More of the Same: The Web Turns Us Into Mussels

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. In our previous post we tried to argue whether you could engineer serendipity. The conclusion was: no, you cannot engineer serendipity (on the web). In this post we use the same recipe to investigate the corollary: the (social) web is hindering serendipity by clustering and clumping similar information around our web presence based on our online behaviour (e.g. the social graph). You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

In my teens I went to a Montessori high school in Amsterdam Zuid. The school is known for its liberal and cultural approach to education. My friends and I all thought we were free thinkers and radicals. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I learned at the college for PE teacher education that not all people had the “VPRO gids” at home and read the “Volkskrant”. It suddenly dawned on me how silo-ed my experience at high school had been and how similar we all were in our drive to be different. Occasionally I get the feeling that I am in a very similar position in my current educational technology profession.

The current toolset on the web helps us find people that are like ourselves, recommends us books that are similar to the ones we have already read and amplifies our existing opinions by aligning them to people who think the same as us. There are no tools to do the opposite: find people who are very different from you or content that gives new perspectives. In this post I would like to give a couple of examples of how the web helps in turning us into mussels (sessile animals that like being close to each other).

Example 1: The concept of RSS and Google Reader
Every day I spent 30 to 60 minutes reading my news feeds through Google Reader. I have subscribed to over 300 feeds and try to not miss any news items from about 100 of them. These feeds are very specific (one of the affordances of RSS is that it can easily be generated based on tags or search words). None of them carry general world news. Instead of reading the Guardian’s most important world news, I read the Guardian news that is tagged with Royal Dutch Shell. Instead of general feeds about the state of education and learning I read the posts of certain learning gurus. This means that on my Google Reader news from the last couple of days there was no way for me to encounter the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (I only learned about it by looking it up just now), whereas I read about Facebook’s new messaging system at least three different times (here, here and here) with very similar perspectives each time.

Google is also willing to suggest some new feeds for me to subscribe to. As of today the first four suggested sources that Google gives me are as follows:

Google's first recommendations

Google's first recommendations

More of the same! Wouldn’t it be way more beneficial for me to be confronted with people, opinions and news that is very different from the things I already know? It seems like there isn’t enough semantic understanding of the things that I am reading to be able to tell me: “You always read news about Shell on the Guardian, the Financial Times usually has a very different perspective”. How far off do you think we are before that becomes a reality?

Example 2: Amazon suggestions

Amazon recommends the book I am already reading

Amazon recommends the book I am already reading

Amazon was one of the first companies that made use of its customer’s behaviour to improve the service to that same customer. When you browse at Amazon they track everything, not just your purchases, but also your browsing history, the links you click, the reviews you read and write, the books you don’t buy and probably how much time you spend doing each of these things. They use this data and correlate it with other people’s data to be able to suggest a couple of books that should interest you.

I haven’t bought at Amazon for a while (I now buy my books at Book Depository as they ship for free), but my current suggestions do include titles like Drive (which I am reading right now), Free and Growing Up Digital (and many other similar titles that I have already read). These books increase my specialization in the field of Internet and educational technology. There is no way for me to try and find books on Amazon that can function as a bridge to other genres.

There also is no way to really browse serendipitously. Like RSS, the categorization of the books is incredibly specific. Much more than in a traditional book store. On Amazon I would be able to go to one of my favourite subjects cognitive psychology (finding more than 8000 titles), whereas in a book store I would have to go to “popular science”. The latter forces me to run into books in fields of science that I wouldn’t usually look at. A book shelve also has a nicer (and faster!) browsing experience: running with a finger past all the books, taking one out and quickly scanning its contents all do not work on Amazon.

Example 3: Anglo-Saxon focus through the English language and through Silicon Valley based innovation
Silicon valley seems to be a village. I listen to Leo Laporte’s podcasts (e.g. This Week in Tech), read TechCrunch, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb and am inundated with news about Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and mobile phone carriers in the US. A lot of the web technology innovation is indeed driven by companies in Silicon valley and innovative start-ups from all over the world flock to California to be successful (see here for an example). But it does leave me wondering whether I am not missing out on a large part of the technium by not being able to read Japanese, Mandarin, German, etc. Through Western (English) media I have learned that Japan has a very specific mobile phone culture. But in all ways I am completely disconnected from it.

To experience how true this is, I would like you to do the following assignment: Use Google to try and find three sites in Japanese about technology culture. Let me know in the comments how that went…

Top 10 Podcasts for the Technophile

Photo by Flickr user e-magic, CC-licensed

Photo by Flickr user e-magic, CC-licensed

About two years ago I had to change the way I got to work. I used to take the train and would spend all that time reading. Suddenly I had to drive a car and it felt like I was wasting my time. That is until I found out about podcasting.

I have about ten hours of listening to fill every week and do that with the following podcasts (not in any particular order):

  • Leo Laporte has single handed created his own Netcast Network: TWiT. It is proof that it is now more than possible to create professional sounding audio (and lately even video) without breaking the bank. He does all his interviews over Skype, produces hours and hours of shows each week and is highly successful (some of his shows have around 200.000 listeners) without being big media. I listen religiously to four of his shows:
    • this WEEK in TECH (feed URL): This is the leading show that gives its name to the network. Laporte talks about the week’s tech news with luminaries like John C. Dvorak, Patrick Norton from Tekzilla, Will Harris from Channelflip and many others. The show is often hilarious with some great insights, although I can imagine it might feel like a lot of inside baseball when you don’t listen very often. My favourite regular guest is Jason Calacanis from Mahalo. He always seems to bring some outrageous humour to the show, but is also often one step ahead of the game when it comes to really understanding how business is changing because of the Internet.
    • FLOSS Weekly (feed URL): This is a show about Free, Libre, Open Source Software with Randal L. Schwartz. The show usually consists of an interview with the project lead(ers) of a big open source software project. It is a great place to learn about new projects and to get a better knowledge of how open source software development works.
    • net@night (feed URL): This show has Amber MacArthur sharing links of new websites that she encountered. Often there will be an interview with a founder of some new web 2.0 start-up. The show can be a bit light on content sometimes.
    • Security Now (feed URL): If you really want to get a better understanding of how computers work, than this is the show for you. Steve Gibson is a real old hand in the IT world (the back-end of his website is written in assembly language if I am not mistaken). The show has two types of episodes: one where Steve dives deep into a particular security related topic and one where he answers questions from his listeners.
  • Search Engine with Jesse Brown (feed URL new feed url at TVO.org): “A blog and podcast about the Internet. But not boring.” This is the podcast that I would love to make. Jesse Brown uses his audience to find stories in which the Internet has profound social effects. He really understands the Net and has the most wicked loops and intros of any podcast in this list.
  • Guardian’s Tech Weekly (feed URL): Aleks Krotoski and other Guardian journalists go through a week of tech news. It is a smoothly produced show with some interviews, a start-up elevator pitch, short news segments and sense of humour. The British focus can be refreshing.
  • Guardian’s Science Weekly (feed URL): Alok Jha must be the funniest man in science journalism. Only Brits can make a show that is incredibly entertaining and very intelligent at the same time. You can feel the love for science and the joy they have in making the show.
  • Digital Planet (feed URL): This BBC world show takes a much more international look at how technology is changing society. It has many features on the developing world and has a true journalistic BBC attitude. The resident expert Bill Thompson is a great technology critic who brings something extra.
  • These two Dutch podcasts are interesting too:
    • Radio Online (feed URL): This long running radio show always manages to entertain me. The combination of sceptic Peter de Bie and hardcore Internet journalist Francisco van Jole really works.
    • ICT Roddels (feed URL): Brenno de Winter and Gonny van der Zwaag produce this podcast. I have a lot of respect for Brenno who has his very own fearless interviewing style and is a journalist with principles. His Bigwobber site is pushing hard for open government.¬† The audio quality is less then the other shows that I have described but it is good enough.
  • Finally, as a bonus, two extra podcasts:
    • LugRadio (feed URL): The awesome foursome have stopped producing this great Linux show. They were completely irreverent and had some insanely hilarious segments, but also always managed to have very thoughtful and deep discussions about open source software and the open source community. It is well worth listening to the archives.
    • Ricky Gervais Podcast (available at Audible): This has nothing to do with technology, but it is probably the best comedy that is available¬† on audio anywhere.

I use Amarok (not the KDE4 version!) to download these podcasts and sync them with my iPod. Amarok really deserves a plug as it manages the podcasts on my iPod perfectly. Podcasts continue where I left them, get downloaded automatically when new ones arrive, get deleted from my iPod when I have listened to them completely and show the little image of the show.

I am always looking for new things to listen to and would appreciate any recommendations.

6.6 Degrees of separation on average

Stanley Milgram was a very innovative social experimenter. I will keep his experiments on authority for another blog post and instead will focus on his Small world experiment, which I have always found fascinating.

In 1969 he tried to figure out whether the world was becoming a “small world” network by sending out packages to random people in the US and asking them to try and get the package in as little steps as possible to a contact in Boston. His research showed that people in the US seemed to be connected through three friendship links on average.

Some students later invented the “six degrees of kevin bacon” game (connecting each film actor to Bacon in 6 film cast lists or fewer) which popularised the term “six degrees of separation”.

Milgram’s research methodology had some problems and later attempts to redo the experiment using e-mail were never very successful (I personally tried to do a version of the experiment with my highschool students which failed miserably).

According to the Guardian Microsoft has now finally proved the theory using raw data from their messaging logs. The average degrees of separation globally (by people that use MSN at least) seems to be 6.6:

Researchers at Microsoft studied records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people in various countries, according to the Washington Post. This was ‘the first time a planetary-scale social network has been available,’ they observed. The database covered all the Microsoft Messenger instant-messaging network in June 2006, equivalent to roughly half the world’s instant-messaging traffic at that time.

This is an example of a new way of doing research. The amount of data that is being collected by some technology companies is so massive that you don’t need a theory anymore, you can just look at the patterns instead (see Wired’s The End of Theory).

What could this mean for learning? Imagine the amount of things we could find out about how people learn if we would have an equivalent of MSN or Facebook in the learning space! What would all Moodle logs combined tell us about how learning technology is used?

Which organisation will be the first to leverage our small world and use it for learning?