Social netWORKing

Being the center of your networkOne of the most fascinating developments there are at the moment at the workplace is I think the use of social networking tools. What can ben seen in several reports is that the use of social networking tools (for example to find the right person for a task) is growing rapidly within companies (Funny thing is that in many cases this is happening completely below the radar of the IT department). The tools are used for example to find the right person with the right expertise as close by in your network as possible. Directly based on previous work done by people like reports they wrote, memberships of communities, questions they answered etc. Maybe even based on the emails you sent to specific people though in this respect there are of course issues on privacy that we have to deal with
IBM is developing some quite interesting applications around lotus connections dealing with social networking. Recently they have developed a tool called Atlas that is capable of showing you your network, how it relates to the subjects you are dealing, with and how to reach people. Important is that this information is also showed in relation to the company structure and (other) communities.
What I especially like about developments like these is that it gives the individuals in an organisation the power to create their own network besides the structure of the organisation. Links are being made that work instead of links that are made to control power (or am I being naive and will it still be used to do that?). I think due to the transparancy it will give the individual more power to reach his goals based on achievement instead of organisational position. People can create their own organisation that supports their work within the overall organisation. This leads to fascinating possibilities.
Of course their are lots of questions on how this will work. How do we deal with privacy, will the organisation not use the transparency to discipline people instead of giving them more freedom. What is the role of management in structures like these?

Smart and Stupid

LemmingsThe crowd can be smart  and the crowd can be stupid. Part of the discussion on Brittanica deals with what the advantage is of social software and iCrowds. And when results are stupid or irrelevant. IS there for example a thing like a citizen scientist?
Open source seems to work great: Linux, Samba, Apache are all examples where the software has reached tremendous stability because it is open. Everybody in the world can test it, can comment on features and can look at the code to try to make it better. I think most will agree that in these cases no group of “professional specialists” would have done any better.
On the other hand we have Wikipedia that sort of combines the best and worst of information. And it can be hard to distinguish between good and bad. Parroting each other through blogs and fora’s creates information that looks like the truth because it is amplified a thousand times (you can Google it and a hundred links say the same “truth” but in reality it may be just one person who is the source and who might be wrong. A thousand consistent lies remains a lie. One of the reasons we think information that is found many-fold is true is because in the old days much of this information was from different sources. Due to the Internet and the free copy and distribution, information is replicated with the speed of lightning.  This speed of replication leads to a loss in diversity of sources since it is much more convenient to copy based on what Google delivers. This process is of course self propelling. 
One of the reasons for this difference is the ease how we can distinguish right or wrong. When using the Apache server I know when it crashes or is vulnerable for attacks. And I know when it is fixed (when it does not crash or does like advertised). also, each person looking at the application or code does this on it’s own. With information in Wikipedia this is not so easy to determine without thorough research based on “peer reviewed” sources.
As for the citizen scientist: there may certainly be a place in science for the pro-am model. A much mentioned example is the use of amateur astronomists that see a lot a things that the professionals missed because you can’t look at the whole sky. But collection of data is only a part of science. Building theories and designing experiments is something altogether different. On a photograph it is easy to see if it was a supernova. Building and proving a theorie is much less clear and needs the input and critical review of many experts.
Combining diversity is the key to iCrowds, not replication of the same.


The Brittanica is doing something very daring: they are starting a discussion about web 2.0 (like what is the relation between Wikipedia and the Brittanica) on a web 2.0 platform (blogs). Sun Tzu whom is no doubt also in the Brittanica, would have taught never to fight on the enemy terrain. Like I said: daring.
The opening piece is from Michael Gorman where he more of less attacks the collective intelligence and defends the traditional way of finding and selecting information. The reactions by the blogging crowds are as you can expect.
However, I think there is one point overlooked by the people reacting (like Clay Shirky) to what Gorman says. Of course is unlimited information flow good. People can express themselves and lots of different opinions are available. However, filtering and rating information is important, in science as well as in everyday news. We have to know how far we can trust the information and the source. In the “old days” our filter were based in the production side. Production was costly through printing and distribution. To make these decisions we employed professionals hired by firms that printed the books and magazines. We as users could select with our feet by buying the magazine or not. Maybe not the best model overall but the best of all the inadequate models available at us at that time. The nice thing of this model is that the information that is presented to us by trusted sources is usually fairly good. We know that Nature (almost always) uses a rigorous process before publishing.
Comes the Internet and Web 2.0. With Web 2.0 our filters from the production side have been removed. It has been said often: unlimited copies, free distribution. So now we are flooded with information where it is hard to distinguish in objective quality. One of the scientific risks is that this leads to the use of information that fits a priori with your thinking, without the check on the validity of conclusion. A bit of web surfing always leads to articles that support you suspicion. For example, I very much like the writings of Clay Shirky. But most of the information I find is from his blogs. He is eloquent, he is convincing but also in many cases totally insubstantiated. Maybe it is based on facts but I have no way of knowing.
Science does need a thorough process of checks to determine quality. The work I do builds upon the works of others. If I can not trust my sources, how can I trust my results. And again, peer review is the best of all the inadequate models we have for this. I agree with Gorman that, in the end, science needs facts, not hearsay. I wonder how much of the facts in Wikipedia are based on (checked) information people found in one of those bulky paper encyclopedia’s.
We have to understand why and how our quality mechanisms work in the physical production and distribution in order to make the translation to how we deal with it in the digital world. The goals remain the same (quality and trustworthy information) but the mechanisms will be fundamentally different because the new possibilities web 2.0 gives us. Exciting new possibilities and maybe even better ones than we had in the physical domain. There is the possibility for more transparency in the peer review process. The use of scientific papers is seriously hampered by the fact that commercial organisations are running the publications. It would be better if this peer review process would be an open one (open science?) and that the scientific community is responsible for this process.
However, I think that also in that case we will need all kinds of governance structures. More open, more democratic and more transparent. It will not be “like the mind of god” nor will it be like the Hyves mind. Just work but a bit less inadequate than it is now. Small steps.
That’s how progress works.