For years I had been an active user of Delicious, the social bookmarking service. I started using it in 2004, a year after its launch, and stopped using it in 2015. By then the service had been repeatedly sold, and much of its useful social features had been deprecated. It’s one of those great services Yahoo bought and then never did anything with. As I describe in a posting on bookmarking strategies last year, Delicious was useful originally because it showed you who else had bookmarked the same thing as you, and with which tags. It allowed me to find other people with similar interests, and especially if they used very different tags than me for a page they would be outside my own communities and networks (as ‘tribes’ will gravitate to a shared idiom). I’d then start following the blogs of those other people, as a way of widening my ‘very large scale antenna array’ of feed reading. Tags were pivots for triangulation. Delicious is one of those tools that were really social software, as opposed to a social media platform with its now too common self-reinforcing toxicity.

The current owner of Delicious is Pinboard, and according to Wikipedia the Delicious site was officially made inactive last August. That became obvious visiting my Delicious profile in the past weeks (on the original de.licio.us url, not the later delicious.com), as it would regularly result in an internal server error. Today I could access my profile.

My delicious profile

I decided to download my Delicious data, 3851 bookmarks.

After several attempts resulting in internal server errors, I ended up on the export screen which has options to include both notes and tags.

Delicious export screen

The resulting download is a HTML file (delicious.html), which after opening at first glance looked disappointing as it did not show tags, nor the date of bookmarking, just the description. Loosing most context would make the list of bookmarks rather useless.

My delicious html export

However, when I took a look at the source of the HTML file, I found that thankfully tags and dates are included as data attributes of the bookmarks. The HTML is nicely marked up wit DT and DD tags too, so it will be no problem to parse this export automatically.

My delicious html export source showing data attributes

My original notion was to import all bookmarks with their tags and notes, as back dated blog entries here. But randomly clicking on a range of links tells me that many of those bookmarks no longer resolve to an active web page, or redirect to some domain squatting spam outfit. So bringing the bookmarks ‘home’ into my site isn’t useful.
As the export includes tags, I can mine the list for bits of utility though. The collection contains a wide variety of open data usage examples I collected over the years, and that is of interest as a historical library, that I could try and match against the internet archives, using the bookmarking dates. Most other stuff is no longer of interest, or was ephemeral to begin with, so I won’t bother bringing that ‘home’. I will add the delicious export to the other exports of Twitter and Facebook on my NAS drive and cloud as archive. I have now removed my profile from the Delicious website (after several attempts to overcome internal server errors, and it is now verifiably gone).

Even though quite a number of companies regard social media as dangerous, I think companies have in fact a lot going for them as a suitable environment for social software.

Because social software tools all work from the same principles:
1 they thrive on large volumes of data and information (Flickr and delicious e.g. only come into their own when the volume involved is big enough)
2 they thrive when existing social networks adopt the same tool (your fraternity in Facebook, Wikipedians doing wiki maintenance, your blog roll)

Social software works well given these conditions because these tools are the internet’s response to the enormous volume of information the internet helped create. Social software is the answer to the internet by the internet.
The quantitative change in information availability (going from scarcity to abundance) leads to qualitative changes in our information strategies. Social filtering is one of those changed information strategies. Social software caters to social filtering.

Companies are excellent environments for social filtering.
Because they sit on large volumes of data and information, going largely unused.
Because organisations are a group of people with shared goals and tasks.

In short, companies are their own objects of sociality as well as their own user group.

An information manager of a large internationally operating Dutch company told me the other day that they had given a number of their professionals access to their business intelligence data. Because they were gathering so much data nobody really looked at for lack of good questions to ask of the dataset. The professionals put the data to good use, because they could formulate the right questions. They were adding social structures and context to the data. Basically adding social software design principles to a large volume of data.

The information manager was surprised by this, saying something like “and I have these BI specialists who never came up with this kind of use for the data”.
I wasn’t surprised. Throwing social relationships at large volumes of data works. We see it in our feed-readers, presence streams, yasn’s, wiki’s, and tag-clouds every day.

Dreaming of Tags
Shortly before waking up one morning, while camping in the Austrian Alps in the past weeks (as seen above) I had a dream about tags. Or rather I dreamt that my brother in law had created a database in which each data item was treated and useable as a tag as well. In my dream I was very enthusiastic about this idea. When I woke up Elmine asked me ‘what does that mean, that everything is a tag?’. We kept coming back to the topic, and at the end of the day had a conversation around it over a couple of Weizen beers.

Tags do Double Duty
Tags serve two functions. First they are descriptors, and in that sense subservient to the piece of data they describe. But they are also pivots, i.e. turning points in your path through data. A pivot allows you to see the same set of data, or a different set of data which overlaps the current one, in a different view.

If you go to the picture above and follow the tag ‘huben’ on the right, you are presented with a number of pictures that are also tagged ‘huben’, so you can navigate to a different photo within the context of ‘huben’ and so on. Pivots are the forks in the road of your surfing.
When everything is a tag as in my dream, then everything is a pivot as well. This reminds me of the view on data-items the people of Mediamatic have: everything is a thing. So a thing can be a tag, but also a list of tags, or the entire Flickr-database, or any part thereof. In my dream everything was a tag, a pivot.

Pivots in Social Software Triangles
My description of social software as triangles, which got quite a good response at the time, put tags as pivots in the center view: social applications allow you to navigate from one app to another through their tags as pivot points.

From a Flickr photo to a point on a Yahoo or Google map, to a location in Plazes, or to photo’s taken geographically nearby. The thing is, I cannot directly jump from a Flickr photo to the corresponding location in Plazes. I could if the Plaze itself was the tag. In my 2006 posting I already indicated that where now usually a tag is in the triangle, there basically could be anything. As long as the other two points are a person and a object of sociality. So you could theoretically jump directly from a picture to an event to a place to a review to the author back to the picture again. If tags could be more than just a descriptive word they would be better pivots.


(image from the triangle posting last year)

Need More Pivots!
Hence I concluded that my dream was basically a call for more pivot points in social media. So that we can navigate our web apps better, and build better personal information strategies.
Question remains who has the rights to the concept of a database where everything is tags: me because it was my dream, or my brother in law as he came up with it in my dream and showed me a working prototype 🙂

That is the topic I am currently working on with Elmine Wijnia and Valeri Souchkov (an expert in the TRIZ methodology).
Elmine and I had been discussing if it would be possible to predict viable social software tools and niches based on the affordances people actually need to be able to consciously learn things. This as a result of our paper for the BlogTalk Reloaded conference where we suggested using community critical success factors, and the work of George Siemens (Connectivism) as design principles for tools.


Illustration from George Siemens book Knowing Knowledge

Opening up this discussion with Valeri Souchkov helped focus on the singlemost important question that surfaced in our exchanges: how do you get to own your own learning path?

This is a bigger question than we started out with, but it is the ultimate conclusion of trying to approach things not in a tech-driven, or functionality focussed way, but by focussing on an individual and on being empowered to reach your own goals.

Starting from the question How to be owner of my own learning path?, we distinguish a couple of prerequisites:
1) Knowing what to learn
2) Knowing when to learn it
3) Knowing how to learn it
4) Knowing when you’ve learned it
5) Being in an environment that allows you to own your own learning path

Building on this quickly branches of in all kinds of directions.
Those branches allow a more detailed look at things like:

Monitoring, evaluating, shaping and balancing your environment as fit for learning. Which connects to my earlier work on social networks as filters, as well as the second BlogWalk on self-directed learning.
Detecting the need, and right time to learn things against the background of continual changes in the world, and in light of your goals.

Shaping your learning steps with interventions that fit your goals, environment and context, and being able to establish when you’ve learned something and can move on to the next learning goal.

Each of these ‘fields’ need to be supported with their own group of skills and tool box.
And this is where I start to see the contours of what existing tools should look like in different contexts of usage, and what type of tools are missing. When it comes to environment think of visualization e.g., and when it comes to monitoring change, look at pattern hunting.
Because it helps integrate and connect different pieces of your efforts and actions (e.g. it already helps Elmine see how her consulting and research work fits together in a new light.), it helps you think about the type of affordances you need and from which type of tools to get them.

That is an entirely different approach than the one that went ’round the blogosphere in the past week on the building blocks of social software. That was more about describing tools, but not starting with the intended usage of those tools.

This is all still a bit vague, and in part deliberately so.
We hope to take this to Reboot at the end of next month, as a conversation with an introductory presentation. So we will keep building on it.
I hope that it will give us a means to proactively define the tools I need, to determine better what type of feedback to give toolbuilders (like I’ve been doing at different BarCamps) and perhaps spot a niche or two for start-ups.


Sticky notes from exploring one branch of our model

Mathematics is the study of patterns, be it patterns of numbers (arithmetic), shape (geometry), motion and change (calculus), or chance (probability theory).

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When talking about dealing with information abundance I always talk about pattern recognition. That we need to be able to recognize patterns around us, present in the landscape of information we are engulfed in. Probe, sense, respond, as Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge says.

So I spy patterns in my social networks (where are they from, which background, what is missing, how much diversity in opinions, change over time), and I spy patterns in what my social surroundings communicate to me (what is the overlap and difference in their stories, what is hot or not, what excites large parts, what excites only those emotionally close, or only those far away from me). I also spy patterns in the behaviour of those that do not belong to my social networks. Who is linking to the same stuff I and my peers are linking to, but with different words, and different descriptions? Differences in language mean they might be a different community. A community that, as indicated by the fact that they seem to be interested in the same stuff I am but for different reasons. It might be worthwile to get into contact with that community, extending my social environment, extending my understanding of the things that interest me, and connect them into new networks of meaning and context (Siemens, Connectivism).

In the past months I have been thinking about how our human skills needed in dealing with information abundance, and what we know about what makes groups and communities be effective, can serve as design principles for social software tools (I now think that the word social in that term actually refers to taking those skills and traits into account, where I used to say it means it puts human relationships before information objects, which is a less detailed understanding of the same, and the perspective from the tool, not the human perspective).
Now if pattern recognition is a crucial skill as I described above in dealing with the information abundance we live in, and mathematics is the study of recognizing and manipulating those patterns…then what can mathematics bring us with regard to social software tools?

The mathematics of change, chance and shape seem to be important here as we are dealing with networks (of people, information sources and objects). What can we glean from mathematics in this regard, that can serve as design principles and features, or that can be used to determine ‘blind spots’ in existing tools?

Just a thought that came to mind while reading The Math Instinct by Keith Devlin.

(photo: Mathematics by Robert Scarth under Creative Commons BY SA license)

When I wrote about the dinner with Marc Canter here some 2 months ago I also mentioned thinking about social software as being composed of different triangles.

The notion stems from how I use Flickr and delicious. I track individuals and their bookmarks and through those two pieces of info I get to know their use of language as well as their general areas of interest for the day. But I also look at how the stuff I bookmark has been tagged by other people. Are these people already familiar to me? Different language use (in the tags) may hint towards different circles of people and communities.

You see that in both cases I don’t really look at the bookmark itself, and I certainly don’t use it as a singular piece of information. It is merely an object around which I look for existing relationships, and scout out possible new ones. An object of sociality that has served its role as soon as I used it to find new people, or connect to already familiar ones.

It works much the same way for Flickr, though the aspect to get a quick glance at what my existing relationships are up to is more important to me here.

In general you could say that both Flickr and delicious work in a triangle: person, picture/bookmark, and tag(s). Or more abstract a person, an object of sociality, and some descriptor. In every triangle there always needs to be a person and an object of sociality. The third point of the triangle is free to define as it were.

This becomes more interesting once you start using the descriptors to move from one object of sociality to the next, or when the descriptor is an object of sociality itself. Now you can hop through different applications while still doing the same thing you previously did inside one application: build connections to people based on their current interest, albeit a picture, a location, an event, a bookmark, a blogpost or a document.

We generally call the stacking of apps like this mash-up. But in this case more importantly it allows us as people to seamlessly wander from one application to another while not being interrupted because you have to consciously migrate from one ‘channel’ to another. It is not mash-up to bring more functionality into one new application based on existing ones, it is mash-up to more closely follow your own routines while building and maintaining relationships.

Plazes for instance puts itself in the place of the tags in Flickr, and presto, now pictures are tied to geographic locations and vice versa. Through which you then can find (new) people again.

To me this also means that self-proclaimed social applications that do not offer you the possibility to explore all sides of a triangle, aren’t useful as a social medium. A bookmarking service that does say how many others bookmarked the same thing, but does not let you explore who these people are or lets you see who uses what tags, only the tags used by themselves, doesn’t do much in a social sense. By maintaining the triangle you make sure that individuals keep their face in the masses even when you aggregate info. (You can always drill back to a person and her personal set of in this case bookmarks and tags)

You can enter any triangle through a single point. This is the most basic use of an application. I store pictures, I bookmark, I write, I geotag. But from that you can start exploring the sides of the triangle, finding new connections to people either based on the object of sociality, or by browsing the descriptors and hopping to the next object of sociality.

Social software I think is social because it puts relationships in the center view, and less the information that flows through these relationships. The possibility of triangulation allows you to also extend and broaden both existing and new relationships into new information domains, and thus increases the likelihood of new networks of relationships and meaning emerging from the background noise.

Photo Value of Triangulation by Roland Tanglao during the Seattle Blogwalk. (CC0 public domain)