Thursday, December 16, 2010

Time flies

Just a quick update. Been a hard couple of semesters for us all keeping us busy, making it hard to get our research done, and even harder to get time to blog. However, we have had a bit of a reboot as a group and are now all busy pursuing our research agendas over the Australian summer break and hope to get a bit of time to blog in the next few weeks and months, and hopefully do a better job of blogging more regularly when teaching starts again at the end of the first quarter next year. There have been some significant organisational changes for us, we wound up our Centre and reconstituted our "Lab". Our hope is this will make us more agile - like we once were - one concrete change in the short term has been the establishment of our lab web site at Nice place holder site there at the moment but that site will grow. It will also be the base we use for web applications and experiments so stay tuned for posts featuring calls for participation that involve using applications hosted at that URL. It will also be the URL to visit to get copies of reports and working papers.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Herding Web 2.0 Cats: Contributions to the Platform

This is the third of three posts looking at the details of a functional framework for Web 2.0 / social media. The earlier posts are:
  1. An introductory post is here
  2. A look at contributions to the content of social media platforms is here.
  3. A look at contributions to the social networks on the platforms is here.

The final category in our social media framework deals with contributions to the social media platform itself. One of the key ideas in O'Reilly's explanation of Web 2.0 is the adoption of lightweight, flexible development methodologies that rely on the active involvement of the community of users to build the platform. Intuitively this makes sense: the usage of a particular social media platform shifts and changes over time as community members use the technology for a variety of real-world purposes. Users stretch and pull the features of a particular platform: think of the conventions that have built up on Twitter: the use of the @user reply format or integration of Twitpic, TinyURL and other similar tools - none of which featured in the original design spec for the Twitter platform.

Platforms that don't adapt and change go into decline. MySpace, for example, is burning a US$580 million hole in Rupert Murchoch's pocket in part because News Corp didn't understand the need to allow the platform to evolve and change in a free and flexible manner. Decreased usage of that platform can be attributed to an increased emphasis on advertising (leading to a crappy user experience) and a glacial bureaucratic process for the implementation of design changes.

Involving the community in the development of a social media platform is an example of utilising the wisdom of the crowds, again a key component of O'Reilly's explanation of Web 2.0. A social media platform is more than just the site itself, but also includes the 'ecosystem' of related applications and support sites that allow the community to use the site for a variety of purposes. This means that there are two different ways in which the community of users of a social media platform can contribute to the platform itself:

  1. Contributing to the platform design
  2. Contributing to the ecosystem of applications around the platform.

Clearly the former is more common than the latter, and takes the form of both explicit and implicit feedback. Often, the developers of a platform will directly engage with the community to find out how they want to use the platform, looking for ideas for new features. Frequently, though, the feedback takes the form of a change of usage pattern. As users try to use the platform in unanticipated ways, developers respond by either making it easier to use existing features (eg. embedding @replies into the structure of the Twitter platform) or introducing brand new features (eg. the ability to geotag photographs on Flickr).

Very occasionally, a user of a platform will develop a 3rd party application to introduce some feature not directly supported by the platform, or to allow a customised means of interacting with the platform. The plethora of Twitter applications for devices like the iPhone is an example of this, as well as the image, video and link applications that extend the functionality of the basic platform: hardly anyone uses the web interface as their primary means of using Twitter. Sometimes the 3rd party applications end up being integrated into the platform itself (see the Twitter search tool which started as an independent web app), but even if that doesn't happen, the platform is extended and supported by this 3rd party ecosystem, leading to a wider range of uses and appealing to a larger group of users. The easier it is to develop a 3rd party application (through technologies like XML, SOAP or even plain old HTML APIs) the richer this ecosystem will be.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Herding Web 2.0 Cats: Contributing to the Social Network

This is the second of three posts looking at the details of a functional framework for Web 2.0 / social media. An introductory post is here, and the first substantive post on the framework can be found here.

Geez, you sure can tell when semester hits - blog posts here come to a grinding halt! What was supposed to be a short interlude of a couple of days has turned into a couple of weeks.

In the first post on the framework, we looked at three kinds of content contributions members of a social media community can make to a social media platform. This post addresses the second category of contributions: those to the social network itself.

The social network is a critical part of what makes Web 2.0 different - in fact, I think that the social nature of Web 2.0 is the thing that makes Web 2.0 fundamentally different to what came before. Social phenomena are notoriously hard to understand. Just look at the competing paradigms in sociology and social science research, all wrestling with the complexity of explaining non-rational human behaviour.

But for our purposes I think we can conceive of three different kinds of contributions to a social network supported by a social media platform:

  1. Creating new social networks or groupings
  2. Administering these networks
  3. General participation in the social network

Each of these three kinds of activities can be formalised to a greater or lesser extent and either explicitly built into the social media platform, or occur in a much more organic way. Indeed, even when formal mechanisms are in place to establish groups or networks, informal groups also tend to form. For example,'s groups or Reddit's sub-reddits provide explicit, formal groups to which community members may belong. But the use of contact or friends lists, or simply engaging with other users on the site can lead to informal groupings that can socialise and collaborate. Networks or groups can be short-lived, forming around a specific event, or more permanent.

Regardless of the purpose of the grouping, at some stage the network has to be initiated which can happen in several ways. Many sites support mechanisms for reflecting real-world social networks such as families and friends through the use of contact lists and groupings. These also support intra-platform groupings as they form as well. Social networks will typically have various formal and informal norms and rules (with occasional discrepancies between the two). A group might form based on the initiative of one, or a small group of members, or the platform itself may encourage a grouping, such as with Facebook's country, city or school-based networks. In the former case, the initiators of a social network may require a comparatively high profile to encourage other users to connect with the group.

Social networks also rely on governance of the group to enforce the rules and norms. In some cases, these tasks fall to the group as a whole, in others there are one or more members designated as 'moderators' or something similar. At first, it may be that the members who started the group perform the role of group moderator, but over time, other members and the group as a whole can take on the tasks. A healthy social network, to a certain extent, will be self-governing, but from time-to-time issues arise where if there is disagreement on how the rules should be applied, or discrepancy between what the group as a whole expects and what is actually undertaken by the group moderators, the group itself may devolve into factions or simply go out of existence. Group governance, therefore, is an important part of ensuring that a social network remains healthy and functional. The health and functionality of a social media platform itself is a function of the health and functionality of the various networks that it supports.

Finally, there are the acts of socialisation of the community members themselves. Typically these socialisation acts will be in the form of the primary and secondary contributions to content I wrote about in the last post. But they also include private messages (like Twitter's direct message feature, or Flickr's mail system). These activities collectively make up the social fabric of the individual social networks as well as the broader community on a social media platform, all of which are further shaped by the technical design of the platform itself.

Interestingly, while the nature of the technology (ie. its design and features) shapes the nature of the social networks on the platform, the community also helps to shape the technology (for the academically minded, this is an example of Gidden's duality of structure and Orlikowksi's adaptation of this idea to technology). This idea, of the platform itself being shaped by the community will be the topic of my next post, which will hopefully not as long coming as this post was!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Herding Web 2.0 Cats: Contributions to Content

This is the first of three posts looking at the details of a functional framework for Web 2.0 / social media introduced in the previous post.

Tim O'Reilly's coining of the term 'Web 2.0' was based on an observation of the rise of a new breed of web company, based on a model of collaboration and socialisation rather than the traditional model of publisher/consumer. As I mentioned in the last post, O'Reilly talks about two different kinds of contributions that users of social media make to a web site that they didn't under the old model: contributions to the data set and contributions to the platform (he didn't use those exact words, though). We also added a third to that list: contribution to the social network. This post breaks down the first of these types of contributions to start filling out the details of our social media framework.

Contributions by users to the content of a site are perhaps the most obvious of the three different contributions, and we think think that there are three different types (how's that for symmetry, eh?): primary contributions, secondary contributions and passive contributions.

A primary contribution is typically the main purpose for which a social media platform is developed. For example, a photograph uploaded to Flickr, a 'tweet' on Twitter, or a video uploaded to YouTube would be considered primary contributions. A primary contribution tends to stand alone - that is, the contribution is worth the community's attention in and of itself. The primary contribution is often a 'package' of content. So, for example, a user doesn't simply upload a photograph to Flickr, they also attach metadata such as a title, tags, a description and so on.

A primary contribution - Flickr photo page, consisting of photo and metadata.

A secondary contribution, on the other hand, is not a standalone contribution, but is submitted as a response to a primary or other secondary contribution. The classic case is a text-based comment, but on Flickr would also include actions like adding to the photographer's list of tags on a photo page or adding the photo to a list of favourites. On a site like, a secondary contribution might be an up or downvote for a comment or link, while on YouTube it might be a rating of a video, or even a video-in-reply. Secondary contributions represent, on an individual level, a reaction to something on the site, and in an aggregate sense indicate the community's perception of that thing. Secondary contributions allow for dialog between users of a platform, thereby allowing communities and social networks to form.

Secondary contributions in the context of the primary contribution above.

Passive contributions are examples of O'Reilly's idea of "harnessing collective intelligence". They come about not as an explicit contribution on the part of a user, but rather as a consequence of their use of the platform, whether that be a primary or secondary contribution or simply through clicking around the site. Passive contributions tend to be contributions to aggregate data derived through some algorithm implemented on the platform: it may be as simple as a view count of a photograph or video, or could be as advanced as Google's PageRank algorithm based on web author's linking behaviour or Amazon's recommendation system based on purchasing patterns. Through the tracking of user actions and the application of algorithms, the platform can add value to the user experience, adding to the appeal of the platform. Think of the predictive search in Google, or the use of tag clouds to handle the problem of building taxonomies.

Contributing content to a social media platform is one of the key ways in which users establish their position within an online community and add value to the platform itself, and is the most obvious difference in the way Web 2.0 works compared to the old publisher/consumer model of Web 1.0. Instead of relying on a large database of proprietary information (the Web 1.0 mantra of "content is king!"), Web 2.0 harnesses the concept of "human computing" to build content that in many cases is more compelling than what you find with Web 1.0. With the incorporation of social elements to the online experience, the next most obvious difference is the formation of social networks supported or enhanced by social media. Contributions to social networks will be the topic of my next post.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Herding Web 2.0 Cats

The BI vendor marketing departments are scrambling to get on the BI 2.0 bandwagon, partly as a means of doing something different with their products and partly because they've seen the success of the Web 2.0 juggernaut and want some of that action. The efforts to date have ranged from the fairly ordinary (let's bolt on a comments feature to our reporting tool, but bury it on a separate screen!) to the potentially good (I'm watching the 12Sprints stuff with interest).

The problem with BI 2.0 is kind of the same problem that Web 2.0 has, though: it's easily dismissed as nothing more than a marketing term, and each commentator has their own take on what it means. At least for Web 2.0 there's Tim O'Reilly's fairly reasonable outline of what he meant when he coined the phrase. For BI 2.0, though, the term means pretty much whatever the marketing department wants it to mean: your tool supports decision automation? BI 2.0 baby! Got a poorly thought out commenting feature? You bet that's 2.0!

POD and I have been watching this go on for a while now with interest and occasional amusement. Clearly the BI 2.0 term is inspired by the Web 2.0 equivalent, but we're not sure that everyone who lays claim to the term actually gets it. We reckon that the idea of BI influenced by the kinds of things that have been happening on the web can be a good thing, but to show that, we need to do some research on it. Before that can begin, though, we need to be clear in our own minds about what Web 2.0 is, and how those Web 2.0 features might apply in a BI setting. Our problem is that no-one, apart from O'Reilly, has really done a good job of saying exactly what Web 2.0 is, so we chose that as our starting point - this post (and the next few) is a way of testing the water to see if what we've come up with in that regard is reasonable.

To break this all into consumable chunks, I'll set this out over several posts, but start with a bit of an overview of what we've come up with - the detail will come later. What we decided to do was to work up to a coherent statement of what Web 2.0 is from the ground up. Rather than trying to cover every commentator's pet definition, we thought it would be more realistic to come up with a functional definition of the term. In other words, forget formal definitions - Web 2.0 is best described by what people actually do with it.

O'Reilly's original outline talks about lots of characteristics of Web 2.0 firms like "harnessing collective intelligence", having a "light" approach to development and so on. At it's core, though, O'Reilly's characteristics boil down to the shift from a consumer model to a collaboration model: the community is not a group of passive consumers, the community fundamentally contributes to the Web 2.0 site. O'Reilly talks explicitly about two kinds of contributions the community makes: contribution of content and contribution to the design of the platform. We took that as our starting point and built up a functional framework for Web 2.0.

In addition to O'Reilly's two types of contributions, though, we added a third. The key difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is the social nature of the latter (we reckon the term social media is a much better descriptor). Beyond the technology platform and the content hosted on that platform, we reckon that the social network itself is something that people contribute to as well. So, at the highest level, we reckon Web 2.0 can be described functionally with the following categories of use:

  1. Contributions to content (see this post)

  2. Contributions to the social network

  3. Contributions to the platform

Where are we headed with this? I'll flesh out each of these three in three separate posts, and perhaps wrap up with a fourth that summarises it all. But our end game really is to take this framework and use it to look at BI: If BI 2.0 is treated as a social media platform, what features might it have? How might it work? And ultimately, does the idea of applying social media concepts to BI hold any water?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Vendor innovation and the iPad

Steve Remington and I have been working, along with our other colleagues, on a project looking at innovation in the BI software industry. We have been using press releases as a surrogate 'history' of BI firms. We think that they record - along with lots of sales and marketing related information - important events in the development of products. We have been looking at the major vendors, trying to determine if there has been any change in the rate and nature of product innovations since they have been taken over by larger general IT firms. The data is messy and complex and the answer doesn't appear at this stage to be a simple yes or no ... the work continues.

However, we are coming to the conclusion that we haven't seen a lot of really major innovation for the BI community generally - really ground breaking stuff. When you look at the major advances in the technology we use they are either really old (for example, what we now call in-memory OLAP dates back to the late 60s!), or developed elsewhere (the web).

In my shtick on interfaces - the talk I gave in a variety of forms at a number of venues last year - I begin by lamenting that in the 80s (in the 'good old days') the best interfaces were found in EIS tools and in games. Both classes of software really pushed the envelope of what was possible with the limited graphics resources of the computers and PCs available at the time. EIS tools like Commander, Pilot and Holos came with their own GUI system. Macs also featured heavily as a platform at the time because, of course, they have a GUI built in that was easier to develop for than building your own. Then of course Windows came along, and now the web, and BI tools just take advantage of the standard graphics tools built into those underlying platforms. They no longer represent - there are few exceptions, but not many - the leading edge of interface design.

This is a pity I think. Games software has continued to push the envelope, games are still written to take advantage of specialist graphic and interaction technologies and have helped foster the development of new interface techniques (think the Wii).

So, to the innovation of the moment ... the Apple iPad. I like it, I'm wondering why Apple, or somebody, hadn't produced it a few years earlier, but still its a nice device and looks like it will sell well and evolve into a serious category of product. I think it has the potential to be an excellent platform for BI software. Love to see some well design software that allows me to pinch and gesture my way around a multi-dimensional database.

The major games houses have been keen to develop versions for the prototypes they have been given access to, and there are press releases galore from them heralding Apple's product and announcing support for the platform and specific titles and release dates. That's an industry that's willing to take risks and continues to innovate and exploit new technologies. Sadly, so far from the BI software vendors ... I've seen nothing. No doubt there will be, eventually, a few half hearted announcements of the availability of Apps that run on the platform but I doubt there will be enough risk taking or innovation to get me excited ... I guess I can always hope that I'm wrong, but I don't think I will be.