Design Personal Publishing Technology

Using Wikis for content management…

So here’s a thought partly inspired by an e-mail from a work colleague and partly by Creating and editing wiki pages is extremely simple and elegant once you get past the first 30 minute learning curve. And essentially you end up with a page that’s got an incredibly simple template, pretty well marked-up code (or at least could do if you used the right Wiki system) and can be edited incredibly quickly. Now, imagine for a moment that the Wiki page itself is nothing but a content management interface and that the Wiki has a separate templating and publishing engine that grabs what you’ve written on the page, turns it into a nicely designed fully-functioning (uneditable) web-page and publishes it to the world. It could make the creation of small information rich sites enormously quick – particularly if you built in FTP stuff.

Now one of the problems with using Wikis generally is that they don’t lend themselves to the creation of clear sectionalised navigation. Nor do they do naturally find it easy to use graphic design, colour or layout differently on separate pages to communicate either your context or the your location in the site. That’s not to say that Wikis are broken, of course, just that the particularly networked rather than hierarchical model of navigation that they lend themselves towards isn’t suitable for all kinds of public-facing sites (the same could be said of the one-size-fits-all design of the pages). This would clearly be a problem. Wikis sacrifice that kind of functionality on the whole in order to gain advantages in other areas (ie. collaborative site generation and maintainance). Without those advantages, you’d simply be left with an inferior product.

So how to integrate design and architecture into the production of a wiki-CMSed website? Well, it’s not a particularly new question with regard to wikis generally – loads of suggestions about how some kinds of hierarchy could be built in have been made and some of them implemented. On the whole they’ve not been terribly successful as they present a higher level of user-level complexity, and with a lot of potential naive users, publically editable wikis can’t really afford complexity. But that’s not true if only one person or a small group were to be updating the site. The complexity level could increase a bit and the learing curve would have to be just a little steeper initially.

Here’s an example of how you could create hierarchy and utilise different templates at the level of the individual page. First, imagine a templating interface that allowed you to create an outline hierarchy of the various sections of a site (just like you’d produce in the outline view of Word or using something like OmniOutliner). Now, each section of that site-map could have a distinct template attached to it, or inherit a template from the section above. Then all you’d need on the Wiki-page (as content-management interface) would be a drop-down box on the right that allowed you to choose which section the page you’d created would sit under. Given that, you could use the mechanics behind the templating engine automatically generate a variety of different models of hierarchical navigation and breadcrumb trails which you could embed into your templates (you could use a templating mechanism very much like the one used to move content chunks around weblogs using Typepad). And the same part of the Wiki page that you use to decide which section the wiki page should be contained within could also house a .gif thumbnail of the template for that page. And the assigned section of a new page could even default to that of the page from which you created it – forward-link from a page about Troubleshooting (in the section “Help”) to create a page about Error Messages, and Error Messages is automatically created inside the “Help” section initially. And all of this could then be ‘published’, pushing everything out in a lovely stylish elegant and visually rich format to the rest of the world at the push of a button.

Wouldn’t that be cool? Blogger-style management for all kinds of other sites… The only things that don’t seem obvious to me at the moment is how you make the intra-wiki links not look like Wiki links to the general public while preserving the ease of use that they engender for the person creating the pages… Any thoughts?


Letters, Data and Metadata…

Considering how annoying I find The Social Life of Information (again – more on that later), it’s surprising how often I feel that I should be posting some of the nuggets contained within it for a larger audience. Anyway, there’s a really interesting quote in the book from Paul Duguid’s trip report from Portugal which I think is pertinent to my other post (A fragment of a world full of metadata) on the vast amounts of metadata that the real world supplies us with around the edges of the ostensible ‘content’. But then again – as I say – I find much of the book so aggravating that I’m not sure quoting a chunk of it to support one of my positions is a particularly inspired idea.

I was working in an archive of a 250-year-old business, reading correspondence from about the time of the American Revolution. Incoming letters were stored in wooden boxes about the size of a standard Styrofoam picnic cooler, each containing a fair portion of dust as old as the letters. As opening a letter triggered a brief asthmatic attack, I wore a scarf tied over my nose and mouth. Despite my bandit’s attire, my nose ran, my eyes wept, and I coughed, wheezed and snorted. I longed for a digital system that would hold the information from the letters and leave paper and dust behind.

One afternoon, another historian came to work on a similar box. He read barely a word. Instead, he picked out bundles of letters and, in a move that sent my sinuses into shock, ran each letter beneath his nose and took a deep breath, at times almost inhaling the letter itself but always getting a good dose of dust. Sometimes, after a particularly profound sniff, he would open the letter, glance at it briefly, make a note and move on.

Choking behind my mask, I asked him what he was doing. He was, he told me, a medical historian. (A profession to avoid if you have asthma.) He was documenting outbreaks of cholera. When that disease occurred in a town in the eighteenth century, all letters from that town were disinfected with vinegar to prevent the disease from spreading. By sniffing for the faint traces of vinegar that survived 250 years and noting the date and source of the letters, he was able to chart the progress of the cholera outbreaks.

His research threw new light on the letters I was reading. Now cheery letters telling customers that all was well, business thriving, and the future rosy read a little differently if a whiff of vinegar came off the page. Then the correspondent’s cheeriness might be an act to prevent a collapse of businss confidence – unaware that he or she would be betrayed by a scent of vinagar. (Chapter 7 p.173)

Science Technology

Enhanced reality: Noise in Space?

So it occurred to me (while watching some dumb sci-fi TV series set in space) that maybe spaceships that make noise in a vacuum isn’t such a dumb idea after all. I mean, obviously they wouldn’t (couldn’t) make any noise, but there would be all kinds of reasons why it would be in the best interest of neighbouring ships to simulate the sensation. After all, noise can convey all kinds of useful information – different guns make different noises, different engines make different noises, you can tell the location – perhaps even the speed – of an object by pure noise alone. If we were to assume that – in space – the computers and sensors on ships would most likely be taking in much more information than a human could easily assimilate through a visual interface, then it makes total sense that you’d try to deliver some of it through sound. In fact it seems astonishing that you wouldn’t!

In such an environment – detached from everything outside your pressurised container by metal and vaccuum – the only sense that you’d otherwise have much use for would be sight. Smell would be pretty much redundant, you couldn’t reach out and touch anything and taste (bluntly) wouldn’t be that useful. Even the limited amount of motion senses that we have would probably be quite dramatically interfered with by the unfamiliarity of space and either an absence of, or a highly localised and disorientating forms of, gravity. That being the case – making use of a sense that would otherwise have very limited input would seem to be eminently practical and useful. Overlaying this enhanced – information-delivering, but yet still artificial – reality over normal video footage would create an outer-space that was more obviously comprehensible to human beings. That simple layer of mediation would help transform the insanely complex and alien into the routinely prosaic (this being – after all – precisely the reason that TV series put the noise in). So From now on I’m going to pretend that’s what they’re doing when the Romulan ships let off a volley of patouieee-ing distruptor blasts. I’m going to pretend they have a special insight into the world of the future and the ambient interfaces that they might use. I’m going to remark to myself, “How clever they were to think of that!”

For more information on various kinds of enhanced reality, you might try out some of these links:


Quick thoughts about global undo…

If only I had time to give this the attention it deserves – but alas, I must soon get drunk. Neat Chris from anti-mega has brought into public attention that massive and aggravating UI problem that is what happens when you accidentally quit an application (like Safari) that allows you to have many different pseudo-documents open that are lost immediately without any kind of dialogue when the application quits. The reason I call them pseudo-documents is because the standard behaviour for something that you can edit in an application is to ask if changes should be saved before quitting. That’s not the case with tabs in browsers. If you accidentally press Apple-Q instead of Apple-W (to close an individual tab), you lose all the pages that were currently open in the browser (and – because the windows you have had open recently doesn’t map neatly onto the things in your history you can also lose all information about how to easily find out both what they were and any information about them).

Chris’ answer to this problem is the OS-wide global-undo facility, where you could simply undo your quit. Hammersley’s been talking about it too. I think this is the wrong approach – and not just because I think that it’s not going to happen for the next ten years at least, even if it’s possible – but also because I think there’s a better way.

So here’s my question: Why does your browser lose its current status when it quits? Or to put it more precisely, When I restart my browser, why doesn’t it still have all the pages that were open in it when I last quit? Certainly this should be possible – and it would solve the problem (although it might be considered non-standard behaviour). NetNewsWire doesn’t forget my subscriptions when I restart it – so why should my browser? (It’s not a direct analogy, but it makes a point.)

I’m sure there are a number of privacy reasons why this kind of thing could be a problem, and it might break the ‘session’ / ‘global’ distinction if not handled appropriately – but you could make it a preference that people turned on or off on their own computers, with the sites refreshed when you logged back on again, perhaps? I mean, that should work, right?


Cameras communicating with Cameras…

So here’s a dumb idea about digital cameras. Let’s imagine a world in which everyone has a camera – and they carry them with them all the time. Say – for example – that they’re built into mobile phones. Right. Now you add in a sensor to each camera that means that they can communicate with all cameras within a narrowly focused area that corresponds with the area about to be captured within the viewfinder. Right. Now every camera includes information about how the person who owns it “feels” about various uses of their images. They can say, “I don’t feel comfortable with you distributing this image to your friends” or “Don’t take pictures of me” or whatever. Maybe even “no close-ups”. This information is thrown out to any camera that tries to take a picture of you and this has an influence on how the picture can be easily used.

So – for example – if I were a private nervous person who didn’t want photos taken of me at all, then I could set my camera to a ‘leave me alone’ mode. If someone tried to take a picture of me on a “normal” setting, then they’d find that their camera simply wouldn’t work. They’d keep pressing the button, but would be presented with error beeps instead. They’d have to actually switch to a “rude” mode in order to be able to take a photo. And if you didn’t want it to be distributed, the phone would just stop you forwarding it to other people – again unless you were prepared to switch into a “rude” mode. Could be fun…


Highly unoriginal thoughts about mobile devices…

Notes from a conversation with Dan Hill pertaining (in particular) to address books on mobile phones. I make no claim to their originality or their novelty. Almost certainly they’re on page six of a really well known influential book that I almost certainly should have read by now…

Thought one: The mobile phone address book as a web of trust. This is really trivial, but it’s also really powerful – the telephone numbers in your mobile phone all identify actual people (however you decide to encode the metadata of their names). The telephone number is like the unique id number that you give a field in a database. So what does it mean if a pair of phones have each others numbers in their address book? Doesn’t it imply a relationship? Perhaps even a similarity? Maybe it even means that you’re more likely than average to like each other? So if you pinged every phone that’s got internet access (and the phone was happy for you to do this) you could pretty easily make a social network map of pretty much everyone in the country. This is not a new idea.

Thought two Self-assembly address books. So you’ve lost your phone and with it you’ve lost all of your numbers. So you ring up two or three of your friends and they amend their record to your new number and you add their numbers to your phone. Then you trigger the ‘fix my address book’ trigger and sit back and watch. Your phone pings your friends’ phones. Their phones ping their friends’ phones. Everyone who has your old number in it is informed of your new number, and they ping your phone and build in the reciprocal links. And those people who appear most interconnected between the groups of friends you’ve mentioned are also added to your phone. An instant sense of your social network. An instant way of grabbing your local space… This is probably not a new idea.

Thought three Distributed 192. 192 was (until very recently) the telephone number for directory enquiries in the UK. You ring it, tell them the name and address of the person you’re looking for and they give you a number. Brilliant. Except if you don’t have their address of course. And it costs money and stuff. And it doesn’t work with mobiles. So what if instead of doing that, you typed in a search term, “Coates” into your phone and got it to ping everyone in your address book, aggregate the results and display them to you. Wouldn’t that be easier? I don’t know whether this is a new idea or not. I would doubt it.

Thought four Collaborative work over mobile phones. So you’ve got a web-of-trust and you have a communications medium. So basically that’s friendster then with a rather more intensive old-skool version of instant messaging (let’s call it “speech”). I wonder if there are people out there working on social software for phones. Or maybe social software that doesn’t actually have much of a human interface at all, something that’s really collaboratively sense related. Like a cyber-pet with two buttons that you can press – one if you really like a place and one if you really hate it. And then that’s geocoded and shared through your web of trust (because you’re similar to people you know). When you go into a place that everyone dislikes, your cyberpet freaks out. And if you go to a place that everyone likes, it starts to purr pleasantly in your pocket… I bet someone has thought of that as well…

Journalism Location Social Software Technology

Don't write off Conversations as a geek toy…

So there’s an article in the Guardian today about UpMyStreet. The article is called Street Plight and aims to understand why the company is in administration. Now generally, it’s a pretty flattering article – and a fairly accurate one – but there are odds and ends that are a bit annoying. Nonetheless I’ve decided that I’m going to look on the sunny side and concentrate on phrases like “Upmystreet is full of brainy types” and “[UpMyStreet Conversations is] a bit like a pub”. Yes. I think I’d much rather concentrate on those than the the rather less flattering “Technical people become dazzled by their own wizardry” and “Frankly, you could have more scintillating conversation with a curtain”.

Sigh. It’s no good. It’s not working. So here goes. Here’s why Clint Witchell’ss comments on Conversations are unfair:

One – it’s unfair to take the conversations in any one particular area and claim they’re representative of the whole site. Like every other community, Conversations is only as interesting as the people who participate in it, but unlike any other community – every area gets a different degree of participation. Certain parts of the country are beginning to explore the uses of the site and get involved in serious debates. Other areas are using it to chat about local news and to find local tradespeople. Other areas aren’t using it at all. It’s early days. All I can say is that if you don’t like the conversations that are ongoing in your area at the moment but you can see the potential and value in a site that could help your neighbourhood engage with local issues – then don’t just sit there complaining and feeling superior – start a conversation and see what kind of responses you get!

Two – Conversations is a new product for UpMyStreet and it pushes the ways the site can be used into completely new areas. One of our aims was to try and develop the relationship between UpMyStreet and the people who use come to it – to make people more regular visitors and power users at that. I think we’ve had a certain amount of success with this kind of work, success that I think will grow as people get more used to the idea and start to use the site in different ways. It’s a process of development that aims to move people from simple information finding into treating the site as a bridge into their local neighbourhood. But we’re not all the way there yet. These things don’t necessarily happen overnight…

Three – just because you can’t see obvious commercial uses for the forums software doesn’t mean that there aren’t any or that we haven’t thought about it seriously! If we get the opportunity, you’ll see exactly what we’re talking about and all the commercial/charitable/political uses for the technology, but at the moment – unfortunately – we’re all a bit distracted trying to keep body and soul together! Bear with us! Have some faith!


Register Refutations…

A week or so ago I wrote a little post called Oh Self-Correcting Blogosphere. It was about an article at The Register in which Andrew Orlowski managed to mix a few half-facts with some general paranoia to assemble the spectre of a censorious and manipulative cabal of either webloggers or Google managers.

Orlowski’s gone off on another one this week – and this one’s considerably more ludicrous than the one before. This time – in the article Google washes Whiter – he’s protesting that his previous article has been hidden from people who search for the word “Googlewash” on the search engine:

“Google has made its own statement on the ‘Googlewash’: by making The Register story that coined the phrase disappear from its search results. Not all the search results, mark you, but a very specific one. When you search for the word “Googlewash” (as at 9pm Pacific Time last night) around a hundred results are returned by default. Our story, which is where the word was coined, isn’t among them. We found it, eventually, but it was very difficult.”

The stunning problem with his hypothesis (which was – if you remember – that his article has been censored by Google) is that if you click on the very first link offered then you are immediately directed straight to the article in question. All that’s happened is that – for some presumably totally obvious reason – Metafilter’s article about Googlewashing gets higher prominence. Whether that’s because Metafilter has a higher page-rank and gets linked to more often generally or whether it’s because people linked to this particular discussion with more apposite keywords (like ‘Googlewash’ for example)- well I don’t know. What I do know is that if Google were trying to hide Orlowski’s ‘revelations’, then they’ve made a ludicrously bad hash of it. And if he were looking for censorship, perhaps he should be looking comparatively, since anyone with half a brain can find his article more easily through Google than via altavista or overture or alltheweb.


Hydra – a brief experiential review…

So Mr Webb and I have been playing with Hydra for a couple of days, trying to find uses for it and trying to get other people engaged in its use (with the hope that in the process we’ll come to some decent first-stage conclusions). Standard disclaimer here – all decent insights are collaborative in origin, all mistakes entirely my own.

First things first, for those of you who have come in late – what is Hydra. Essentially, it’s two (or more) people fiddling with the same document from two different computers at the same time with each being able to see what the other is doing. If you’re on the same network, then you can find documents to work on over Rendezvous. Otherwise (if you know your IP and are not trapped behind an unforgiving firewall) you can join with documents over the net.

Our first impressions weren’t entirely favourable. It may have been easy enough to connect to a shared document, but once there – what to do? We found ourselves using the first document in a peculiar inscribing way – kind of writing on it an ongoing discussion but in a non-linear graffiti kind of style. It reminded me a lot of those pictures you do when you’re a child where you draw a plane and then another plane and then you draw a missile coming from one plane and then you draw it hitting the other one, and then you turn that plane into an explosion and then you draw a little man in a parachute flying down to earth…

Starting a document from scratch, it seemed, was to be an almost impossible enterprise. The document itself kept getting lost within our debate about it. Later we would adopt the slightly odd approach of having two shared documents open at the same time – one as our newly discovered chat-graffiti-wall, the other for actual work on a document. The Apple key depressed with the ` made a relatively convenient way to skip between windows. But even with this approach in place, it became difficult to find a way of pulling the first initial strands of a document together. It was almost like you needed a separate scratch-pad incorporated into the program so you could push a piece of work a certain amount down the line towards completion before exposing it to your colleagues…

Working with code or mostly finished documents was a hell of a lot easier and more productive – and I think this is something we’ll probably find ourselves doing again in the daily course of our work. Keeping the two window model (one for debate / one for editing) we played for a while with a weblog post – amending it as we felt appropriate – bashing it more cleanly into place. The most useful feature here (weirdly) was one of the most simple – the ability to select a piece of text with a sweep of your cursor and then go, “that bit there needs a change” or “I love the turn of phrase” in the other window. That simple act of gesturing to a passage was tremendously liberating.

Finally Matt pulled the HTML source of a standard page out and slapped it in the window – which turned into a debate about embedded RDF and Trackback. We could have been using it to understand why a page wasn’t rendering correctly or to debug or debate the correct syntax in any individual spot – or even (if we used a more literary or commentative text) simply as a medium for discussion – like being able use a laser pointer to signal a dubious passage and have your colleague know exactly what you were talking about even though he was on the other side of the room / city / planet…

First Impressions: I still can’t quite decide whether Hydra feels like a tiny niche application with some surprisingly significant uses or whether it should be considered a slightly clunky prototype of something almost world-changing. Certainly I’ll watch it with considerable interest and I recommend it to anyone interested in collaborating online…


NetNewsWire Strawpoll…

Inspired by a terrifying conversation with Dan Hon in which he revealed that he had 135 subscriptions strapped to his groaning copy of NetNewsWire, I decided to do a bit of a straw-poll. Not enough people were available online for me to do it properly though, and I’d had quite a lot of caffeine so I got quite impatient, so here are some unsubstantiated rumours glued together with some implausible guff

Spies situated on the shiny pinacle of nearby Trump Towers have spotted Meg Hourihan striding through “The Internet” with roughly thirty subscriptions in NetNewsWire yapping after her like tiny dalmation puppies. But our insiders think that more is going on here than meets they eye… Could she be reading many more sites via bookmarks?

The mysterious shadowy figure of Anil Dash is said – shockingly – to have rejected the one true church of NetNewsWire and to have narry a subscription at all. Indeed, he’s recently seen cavorting with old-style “browsers” in a down-town speakeasy filled with cookies and bookmarks.

Your humble editor can only confess to around forty subscriptions – several of which are also not strictly ‘read’ as such, while several other people… {blah blah blah… time passes} … with a stoat where the sun don’t shine. But enough about that particular mystery weblogger…

Back to the issue at hand, the quest for the Ultimate Subscriptions Champion was proceeding apace. Throughout my investigations, the great mythical moon monster of Captain “Zeitgeist” Doctorow kept cropping up. Could this silver surfer of the cyberspaceways be an RSS man-mountain? One of our sources claimed he had in his secret underground lair a massive installation of NetNewsWire linked by thick fibrous cables to three hundred or even more subscriptions, each of which would be downloaded freshly each day! Such dastardly decadence! Sadly, the truth is a little more prosaic – after e-mail contact, Cory has confirmed that he’s only attached to around 120/130 sites… Our winner therefore remains – undefeated – Dan “Bandwidth” Hon – whose every crippling refresh breaks the very fibre of the internet underfoot. All hail him, for he is the geek of all geeks…