Friday, January 09, 2009

Authority Search and Social Webdesign

Loic Le Meur wrote an interesting article last week on filtering by Authority to which I fully disagree:

"There were more than 7000 tweets posted during the two days of LeWeb, no way anyone can read them quickly. We need filtering and search by authority. We're not equal on Twitter, as we're not equal on blogs and on the web. I am not saying someone who has more followers than yourself matters more, but what he says has a tendency to spread much faster. Comments about your brand or yourself coming from @techcrunch with 36000 followers are not equal than someone with 100 followers. Most people use Twitter with a few friends, but when someone who has thousands, if not tens of thousands of followers starts to speak, you have to pay attention.

Brands do pay attention and already start understanding the difference. We made the experiment with Ben Metcalfe. I started complaining that Sprint was not offering the new Blackberry (they still don't, I want a BB Bold with worldwide unlimited data) on Twitter and minutes later a Sprint representative contacted me and offered me VIP customer service. I loved it. For the experiment, @dotben started also complaining about the same issue (and really would love a Bold too, it was true) but nothing happened for Ben. Why not? Sprint understood that I have nearly 10x the number of followers of Ben so I had to be answered immediately, even with my weird last name no one can pronounce. Ben has almost 2000 followers, I think Sprint should actually pay attention too.

What we need is search by authority in Twitter Search. Technorati had nailed it years ago by allowing searches filtered by number of links the blogger had. It would be very easy for Twitter to add an authority line in their search criteria, with the number of followers so that you can search for say, only people who have more than a thousand followers and see what they say. React as fast as you can for criticism from them. It is not a criteria for being smart or not, but clearly a criteria for how fast something can spread."

I fully agree with Loic that the amount of information we spread out nowadays is too much. If you pick up a saturday issue of the New York Times you'll be getting more information than a person would get in his whole life say 200 years ago. Every year we see a stellar growth in information. The information poured onto us in the last five years through the internet is more than the information mankind has produced in the 5,000 years before.

No wonder we get lost along the way, and you've got a hell of a job in finding out who really does know something about the issue you're pondering. I don't have Loics reputation, so I don't count as an authority here, but I dare say Loic is wrong. He's off by miles.

In his blogpost he pleas to have a twitter search by authority, just like technorati who worked out an algorithm to define the authority of your blog. I'll walk a mile with him on this path as the algorithm to define authority by number of citations or links is much better than counting sheer numbers of followers. However...

There's a catch.

The catch is in creating an elite layer, the twitterati, the digerati, or whatever you'd like to call them. While reading Loic's blogpost, two things came to mind. First a conversation I had past New Years'Eve and a blogpost I wrote about half a year ago on the Social Web.

The New Years Eve conversation I had was a conversation with my neighbour and my Sister in Law who has recently received her PhD at the Oxford University. She graduated in the interaction between insects and how that would affect a Ecological systems or something like that. Fact is she worked at the same department as Dawekins (the Evolution theory zealot) and the discussion went into Evolutionism vs. Creationism. On both sides you have zealots and with neither you can have a normal scientific, fact based discussion. Evolutionism is the dominant philosophy in Science these days and to most people it seems like the case has been closed. Evolution has been scientifically verified, beyond doubt. Well, it isn't. I didn't see a video on YouTube to prove it (nor did I see a video on YouTube to prove Divine Creation) and if you would conduct objective, unbiased science, you would have to conclude that the evolution theory has gaps. In a scientific setting you'd count on educated minds questioning these results, but in the way it is presented to our children who do not have the cognitive skills yet to analyse results, we are brainwashing them. If you look at how the scientific scene works it explains a lot. Authority in Science comes from the number of publications you have in a major magazine. Every paper you submit is reviewed by an editor who likes it, or not, regardless of the argumentation to your findings. Let's say you write an article about how Evolution sucks, no matter if you include 100% proof, if the editor doesn't like it, you're out. Next step is the peer review. Every paper, once it has passed the editorial selection, is sent to peers, colleagues and the same selections starts over again. Let's say my findings are solid and proves the previously published research of one of my reviewers wrong, he won't like that as it will make him lose his reputation, authority or stature. Case closed. No publication.

Selection and authority in this process kill Science as it should be unbiased and objective. It isn't. I think the same would count for authority based filtering. The key issue here is in automation. Google and other search engines have worked out algorithms, as well as technorati who put auhority to blogs. No matter how much intelligence you put into these intermediates, they cannot compete with the selection capacity of the human brain. These selection mechanisms will undoubtedly produce a prevailing elite, just like in the science case above and smart, intelligent and argumented opinions to the contrary will be neglected.

This made me recall a post I made several months ago on the social web called "Power to the Community" In this blogpost I discussed how my colleague defines social webdesgin. This is way more than defining the social web. It is about desinging your websites to create emergent behaviour. In extremis this could lead to Isaac Asimov's foundation series in which he presents the Psychohistory.

The basis of psychohistory is the idea that, while the actions of a particular individual could not be foreseen, the laws of statistics could be applied to large groups of people and used to predict the general flow of future events. Asimov used the analogy of a gas: in a gas, the motion of a single molecule is very difficult to predict, but the mass action of the gas can be predicted to a high level of accuracy - known in physics as the Kinetic Theory. Asimov applied this concept to the population of the fictional Galactic Empire, which numbered in a quintillion. The character responsible for the science's creation, Hari Seldon, established two postulates:

  1. That the population whose behaviour was modeled should be sufficiently large
  2. They should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses.

In creating automated intelligent interfaces to filter through the inprocessable amount of digital information we might just be on our way to do that...


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