Archive for the ‘Knowledge-ABLE’ Category

Twitter, Facebook, Google – none of the big three content aggregators are pledging net neutrality when it comes to sending and receiving news feeds outside their site domains.

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In the past two years they’ve all rejected that tireless and under-appreciated workhorse of boundary-free newsfeeds – RSS. All three have removed the ability to consume their feeds (or anyone else’s) via the open standard of RSS in favor of proprietary formats written to their own APIs.

Logging out of the RSS loop has a lot more to do with shuttling web traffic than shuttering the need for open content standards. In a world of cost-free information, RSS has managed to outlive its market without outlasting the need for it.

In his article Embrace, Extend, Extinguish: How Google Crushed and Abandoned the RSS industry, Ed Bott documents the decade long demise of Google Reader from up and comer to down for the counter:

“In an era of mobile devices, where synchronizing content and settings between multiple locations is a crucial feature, losing Google’s sync platform is literally a killer.”

Oh my. Why is it that every trade opinion that passes as critical thought is based on the viability of an existing business model? The writing on that prophetic wall is this: If it’s too small for Google to keep the lights on, why still carry that RSS torch?

Bott concedes the point that RSS is still a viable channel for content delivery but not without the ping tone required in its consumption by mobile devices:

“Of course, Twitter and Facebook made a very large dent in the usage of RSS, but there’s still a market there. A big one, in fact, if measured by the standards of a business that’s not Google-sized. And now, with Google abandoning that service, any business that uses RSS gets to go back to the glory days of 2006. Ugh.”

As a business model it seems that RSS is a victim of its own success. An open standard co-opted into the activity streams of big social media. Leave smart phones out of it and you still have a surefire standard for delivering pull-based newsfeeds. That’s the stuff we know we’ll want to read in advance. RSS eliminates step one: the need to track it down before the more essential step: catching up to it within a sea of distractions and unfiltered merchandising.

The problem in a post Web 2.0 world there is at best a casual relationship between the utility of a technology and its commercial viability. RSS was invented at a time where content was still a monetizable notion. The investment lights have dimmed now that connection’s been severed by big social and search media.

The rationale in question starts with the assumption that:

  • RSS is useful
  • It should be upheld as a delivery standard; and thus,
  • A bankable asset for any apps outfit that knows how to thread the name-dropping needle so that subscribers can track topics and ideas as easily as they can follow celebrities and human train wrecks.

After all, how could 5.3 million Delicious users go wrong? Easy. The ping tone went dead years ago on Google Chrome itself which never saw an RSS feed it failed to render correctly.

The result is that we early adopters and independent sorts face a new bait and switch dilemma: Take what big search and social media serve up for exploratory grabs but follow the money before you trust your intuitions for there is no free Google lunch. And we might do well to cast a wary eye beyond next gen beta pilots but something as basic as blocking sites in Google search results.

Writing in the Washington Post Ezra Klein writes that such untimely shutdowns…

“…[A]ll have me questioning whether I want to keep investing time and energy in ‘free’ Google products or whether I need to start looking for paid services that are explicitly making money off the thing I am paying them to do.”

In 2013 aggregators still haven’t figured out pull media. Until someone can aim news products at content consumers as well as friend updates on Facebook it appears that RSS will be relegated to hobbyist -journalists like Klein and the Atlantic’s James Fallows. As one of those pariah-researcher types I’d rather entrap my information than line the sights of would-be Ad Words sponsors.

RSS is one of those private label markup languages that’s been branded as an activity stream by the social media creature elites. But if your primary goal is to make plausible contacts instead of instant monetization, there’s a lot more to be done than hear first about how a friend-imposter’s posted their latest bowl of snacks to their daily food updates.

The easiest way to round up to the most active feeds is to browse (not search) major news sites for their RSS sections. That’s because there’s no standard way that webmasters work this into their architectures. Here are a few examples:

You could parse this out with a splash of Google syntax + semantics:

inurl:rss “(monitor | track | discover | uncover | reference)(startups | companies | sales | leads)” “subscribe to”

Here are a couple of suggestions for embracing RSS even when big search and social are backing away:

1) Know your news flow:

The news volume of newsfeeds are erratic at best. Some channels are spam channels, a fool’s errand of cross-posted press releases that should never rise from the cutting room trading floor. Others may have lofty and expansive labels like WSJ.com: Deals & Deal Makers. But if you sample the stream you’ll see a trickle. There’s a world of difference between trying to tap a definitive source of transactional details versus a “word on the street” describing one subjective take on yesterday’s foot traffic. It’s actually more promising to start with the fire-hose (e.g. WSJ.com: US Business) and then reign it in with filtering that reflects your information-seeking priorities.

2) Know your aggregator:

At first blush a dedicated RSS engine like Fresh Patents (http://tgs.freshpatents.com/search-rss.php) looks promising. The content’s fact-based, plentiful, and non-commercial, (i.e. uncontaminated by search media spam). However, if your goals are marketing or sales-related, you might as well go back to school for your engineering degree. ‘Launch’ refers to “a launch and disconnect clutch for the electric motor of a P2 hybrid powertrain.” ‘Startup’ is not about fledgling bootstrap firms hoping to turn the corner on their latest angel round but a literal key turning inside a literal ignition: “During startup of a DC/DC converter.” You get the picture.

3. Know that RSS is transactional:

One reason RSS is oversold and underperforming is this notion it’s like another communications channel (something you turn on and off). It’s not the definitive response to fruitless searches or the final word on being up-to-date. It’s a rapid-fire trail of updates crunched together in the form of news articles, database results, or changes to a list, i.e. most emailed stories. At its most passive, setting up an RSS feed is a three-step process: (1) picking your feeds; (2) filtering them down to a manageable size; and (3) trapping results that are in useful enough form to act on directly in the form of a lead or a contact or a list of references.

One answer to the limits of RSS is to forsake it completely in cases where you already know what you’re looking to track. For example if you have a finite number of search targets to track, you can set up camp outside specific customer and/or competitor websites and be alerted to specific page changes at WebSite-Watcher (http://www.aignes.com).

If you’re still game for proper RSS feeding here’s a simple, unchanging success factor: Your reader or the interface you use to review, flag, track, search, and ultimately transform into your own priorities. There will always be a need for a world-class RSS reader, if not a market.

ImageThe New Year greeted me with a blog post from Dan Tunkelang, chief information scientist at LinkedIn. I’m guessing based on earlier blips across my radar that Tunkelang serves as the chief big data officer for B2B behaviorists.

It’s Tunkelang’s responsibility to place a cap and plug or two on the fire hose of information. It’s still not drinkable for the average consumer but the spray alone can irrigate quite a few promising fields (or what Tunkelang might call data products – the ability to exploit a recurring experience that can be enhanced, neutered, or packaged into some new mutation).

This is heady stuff. Owning the formula for rationalizing the collective cognitive sensation of the online clickstream on earth and what’s worth noticing is not just for disciples of the Patriot Act. Figuring out an explanation for what happens between when we land on a page and what compels us to hit <send> is the cosmic mystery of our commercial age.

In the piece Tunkelang begins to unpack Abraham Maslow’s polemic on human motivation as a hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s work was not inspired by traffic patterns between servers or calls to databases but was engineered through his chosen field of psychology. Maslow concluded with an ideal – not a data product. Self-actualization was not premised on field studies or repeatable experimentation. He knew it when he saw it … in Einstein, Thoreau, Jefferson, Huxley, Jane Adams, and other high thinking boundary crashers.

It’s interesting that Tunkelang would recast a foundation as broad as human motivation on the subjective grounds of Maslow’s work.  Maslow had personality analysis and his intuitions. Tunkelang has petabytes to evidence his computer models. One perspective based on a rich, interior life; the other one patterned off the hall of social media mirrors we hold to our surface reflections and virtual connectedness. Perhaps these differences are not conflicting and take a backseat to the core of this framework:

These people were reality-centered, which means they could differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is real and genuine.  They were problem-centered, meaning they treated life’s difficulties as problems demanding solutions, not as personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to.  And they had a different perception of means and ends.  They felt that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves, and that the means — the journey — was often more important than the ends.

Tunkelang sees self-actualization as a tool for framing perception. This harkens back to a time of professional distance objectified by the late 20th century mass journalism ideal of bias-free reporting. We’ve gone well past what sociologists like Daniel Boorstin proclaimed in The Image, his ground-breaking pre-McLuhan polemic. Borstin argued that most events were no longer spontaneous but orchestrated as pseudo-events and confused for public changes to the private world that concern me, a.k.a. news.

Fifty years on we don’t question that perception is reality. We’re no longer starved for information. Our hunger is for absolutes. Our excuse for inaction forms not from a lack of information but resolve on what to do with it, a.k.a. uncertainty. Our bias today is not red state, blue state 1-2-3. It’s that our forebears could afford more daring as if they came from a surplus of certainty – the biggest rear view distortion of all historic fictions.

Perhaps Tunkelang’s choice of Maslow is to guide an awkward baby giant like big data through the earnest compass of the self-actualizers Maybe the thicket of IP addresses, browser versions, and click patterns that tangle through a congestion of transactions is what tomorrow’s information scientists can use to define reality, or at least clarify the boundaries that encircle it? We’re now finally getting to where we can assess the reality of the perception.

What Tunkelang refers to as how we interact with and benefit from data is every bit as subjective as Maslow’s basis for a centered reality:

“Indeed, data scientists like my team at LinkedIn spend most of our time converting massive volumes of data into useful information — not just for people to consume directly, but also to power other analyses and products.”

The corollary here: what users consume indirectly are the analytics that LinkedIn processes from information products composed exclusively of these same people. Of course I’m not an insider B2B guy slaving over an arsenal of social media stockpiles. I teach outsiders how to make information work for them without getting too attached to the sources or the labeling or the Darwinian edict of a digital economy that one person’s content is another party’s revenue.

But forget about the free labor that stokes the Facebook furnace. Forget the Pavlovian insistence of Google Suggest. Attention factories treat human curiosity as a natural resource – even when we gorge on an unhealthy appetite of self-selecting rationales of our own reality-making.

How does Tunkelang view the realities of big data? One unflattering view is of its bulky and yet porous nature — a mostly dormant black hole that belies any golden opportunities to exploit it for material, academic, or community gain. In 2013 we are staring blindly into an ever-cascading  information surplus that operates inside a vacuum of understanding? The scarcity of our sense-making surfaces in our BS detectors, our acceptance of vocal minorities, and in the shouting matches that result. We don’t ask why. We mask our confusions through the distractions of texting and email.

We used to have professional attention managers like TV networks and newspapers. Today we’re no closer to managing our attentions as we are to deal with financial planning, hanging plasma screens, family smart phone packages, or disabling JavaScript.

Tunkelang models a world of attention managers as a community of trust-seekers. It’s not just whether a piece of evidence smells right but our own particular fragrance. After all, we are “often producers of information ourselves,” he points out: “We have an interest in establishing our own trustworthiness as sources.”

Tunkelang defines trust as the communion of authority (reliable provider) and sincerity (good faith provider). The rationale is that you’ll know my beef on Yelp is for real because I’ll get worked up in the future about the same beefy grievances. The problem is that the arms’ length relationship of authority to evidence is in fundamental conflict with the intimacy of direct experience. Our need for self-preservation reduces our ability to represent the collective interest. A blending of the two might be an aspiration but belies the algorithms and trust serums that can be teased out of big data or injected into the conversations of big networks.

That elevated wisdom would bind credibility and authenticity in a state of integrity. In such a state experience informs the voice of authority. That’s an authenticity which may still bring human trust into our digital age.

When I was a young, media savant living on Sound Beach LI, my lullabies were serenades from a firetruck red transistor radio. They were crackled codes from a Gigantor-like transmitter up island to a ravenous nine-year old of the North Fork on the knife-edge.

Chock it up to loss of reception and the never well-received plain old loss. Every broadcast was a light tap of a the glove pocket. And in the webbing landing Lindsey “the full” Nelson or Marv Albert + (John Andariese or “Big Whistle” Bill Chadwick).

Baseball may have been my best math teacher. The broadcasting crew was my seasonal theater club. Marv was my voice coach and the sports desk at Newsday (Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobson, Joe Gergen, Joe Donnelley, Tony Kornheiser etal…) formed my english department. But the jet age appliance that connected us in the days before Sports Phone and Federal Express was Little Met Radio “LMR”). (This was the pony express days of the pre-digital era when letters had a fighting chance of arriving without zip codes).

I wasn’t going to touch LMR’s nervous, straining dial unless a pop of static bolted from the pillow muffled between its mouth to my ears: “Sorry mom. I don’t want to slump through another groggy tomorrow!” Little Met Radio couldn’t promise that Agee could drive home Boswell in time to protect Koosman’s complete game win. It couldn’t even guarantee free and clear access into the New York media control tower. But it could toggle between AM and FM – on and off switch included. It could deliver static in a whisper or blaring mono in glorious analog. It came with no camera, calculator, MP3 tunings, spell-check, or downloadable blow dryer – a surefire killer app for this period in hero worship. No marketing organization could trace my antennae landing in the rims of their spyglasses. I was connected on the receiving end only.

This summer I returned to revel in its fist-sized brick of simplicity. I stumbled on this lost generation of handheld and heartfelt wireless in someone’s showroom attic in Kittery, Maine. I bought a young solid state GE AFC. Its 4 volt EverReady heart was beating vigorously though the tunnels of antiquated formats,  relentless feature creep, and answers to trivia questions only a Met fan could endure.

But here’s one other timeless truth embedded with free delivery. It’s that I had as much choice over my programming as the materials used in the umbilical wiring of my own pregame show. True, I did switch allegiances from the Rangers to the Islanders before the expansion patsies were even a playoff threat. But for the most part all the requisite joys and sufferings were programmed for me:

  • Every hush in the radio crowd
  • Every refrain by our between period guest
  • Every lead change in the out-of-town scoreboard

… was based on the time and space extending through the stations on that Little Met Radio. Songster Al Stewart (“You’re on my Mind Like a Little Met Radio”) informed us that “sadly, we can’t choose who we fall in love with.” We should have learned this lesson through our sports teams. Winning the last game of the season — is that the perennial standard for relationship success?

I think my pal Garo summed up this sense of predestination best after the first of two epic Met collapses in ’07 and ’08:

“My life is great, everyone I love is happy and doing well and all my friends are in good places; why should the fortunes of men whom I do not know and might not even like matter to me any more than, say, the success of a community theater in Dayton? (The intensity of how their fortunes affect me is disturbing; I’ve been more upset over a given regular-season loss in the past ten years than I was when they got side-swiped by the Dodgers in 1988.)

I think it’s because I’ve inexplicably developed stage mother syndrome where they’re concerned. As in, maybe I’ve reached the end of my days of accomplishment, and I’ve decided to transfer all my hopes and dreams to them. As in, “Look! My team is in first place, and therefore their achievement accrues to me and I am not a failure!” Insane, I know, particularly since very few people in the world actually know I’m a Mets fan, and most of the people I know don’t even follow sports at all.

I have absolutely no idea what the cure is.”

Little Met Radio is not the cure for stage mother syndrome. But that baby monitor in vitro will continue to bark out the lurid details to impression-seeking, green ear buds. To fumble for the off switch would be to suffer – in the vacuum of radio silence.

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Last week I drove two-thirds of the way through Massachusetts and back in the middle of a work week. My mission was for my son and me to take a non-credit workshop offered by Greenfield Community College. The topic was about using Facebook as a genealogical  tool — certainly not what Facebook’s forebears had in mind. Apparently that oversight was shared by the rest of the Greenfield community. Not only were we the only ones to sign up but no one informed us that the class was cancelled until we got to campus. In tough economic times we cling to the bedrock of family and to our own frugal resources. What could be a better match than social media for ancestors?

The gap between this proposition and the follow-through reminds me all too well of my own marketing efforts to teach Internet research tools and techniques — something we all, few do well, and nearly all of us do alone. You know you’ve got a major rebranding effort on your hands when there’s a gaping hole between an information surplus and a knowledge deficit. I say rebranding because the chasm represents both a black hole and a golden opportunity. When that deficit has a clear direction the answer can be engineered into a customizable package. In fact any binary problem is reducible to an “applification-in-progress.”

The biggest riddle is not about the closest pizzeria for vegans or the cheapest flight out-of-town next weekend. It’s about the trappings — which data supplier dancing on whose interface and how to carve up the winnings at the close of each transaction. That’s the information supplier tail wagging the market demand dog. It is a short tail and the dog needn’t learn new tricks.

Wasn’t it Steve Jobs who said: “It’s not the consumers’ job to figure out what they want.”

That’s certainly true when it comes to designing and perfecting elegant gadgets. We’re no likelier to build the next killer smartphone than the market research rationale for keeping Apple one step ahead of a jittery market. We’re consumers. As such our participation is limited to parting with our assets or squirreling them away.  When will the future arrive and what will it look like?

1. Dunno.

2. I’ll know it when I see it.

Problem is … the market has only half-spoken.

Social Problems without Business Models

Now what happens when a question runs on more dimensions than zeroes and ones — an objectified and reproducible set of truths and falsehoods?The engineering math is less persuasive when responding to half-truths: What’s the consequence if it is true? The severity if it’s not? These are two-step problems that require a higher form of reasoning than shadowing a users’ intention in a search bar. These questions are no less pressing if they don’t map to the still-life webcams that play on beneath the skin of Facebook.

It requires that the user exists for more than click patterns and one-sided transactions involving word choice. But what if the model was reversed? What if those knowledge deficits were answered by an online republic of producers (who also happened to consume)? And they would use information — not simply be used by it in the quest to plant a suggestion or prompt a purchase.

There is no obvious business model for solving abstractions that can’t end up in actual inventories and find their way to literal doorsteps. Does the consumer still benefit from a passive acceptance of supplier-sided engineering?  Before the costs were driven out there was a direct line between higher consumer spending and a tighter labor market. There was originality to the questions forming before user curiosity was placated by Google Suggest. Nowadays shopping is feeling a lot less patriotic than in the wake of 9-11. There is no Peoria play here. The American middle-class has lost its credit line faster than you can see the swelling ranks of independent voters. Where is the next breadbasket of packaged fare? That’s a supply problem (and it’s a sack of rice).

The demand problem is that we need to teach folks how to looks after their own interests. That’s the only way to dial back the simmering resentments which spark disenfranchisees in search of a franchise and a bargaining chip called name-your-price. In the Arab Spring it was political freedom. In the Bank of America fall the tipping point is ATM fees. But whether it evolves to a substantive movement or a meandering bitch list, one demand side factor is unequivocal: the power is ceded to noisy minorities. There is increasingly scarce upside to continuing along in the role of unquestioning consumers. That’s the future nearly here where a once silent majority is on the receiving end of the predator drones released by Google | Facebook | Amazon | Apple: the four horsemen of the holy platform grail.

Can you guess the predators from the drones? Once you do I have a course I’d like to sell you. It’s called self-education and it’s being taught by the experience of doing your own homework. Otherwise I’m sure there’s a search engine that will sell you the answers — the ones which work for them.

The first round of a useful information summer meetings concluded last Thursday in much the same way it began:

  1. One stalwart member whose attendance record is as visible as her contact details are hidden.
  2. A marketing professional whose feigned technophobia belies her online sophistication.
  3. A community-based non-profiteer  looking to raise awareness and funding for some local groups.

No one knew the other.

No credit cards were swiped. No RSVPs were required.

There were no commitments for additional classes or word-of-mouth campaigns for swelling the ranks.

Courtesy of Livbaldino on Flickr

I was as pleased with three attendees as I was happy with the dozen who came the week after the Greenfield Recorder’s Chris Curtis profiled the Society for Useful Information made the rounds in local media circles. Strangers now familiar with my work were intrigued by Chris’s piece and needed to see for themselves. Friends and family who’ve never sat in on a useful society session felt like they had after they read the same article. My fifteen fame minutes were spent in the right place.

I was prepared for the next dozen or nobody and I was ready to launch with intermittent WIFI from the Bookmill or to model frameworks in lieu of another feeble Verizon / Comcast signal in Montague Center. (Apparently the Bookmill is as hard to find for WIFI signals as the patrons who come prepared to shop for dispensible books).

What They Don’t Teach You in Information Wants to be Free School

My Delicious page was base camp leading outward for all investigations. That’s how I could keep my dualing promises of minimal memorization, free sourcing, and optimal confusion. I also led the group through the basic building blocks of query formation  – syntax, semantics, and operators. When the WIFI failed it challenged me to teach the source conjugation frameworks that go to the motivations of information providers both in terms of why they would share and what they would hope to achieve. There’s no better search tool than Google — when it’s not Google’s nest being padded by the investigation in question. We are, after all, the products being monetized, not the customers being serviced.

We also spent some time on establishing information oceans, lakes, and ponds, and what’s in store in terms of expectations and time sinks when we dip our rods in these vastly different search environments. Not surprisingly the relatedness of social networks and topics were a source of great debate and interest among most attendees. This is a far cry and a heartening refresh from the binary constraints of corporate information fetishes around silo-driven expertise, the disregard for interdependent thinking, and the culpability of knowledge. Thank you, Pioneer Valley!

What I enjoy the most in these sessions is not only the co-mingling of multidimensional inputs and interpretations but the ability to throw a browser window up on the pale, thumbtack hole-infested walls of the Sawmill River Arts gallery and abolish online isolation, at least for a few hours. The ability to team lead around both intentional and serendipitous discovery is the most compelling kind of learning I know.

I’m pleased that this heady blessing will continue after a four week respite with classes resuming on Thursday evening, September 29th.   In the meantime I hope that no one shows up  unannounced with an empty shopping cart.

I’m deeply in love with Western Massachusetts.

I can tell it’s love. Because given the choice between burbs and cities I can’t abide either. This no-choice-at-all is called Pioneer Valley (and that’s the path I’ve chosen). The connection runs deeper than the infatuation of floods or famines. It’s given me more than any lover, credential, or birth rite can bear. That’s the simple embrace of community.

It’s a zagging of offshoots. It’s a smattering of vocal opinions beholden to even louder lives in motion. The Valley residents that inspire this love don’t just think something would be a good idea when they get around to it but make the time. I hear the words, see the actions, sense the community, and feel a group participation number coming on. And it sounds like this:

  1. We can’t make the money here but we can make the time — and the effort to engage the neighbors, encircle the orbits, and divide up the work.
  2. That’s the thinking behind helping Valley folks become more “Knowledge-ABLE.”
  3. That’s the term defining the web-based research skills and actionable outcomes convened by the Society of Useful Information.
  4. We meet each Thursday evening in the Sawmill River Arts Gallery at the Montague Book Mill.
  5. Click here to sign up for an upcoming session.

Who are the de-facto members of this Commonweal? They’re the local educators, students, small business owners, web designers, social workers, and policy advocates. They don’t need more connect time but better connections to their own research, customers, funding sources, and the powers to size up the stature, positions, and end games of the folks they’ll be seated across from in their next business trips, job interviews, and power negotiations.

One of the other benefits of my Valley allegiances is that it only takes unmasking those affections in public for the media to cover these community-based meet-ups. Last week I landed on the front page of the Greenfield Recorder and Daily Hampshire Gazette’s reprint of the same piece. And I didn’t have to hack into any phones or call in any favors. The reporter Chris Curtis did a stellar job of recounting the hit-and-miss trial-by-errors of “the founding and sole member” of the Society for Useful Information. What could be more ground-breaking and less pressing than teaching to an impartial observer and “publicity-shy Amherst area consultant?”

As lifelong friend and chief rhetoric connoisseur Terry Canade remarked later on email:

“Your writer/editor was good at distilling quotes which sound like you, move the story along, and intrigue the reader.”

The proof in Canade’s assessment lies in last week’s attendance. I drew double digits — practically standing room only (and none of them repeat members). None of them were entirely clear on what to expect but they all showed up assured that the full cost was absorbed by the gas eaten up to occupy “a place that’s impossible to find.” Two hours later they had a grasp of the virtues of…

  • Social bookmarking (exhibit: Delicious tagging and commercial-free search)
  • Getting from a search ocean to a proprietary pond (exhibit: child molesters and malpractice doctors)
  • Visualization tools (exhibit: connecting the vectors between events and stakeholders through Silobreaker and Muckety)
  • Word algebra (exhibit: query formation techniques that combine a handle on semantics, syntax, and search operators)
  • Credibility factors (exhibit: Site Explorer to compare self-directed and externally triggered attention)
  • Timeliness (exhibit: the /date slashtag in Blekko search)

I was exhausted by the end of the session. I was compelled to do most of the talking because I didn’t have prior knowledge of attendees search projects or the class size. I learn lots more when we can move beyond lecture and offer the group therapy benefits that come with articulating our silent confessionals to Google. Bringing voice to the discovery process is far more rewarding that the best engineered web destination. To paraphrase Karl Weick (or perhaps E.M. Foster):

“How do I know what I click on until it clicks with those I’m searching  (or reaching out to?)”

We’ll know when curiosity leans forward and attendees find themselves returning with theories to test. That’s when the class will find its voice. That’s when the classroom will evolve into a round table and participatory search will become the key to self-education online. For now, crowding around the communal browser is a throwback to the early days of TV. Soon perhaps, it will be a leap forward to a collective experience that is anything but placid or unquestioning.

Just like the community of my affection.

How do we know it’s time to suck in the bulge around our brains?

The marketplace for ideas need not be a storefront

That swelling is not transmitted by airborne virus or insect. Most likely it’s the encrypted WIFI signal ready to auction off our attention based on:

    • Who wants it,
    • Where they will be for the next 45 minutes, and
    • a coupon for perishable inventories echoed in the placeholders of past browser sessions.

Like any internet marketer Google’s efforts are focused on converting web surfers to online shoppers, translating our calls for help into online ads it sells to the market. This arrangement connects some sellers to buyers but does little to resolve our need for quality information from credible sources. We must fend for ourselves when it comes to online investigations. And that isolation compromises our effectiveness as learners:

  • The web by remote control: Google IS the internet. If it doesn’t rank, it doesn’t exist.
  • The priority switcheroo: What landed last is what deserves to be acted on first.
  • The sourcing dilemma: The motives behind information providers and how that squares with evidence used to substantiate their claims.

The simple truth is that Google has a great deal of value for the researcher — little of it that’s monetizable. Ironically Google’s unrecovered assets are where web researchers should be investing big time:

  1. How to assess: frameworks and models: Aligning knowledge-seeking requirements with an informed sense of where to go and for acting on what we’ll expect to find there
  2. How to ask: semantics, syntax, and operators — The building blocks of query formation; the act of interrogating databases and training them to do our bidding
  3. How to act: context and meaning: Applying source fluency in order to scope the credibility, authenticity, and ultimately our understanding of where our findings are leading us

Internet sources and the search results they spawn are dynamic, conflicting, and open-ended. Your time commitments, however, are not. We have set objectives and hard stops for reaching them. Too often our need for closure and certainty suppress our hunger for learning. Connecting poor search results to preferable outcomes is like trying to shape up on a diet of lard and donuts. No matter how many searches and site results we retreat from the computer with more uncertainties and less time to settle them.

There are two reliable reasons most of us go online to research:

  • Learn enough to act on what we’ll learn
  • Reduce the uncertainty around what those actions may bring

These are the themes and objectives we’ll be exploring each Thursday evening this summer at the Montague Bookmill. We hope you can join us for our weekly meetups from 7-9 pm. The series begins next Thursday, June 2nd. We look forward to your input and addressing the pending research projects that fire your desire to learn in the first place. A laptop is optional but do pack your own homegrown research problems.

And be prepared to share.

… For the business of knowing

… For the pleasure of learning

… For the purpose of taking offline action from what we learn online

The Society for Useful Information opens its doors (and perhaps yours) this Thursday evening from 7 to 9 pm at the Montague Bookmill in the home of the newly formed Sawmill River Arts — a partnership of Pioneer Valley painters and crafters.

The program each weekly meeting will form around the project and information-seeking requirements of the participants. Each research project presented will act as a use case for Internet research tools and methods. Like the scenarios we draw from no two classes will be the same. However the frameworks and models that underpin them form a solid foundation for launching new investigations and plugging long festering gaps.

What kind of gap exactly?

The one formed between the black hole of an information surplus and the golden opportunity for using it to close our knowledge deficits. That’s why skillful researchers and independent thinkers go hand-in-hand. A healthy dose of curiosity, skepticism, and diligence channels the necessary focus to source information, determine the motives of its providers, and best apply it to our own evidence-gathering and decision-making.

I’ve done this for many years in corporate, regulatory, and academic worlds and am now coming full circle to my adopted community of Western Massachusetts — a region that attracts D-I-Y community-building and community-based problem-solving. “The Valley” is the nickname bestowed by its citizenry and the valley is a magnet for marketers, business owners, advocates, and educators who share this strong independent streak.

Several years back I asked my celebrated food historian and agribusiness cousin his take on the seminal nature of his works; mainly which tender nerve stems he had struck both in America’s heartland (and head). He said that the American human mouth was basically the last respite of autonomy from the manipulations that line our cultural landscapes. Deciding what we eat has in effect become the ultimate expression of our personal will and individual expression.

I would like to think that this contest of will can be extended up from the mouth to our ears and eyes. We can’t determine what we’re witness to. That’s not what I’m arguing. But that through attentive sourcing and analysis we can determine what filters out of our brains in the priorities we set and the actions we take. In Pioneer Valley we insist on the ultimate demonstration of growing local – thinking for ourselves

The bookmill affords all the missing ingredients from past workshops I’ve led: beautiful surroundings, eye contact, and strong WIFI — without the distractive constraints that belie our smart phone fetishes. To those of you within drivable range I look forward to the Thursday evening research communion in our future.

"I don't know who discovered water, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a fish." -- Marshall McLuhan

Marshall is suggesting that familiarity is the home of the oblivious. Our blinders are affixed to our unblinking screens. We put them on once and no interruption can slip between our trackable eyeballs and our data plans. Digital natives may awake ready to greet the dawn or completely hung over. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt says that either way, they wake-up connected.

Being offline requires a manual override. It’s not natural. And it requires reflexes, negotiations, and a tolerance for uncertainties that can’t be novelized in gaming or commerce.

At last weekend’s first annual Valley Summit, a forty-something social media marketer was addressing the virtues of Google Analytics to the conference gallery. He mentioned how his pet store merchandiser/client delivered him a handful of variations on the naming of some hot-selling accessory for dogs. But then he ran the keyword combos through Google AdWords and the verdict was unanimous: there is only one commonly accepted way that customers use to search for this item. That’s right — one way to the AdWords bidding auction or the highway of web marketing roadkill.

On one hand this was a battle of ideas between who keeps through my store and who lands on my site. On the other hand this is a major inversion-bender between the customer-leaning client and search-literate counsel. Man, talk about the client seeing the complexities of the world more clearly than their social media handlers!

The larger story here is that the new media brokers are all too willing to confuse the business model of a software giant for the marketplace itself. The fact that this single expression for doggie collars, leashes, or dinner bells is reducible to one expression says as much about the media buyers as it does about the search media. Each term in succession describes one thought planted in front of the next. That’s the extemporaneous stamina of Google as mind-reader. There are no original search terms under the Google Sun.

It’s one thing to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible.” It’s quite another thing to appropriate the language for doing so as an auction-based sweepstakes where Google has trademarked all the concenants, vowels, and punctuation symbols. Every symbol on our keypads prompt a suggestion from Google. Our minds may be shooting blanks but our stares have been paved over by the power of Google suggestion.

I’m not suggesting this power is sinister any more than I’m suggesting that Google is acting as our scalable, benevolent, reference librarian in the cloud. Google is acting in its own corporate interest when it channels our curiosities into manageable chunks of its revenue model. The fact that the service is so compelling and the model is so persuasive means that Google’s evisceration of the ad business sounds like the sour grapes of a dead fruit tree — not the grounds for anti-trust litigation that awaited a browser-bundled PC empire when the Clinton Administration chased after Microsoft in the late nineties.

“The perfect search engine,” says co-founder and new CEO Larry Page, “would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.” Page might be casting a perfectly earnest engineering posture. Or cynicism may compel him to see the non-paying Google public as a customer that doesn’t know what it wants (other than for an intermediary to broker their virtual needs in a clean, unassuming interface). My money is on an enduring love of search science. That’s as far as Larry’s sincerity needs to travel for my purposes. I’ll know that Larry shares my enthusiasm when he figures out a way to pad revenues from servicing the needs of researchers.

That’s fantasy. One emerging reality is the appreciation of my new Pioneer Valley colleagues for brilliant search engineering. That’s my takeaway from the first meetup of the Society for Useful Information last night in Northampton.  That appreciation will deepen as they reverse engineer Google into doing their bidding on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other walled gardens to come. Perhaps then we’ll start to warm to this reality: that we feel no pain with our fingers plugged into the sockets of Google Search.

Organic search, my ass.

I’m in the throes of reaching out to my adopted home of Western Massachusetts. It’s a place that’s welcomed me as a prodigal orphan who punched a one way ticket off Long Island, did my time in NYC, and never really warmed to Boston. The only sticking point is that I’ve never developed any business here in this “buy local” of all economies.

It’s hard to imagine a more awkward introduction than drawing bands of would-be web developers and digital marketers into an FF vortex on Twitter to announce an open enrollment of my self-education program (Knowledge-ABLE) and the community for evolving it — The Society for Useful Information (#SFUI). The SFUI introduction was held last month in Amherst and I’m continuing the same agenda at the Forbes Library this Monday.

Today I’m taking in the scene at the first ever Valley Summit where virtual personalities are materializing on our collective home turf. Eric Schmidt’s parting observation before stepping down as Google CEO was that digital natives are never “online.” Once they awake, their connected. I’m reminded of this as Karo Kilfeather is leading a social media marketing session on how the blurring together of the virtual and real world is a marriage that will stick. Honestly, my whole schtick (READ: thesis) is based on maintaining healthy boundaries between the two worlds. I’ve landed in the happy Valley — the mayor of FourSquare be damned!

At least now I’m leveraging the less invasive and blander call to action of connecting on LinkedIn. It’s no less impersonal than Twitter but at least my prospects can sniff me without feeling assaulted by non sequiturs. One of the folks I reached out to is a local WordPress developer named Terran Birrell. Terran was generous to share an insightful post on the finer points of the LinkedIn Soiree.

It doesn’t make my pitch any less impersonal that the curriculum of Internet Research is inclusive to a fault. Outside of folks who would rather outsource their powers of reason it’s hard to rule out an independently-minded individual who wouldn’t benefit from a more disciplined approach to search engines, social bookmarking, RSS, and link analysis.

Here’s my direct mail voice talking in the latest invites:

There are few allegiances I express with less reservation than a love for Pioneer Valley. Its natural beauty is keenly matched by the inner resourcefulness of those who call it home. We not only prefer to buy local. We insist on the ultimate demonstration of growing local – thinking for ourselves In that spirit I’m inviting you to join a community-minded group of local marketers, business owners, advocates, and educators who share this strong independent streak.

Honestly I have no idea what the turnout will be but I’m not holding my baited breath. This is a long term investment measured in community-building (sharing what I know). The fact I can hold a job and chew gum is what makes this enterprise feasible and me lucky to be sharing these skills. What I truly value is how web research augments the work of the advocates, educators, business owners, and marketers who I will grow to know in the coming years.

Happy spring, New England.