Saturday, June 25, 2011

Where in the World is Whitey Bin Laden?

In the scheme of qualifications, I'm not qualified to be very much. But I am an authority on the question of how humans and search engines tend to talk over one another when they share the same screen.

Here it is -- the number one communicado non-starter. We over-specify what we want when we talk with search engines. We want it so bad we expect to bear witness to its materialization on our doorsteps and driveways. For commerce this works out fine. I want a size XXL horsepower in the original casing and want it to hit my cash rewards program before the arrival of my free shipping. But then it falls to fragmented pieces:

  1. It's not an exact match of fallen-out-of-Facebook-is-this-Sally-really

  2. It's not the exact place and time the package was designed to arrive

  3. It's not the exact  same set of challenges you expected to be up against the next time

If there's only one-of-a-kind out there, we have an infinite loop of errors that send us to the land of the correctionless -- the placeholder Google's algorithm has reserved for our habitation. Are we surprised? Is an ulcer coming on? Perhaps, then our surprise should be worn and not masked? That's how we remember why we Googled in the first place. No chicken-and-egg problem about that. It has to do with yanking our minds out of our rabbit holes. It's about seeing the world from a broader perspective than our in-boxes and portfolios.

This tendency to over-specify is not our proudest achievement as disgruntled Googlers. It's really the natural extension of our need to dumb reality down for the sake of simplicity. It's not that we can't absorb the complexities. It's that we want a clear set of instructions. We want to be told what to do. That's not going to happen without a price, a catalog, and the certainty of a transaction about to happen.

For capital goods and tangible services we either share an understanding or will come to one. For everything else we have our own hunches or the eerie suspicion that we can't find what we're looking for. The hope is not for better search technology but for the ability to think more abstractly in order to expand a useful range of outcomes. This reminds me of the search troubles of some former PI students. Some were comfortable with directories and specialty databases for scouring public records. Others never left their search boxes, repeating the names of the same criminal suspects and eliciting the same three hits from the same three thousand sites. That's a fixation well worth escaping.

These same search dynamics surround the recently solved capers of our most wanted 1-2 on the post office walls of an American generation. In both cases the criminal was under our unsuspecting noses and free from under our fumbling thumbs. The more wanted they became, the more convinced we seemed were the vanishing tricks played on us by their deceitful legends. But sooner or later the steely resolve of wanted-dead-or-alive gives way to the intricacies of  an expanding drag net. There were choice bits of bait on a coterie of lures:

  • Was it the delivery man as the whistle-snitch?

  • Where in her jam-packed appointment book was the girlfriend penciled in next?

The only way these men could be brought to justice was to meet them out in a cavernous world of their own design. That takes theory of mind, extrapolation, dexterity, and perspective taking. And while we're piling onto what lands well clear of the Google radar, let's remember that sound taxonomy and our own search architectures are our best bet for deploying Google in its non-shopping glory.

This is an abstraction to the average "user." This is something perhaps only a Google "customer" might insist on.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Local Information Movement

"Categorizing is necessary for humans. But it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising these categories." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We've come to know where we live as much by local food movements as our schools and property values. In the last decade "buy local" has come to mean that we're creating environmental sustainability, healthier diets, and more close-knit communities by eating the food planted by the farmers who work the same lands that support us and our grassroots economies.

Can the same be said for information, really? If we limit our inputs to what's nearby aren't we limiting our perspectives? If we shop locally for our news how can we generalize the broader forest from the specific trees? Our collective self-interests stick close to home. Aren't we further compromising our own narrow focus by foresaking the interdependencies and complexities that can only form by holding our own hides up to a more inclusive global perspective?

Localizing information sounds like an open invitation to invite in what Taleb calls "the contagion" or the herd mentality that traps independent thinkers into parroting the same parochial mindsets:
"The process of having these people report in lockstep caused the dimensionality of the opinion  -- they converged on opinions and used the same items as causes."

That uniformity of perspective-taking is not about one's sourcing as it is about reporting; for our purposes this is the 24/7 news cycle. This formula is not set to increase to a 25/8 cycle no matter how dense the news flow, how rich the implications, or how clued in the recipients. Rather Taleb is suggesting a need to defy the pattern by tabling judgments; a need to ignore loops expecting to  be closed in time to declare some daily distortion, fueled by the need for definitive outcomes.  Filling air time is one thing. But we confuse it for filling our mental shopping carts with all the evidence we need to decide ...

  • guilt or innocence

  • one party over another

  • winners and losers

None of this defines a local information as a movement -- a force for good -- or even for food for thought. Localizing the information we're fed means sourcing our news providers well enough to know their locales and to see through their own self-referential conceits, blinders, and potential conflicts of interest. Until we know where a fact was selected, when an interview was granted, or who took the time to file a FOIA, we will be taking our information sources on the same blind faith that poisons us on factory beef and processed food.

Whether our informants are networks or neighbors we need to know of the company they keep before we can build the same independent perspective we insist of our news providers. The leading bias is self-selection. Nature abhors a vacuum. Talk may be cheap and free speech may prove expensive. Vacuums are pure legend to the media will never acknowledge the existence of one. Still, that doesn't obviate our need as researchers to cultivate a balanced media diet.

Localizing the intentions of our news providers is one place to start.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Smiley Face-ification of Social Media

"Thumbs can tilt at many angles." -- Terrence Patrick Canade
I posted a recent entry in the AIIM blogger community about the compromised state of social media to deliver on many of the essential building blocks of information quality such as transparency, integrity, credibility, and authenticity. This is typified best by the toggle that flips us on / off through the planet's most awesome wall switch -- the "I like" button on Facebook.

The dumb-downed thumbs-up is the only vestige of personal judgement passing for an experience worth repeating beyond our own browser boundaries. All of the preceding attributes are measurable in a world where information once cost something to obtain. However, that calculation is no longer valid in the land of content too cheap to meter.

How do we yank us back into a world of standards? Do we offload our suspended disbeliefs to the algorithmic chefs slaving in the kitchens of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etal.? Is it naive even to believe in standards where all experience is unique -- subjected to the limitations of our direct Internet experience. These are our own private showrooms expressed in search logs, site histories, and browser settings? Uhhh ... no. (They are private, right?)

The failure to develop universal information standards ignores our universal claims on social media. It's not about organizing people. As a business model the "social" tag papers over the shopping model so that social media consultants can collect their rent checks. But it was never about that. Information quality in a social media world is something more primal and self-centered. It's about organizing ourselves. We need to tap a containable set of information within a set period of time in the service of certain favorable outcomes. We express these as our priorities, our deal-breakers, and our worthiness as self-taught nodes in this network of smiley faces and closely-guarded ranking formulas.

Hardly Containing Ourselves

One way to close ranks is to treat the world's information supply like a resource instead of a raw content sewage pipe bleeding into the digital landfill of unlimited capacity. But ours is a supply-based business model. It's according to who-wants-in -- not according to why-do-you-need to-find-out. Demand could be manufactured without ever needing to contain this need-to-know why. No explanations necessary. All Google holds are the word patterns which most deftly intervene in a user forming a question. It is in every party's interest to play their role correctly. Unfortunately for most users that means little regard that the terms Google is throwing them are deceptively simple:

The moment you aspire to confide in a search engine you are being shown an exit of someone else's choosing.

These magically inventive search suggestions? They are ads. Let me say it again, only more to the point. Suggestions don't only answer to us. They answer to advertisers. We are purchasing Ad Words by clicking on the Google set of suggestion terms. Yes, Google has pioneered the art of click-free commerce. You drop down to their dropdown and you've ordered from right off the menu!  The inventory is not a catalog. Don't touch the merchandise -- even if we are the demand side of the equation.

I'm not arguing on moral or even legal grounds that a change of policy is in order. Yes, its brilliance cascades across the sky. But we don't pay Google for use of their search engine. Google gets paid by monetizing our usage of their service. Anyone who loses sight of that is at risk of being used in ways by Google that are not communicated to Google users -- namely, that your attention has been preemptively purchased by one or several Adwords sponsors: "And now that I'm inside your head I can always see myself out without an escort..."

No matter how many gadgets reference our schedules, the number of hours in a day has not increased. Cognitively speaking, our personal attention spans are fixed on a lunar cycle. Anyone with more attention to spend than the claims on their calendar is either incapable of self-direction, independently wealthy, living without a smart phone or auditioning for the next post crash pilot episode of Survivor, the prequel.

Fixed Scale Attention Settings

One time-tested way to channel attention on a meaningful focus is to set attention to a fixed scale. That enables the virtual voter to carve out her own sets of priorities without any heed for what her peers or elites have insisted she hold to the exclusion of everything else. Instead she can focus on multiple concerns and address those concerns as a percentage of her "total concerns."

Let's pretend that the tax debate is run like a popular election with 6-8 political parties instead of the 1-2 parties operating here. Let's take a system where a vested member of a non-elite group, (say U.S. taxpayer?) could express their policy preferences by directing their tax dollars in percentage form. This flies in the face of our current fight-or-flight two-headed party predicament. We could make it more competitive to thicken the cable gumbo news soup. Let's say the host would send the losers home who don't coalesce around the top five tally-getters. That lops off the long, scraggly tail of marginal, overlapping services programs, right?

The tea party would love it because slicing up the treasury into line items would finally acquaint the sleepy and disaffected with the freak out show they seem to have missed the last ten years -- how 43% of our voting rights revert to the Chinese before we even begin to dole things out. Corporate lobbies would climb on-board because it lights up their board like no two-party election campaign ever will.

Defense contractors will reacquaint us with the fact that while much of our assembly work has gone overseas we are still the world beater in fear manufacturing. Just to make sure that social services can't defeat the Military / Medicare complex we can have defense contractors using their Citizens v. United speech-making write-offs to tell America why:
  • A vote for HUD, Headstart, CHIPS or AmeriCorps is a vote against keeping America the biggest, baddest, gunslinger in the global neighborhood.
The pharma giants could out-suggest any keyword campaign with a massive spending rationale that...
  • Doing away with Medicare means losing the all-expense paid trip to an elective nursing home that we have today.
What's going to happen when our wet suits begin to wet themselves? That's the foreign invader the health care lobby will implant into our national discussion.

Perhaps the most popular feature of a percentage-based ratings system is that every 10 millionth taxpayer would win a reprieve -- that's right. Tax forgiveness for an entire payment cycle! No lottery could ever hold a candle to shaking Uncle Sam down before he fumbles for our own pockets, right?

That's how information standards emerge. Carve up the beast and then let's compare recipes.

Payments accepted.
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About attentionSpin

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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.