posted 24 Jul 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 9
Highlighting the best
Sorting the useful information from the rubbish on the internet is an everyday challenge. Can social-networking sites, such as Clipmarks, help?
By Jan Wyllie
I have been a dedicated highlighter and annotator of what I thought were key bits of text for nearly 40 years. I acquired the habit from my father who was a prolific ‘underliner’ in pencil, before he became a highlighter himself when marker pens came in.
The art of highlighting is about communicating the meaning and significance of key content. It is also about expressing judgements and sharing insights. It can be biased or as impartial as humanly possible, used only to illustrate key points and quotes.
I quickly learned that highlighted items from different books and documents needed juxtaposing, and that book and magazine covers are massive obstacles to research and intelligent reflection. That is why the cutting and clipping was the next step in my paper-only knowledge-management process. This was as far as I got as a student and a journalist. It’s as far as most people get and the result is that most of the lovingly highlighted material is lost in the massive pile, never to be seen again.
Luckily for me, the newspaper where I was working as a desk-editor was closed and I got a job as a content analyst from a protégée of John Naisbitt of Megatrends fame. I was taught qualitative content-analysis – analysing information flows to extract intelligence (key information which would otherwise have been missed). It was then I learned that the answer to information and highlighting overload was what was called multivariate classification, or faceted classification.
I saw with my own eyes in 1982 that if you couple high-quality highlighting with a reasonably good faceted-classification schema, well applied, the result can be a refined intelligence feed good enough for major organisations to pay a lot of money to read.
Then along came computers, which many people hoped would make classification obsolete. Every word could be indexed, so people could instantly retrieve anything they wanted. Heady stuff! People, who believed that classification is a necessary intellectual tool, were considered either to be out-of-date, or slightly loony.
That was when I met Dr Tony Kent, who was one of the original software developers who brought us this near instantaneous free-text retrieval capability. He also wrote <<STRIX>> in the 1980s, which first brought full-text database capabilities to PCs, but that is another story.
When I met him, at a slightly boozy lunch at an English cider bar in Pimlico, London (which is still there today) I persuaded him that I wasn’t ‘totally’ mad in arguing that faceted classification could add significant value to a collection of text documents. He had no difficulty persuading me that <<STRIX>> was the ideal software for the job. So our ten-year-long partnership began.
But Tony and I could not compete with Alta Vista and Google, and the latest source code is languishing unused, on an ancient Xenix box. One of the consequences of our failure to put <<STRIX>> – a fully-fielded, free-text database with Thesaurus – onto the internet is that practical knowledge of faceted taxonomies is still restricted to a small but dedicated band of information professionals.
The rest of the world has been ‘Googlised’ into thinking that retrieval – using basic search terms without any understanding of Boolean logic (which can be taught in half an hour) or any of the grouping and intelligence benefits of a multifaceted classification system – is the state of the art.
Fortunately, there is much room for improvement as the vision of a really intelligent and useful knowledge web for both corporate and individual users is, once again, overwhelmed with the quantity of information retrieved. Users obtain only a superficial appreciation of questions that the knowledge base can answer, based mainly by scanning the top few ‘most relevant’ documents returned by the search engine.
Until a couple of weeks ago, when I started using a piece of Web 2.0 software called Clipmark ( http://clipmarks.com/clipper/JICWyllie/), I was more or less resigned to the lamentable lack of knowledge organisation and refinement on the internet – just another area where human groups could do a lot better, but have not succeeded.
After looking at Clipmarks for a few minutes, here is part of what I first wrote: “Clipmarks is the first vital step towards the collaborative creation of a new level of meta-knowledge, enabling people to better understand the big picture. The next step is to use multifaceted taxonomies as the intellectual tools for collecting and organising the evidence on which metaknowledge is based.”
In the 1930s, HG Wells wrote a series of booklets advocating his vision of what he called the ‘World Brain’, by which he meant a common, systematic global organisation of the world’s knowledge. According to Wells, this world encyclopaedia would act as “a clearing house of misunderstandings” and “a way for humanity to achieve a common perception of a common purpose”. Wells also predicted that intellectual workers would move from the assembly of knowledge to the digestion of its meaning with the ultimate goal of achieving “wisdom”, which he defined as “having a sense of knowing what to do when handling complex problems that require understanding and effective decisions”.
There is much work to do. But I am serious about large numbers of people needing to learn to use faceted taxonomies combined with free-text retrieval, to add value to information and help navigate all the text, sound and visual media. The tagging free-for-all, which is the dominant information-management strategy used for all the exciting new Web 2.0 applications, is not fit for purpose.
Nevertheless, Clipmarks, even with its very basic information-management capabilities, has given new meaning to my need to highlight the important bits of what I read. Not only do I get to keep and organise my clips with a link to the source, but other people can benefit from my highlights collection. Readers award ‘Pops’ for clips they especially appreciate, which is useful for looking for the best stuff. An appreciation measure, and links to the appreciators, also helps motivate ‘clippers’ to do a good job. Feedback and chats are invited on every clip.
But why should people care to contribute to such a community? What do they get out of it? Adam Smith’s book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, begins with these words: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Or to put it another way, because people like to be helpful – even where there’s no apparent tangible reward, but just the appreciation of others. With this kind of motivation, people can and have created great things, from the Women’s Institute to Wikipedia.
The potential for team working and intense collaboration using classified online clipping services is as yet untried. If people learn how to use them intelligently, this kind of service could lead to the kind of new level of collaborative meta-intelligence that HG Wells envisaged – a way of combining the work of many different human intelligences using the purpose-built common knowledge frameworks enabled by multi-faceted classification systems.
In the late 1930s, HG Wells believed that the World Mind would be necessary for human survival. If anything, civilisation is closer to its demise now than it was then. So the need for better intelligence is more pressing than ever. The great thing is that all the necessary technology already exists.
Indeed, it has existed for years. There is no need to wait for the imponderables of new discoveries in artificial intelligence, or Semantic Web algorithms comprehensible only to computer scientists. All individuals and groups can start contributing their intelligence and interests to the content and organisation of corporate clips collections (or the World Mind), right now, using simple tools and tagging devices like Clipmarks.
Jan Wyllie is managing director of taxonomies and information consultancy TrendMonitor. He is also working on an update to his big-selling Ark Group special report on taxonomies, due for publication before the end of the year.