of feeds, feed use or aggregation. However, it is clear that feeds in general have been falling in popularity for some time now, and that new forms of access, sharing and use are arising.

I remember some years ago that there was a flurry of excitement over RSS and ATOM and the possibilities that it offered. I do think that a good history of the direct influence of RSS and ATOM on the rise of social computing has yet to be written, not least in changing the way that information is now accessed on the web (via Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Ning, Bebo, not to mention the rise of blogs). I too was briefly captivated by the possibilities of feeds. I remember a few on-line conversations with Robin Good over the possibilities, all of which were very enlightening as all discussions with Robin are. I quickly realized, though, that what I was working with was a web version of an inventory, and with all of its limitations.

An inventory is useful if you are regularly accessing the same items over and over again, but it is not very useful if you are constantly looking around at different items or your useful items list is constantly changing. What you get with an inventory is a constantly growing list. Like the Library, you get more and more items, but the inventory, so necessary for management, doesn't help much with access. Christine Borgman has made this point many times over the years, as have I on this blog. Inventories are useful for managing resources, but people find things through different means. For books this has always meant finding what you need through bibliographies, indexes, word of mouth, etc., and then going to the inventory to find out where the book actually is kept.

But the limitations of feeds on their own was realized fairly quickly and we saw the rise of aggregators. There was a realization that if it was too difficult to run around the web, from feed to feed, searching for what you were interested in, what you wanted to access, and what you had accessed before, was just too complicated. What was needed was a place where all of your feed needs would be waiting for you. The problem is that aggregators always reminded me of the early Sears Roebuck Catalogue. When, in the United States, the consumers were all too dispersed and distant to come to the store, Sears Roebuck brought the aggregation of the department store to them. Of course there were others who had the idea earlier. Hammacher Schlemmer was sending out its catalogue a good 45 years before Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward had a mail order catalogue 21 years earlier. However, the "Consumer's Bible," as it was often known as, offered everything one needed together in one place. You could get everything you needed from underwear to cars, from kitchen utensils to the house itself.

Like aggregators, catalogues too dominated the consumer's life for some time, but as the society has changed from literate to oral, so consumerism has changed. The catalogue has slowly been replaced over the past 30 years by the Mall. Another aggregate space, but one that is much more social (at least in the US). It is a place not just to shop, but to eat, socialize and share.

Robin Good suggested, today on Twitter, that Streamy was the next big thing after mere aggregators. Perhaps. I have looked at Streamy and it is very impressive, but my feeling is that it is only really impressive if you like malls. Streamy moves beyond the aggregator enabling the accumulation, sharing, commenting and discussion about consumables. I don't always want to be suggesting that the web is mostly a recapitulation of 20th century consumerist culture, but it does seem that the fall of FriendFeed.com, and the rise of Streamy, is not a step forward, but just another recapitulation disguised as an innovation.


  1. Hi Robin,
    Maybe this is not the central issue in your post, but there's a statement there that kept going around in my head for a while: "An inventory is useful if you are regularly accessing the same items over and over again, but it is not very useful if you are constantly looking around at different items or your useful items list is constantly changing."
    Why is that? Why would you think that an inventory where the list of items that I am interested in is constantly changing, or where I only access every item once, ceases to be useful?
    Your views are welcome! Thanks.
    -- Cesar.

  2. Hi Cesar,

    Out of context this can seem like a counter intuitive argument. My point was that we assume that inventories or catalogues order information more or less transparently. However, all inventories are for a purpose and presuppose needs and uses. My point was that inventories, invented in the corporation and library, assume a trained and conformist use and purpose (or at least set of purposes). We see in the power of Google search a search that is based on a simple but powerful algorithm rather than an inventory. Though this too makes some assumptions of use and purpose, these are easily ignored, suppressed and even subverted. It is very hard to ignore, suppress or subvert an inventory as a prime access point.

    I would leave you with this question. How would you inventory Google Waves?

  3. (Cesar is thinking...)

  4. Hi Robin,

    I have been thinking about this. It occurs to me that the "needs and uses" presupposed to any inventory are often encoded as a typing mechanism for the stored data. Be it relational, object-oriented or whatever, but the entities being inventoried are, most of the time, classified according to some pre-defined set of categories. What categories (or types, classes, tables, whatever you want to call them) a system uses, or what criteria the system utilises to distinguish between categories, often dictates what it is optimised to do, and what uses and purposes are easier or harder to achieve.

    An old idea of mine is that of weakly-structured data, where entities can be catalogued without the need to be classified. You register their features but avoid assigning a category or class to the entities. Typing can happen a posteriori, if need be, and is always adjusted to the particular needs of the specific task at hand. I call this emergent typing.

    This was quite a new idea in the 1980s. The tagging feature that we see everywhere today points in the same direction, but it lacks the co-ordination and analytical power that is necessary to manage large amounts of data with decent performance.

    So, answering your question: I think we could inventory Google Waves using a weakly-structured approach, by asking each blip author to specify some details about his/her contribution (or simply gathering the metadata) and recording it as features. No a priori typing would be used. An emergent typing engine could be used at use-time to generate on the fly type structures depending on need and purpose.

    Makes sense?

  5. Cesar,

    Some seriously good points here. I am in a rush as it is the first week of Term. However, I will respond to these excellent points.

  6. Great, thanks. I will keep an eye on this page.

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