Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Private & public communication

Maintaining a weblog with the ability to comment on postings can be interesting and fruitful in terms of exchanging information or starting interesting (asynchronous) discussions. However, as comments can be anything, this function can also be misused by some to start bashing people. Then, the question the blog author is faced with is how to deal with such comments that are off-topic and do not have any benefit. Most of the blog providers thus allow three options to handle comments: not allow comments at all (which turns the weblog into a diary and prevents any exchange), allow comments only after review (the comment is only readable by the blog author until being accepted as publicly acceptable), and allow comments without review.

I personally prefer allowing comments after reviewing them, because I am then always in control of what is being commented. After all, this is my blog and not a public journal. An analogy that is often mentioned is being able to decide whom to allow to enter one's home. Still, one could well ask whether this already constitutes some kind of censorship. Assuming that censorship is understood as suppression of published material by someone other than the author or editor (e. g. a state or an influential organization), I do not think so. As any journal or newspaper is able (via their editorial board) to decide what is being published (including any submissions also known as letters to the editor), so should blog authors. If a weblog is established with several authors (e. g. corporate blog), these should of course agree on some guidelines in order to avoid mutual deletion of postings.

Another personal argument on reviewing comments prior to their publicaton is that it avoids any public discussions on comments. If I do not accept a comment by someone, this person will always be able to discuss this with me, without the public participating. On the other hand, if allowing any comments, this may fuel mutual bashing, which is hardly acceptable, and results in the necessity to delete comments by others, which I do not really consider a good thing to do. It is like having to extinct a fire that could have been avoided in the first place.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Searching for you ...

OK, this is not exactly about collaboration, but instead about finding old friends. More precisely, I would like to get back in touch with those I graduated with back in 1987. If you happen to read this, please consider registering to this DFG Alumni site so we can get back in touch. Thank you!

View my page on DFG Alumni 1987

Friday, September 05, 2008

Restricted social networks

I am not aware of how many social network services exist, but I am sure it must be hundreds if not more. Most of them operate on a "come in and find out" basis, which means that you sign up and have a look, and most often, you just stay registered, whether you really use the service or not.

Some of the services are restricted, i. e. they work on an invite-only basis. This may have the advantage that the newly registered user at least has one connection within the network if this person is invited by someone they know, but if any registered user is able to invite any other user, I do not understand what the benefit would be.

I have the impression that the networks that may prove to be the most useful to me are those where I can define what class of relationship links me to the person in question (e. g. family, friend, acquaintance, virtual contact), as it may be employed by application services built on top of a network managing service, e. g. in order to provide useful recommendations.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Business models for e-news

As a recent study entitled The medium is the message by PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows, consumers are not prepared to pay more than half the sum they would pay for a printed magazine. So, if the printed magazine already contains a great number of advertisements to cover the publishing costs, what kind of business models do we expect for online publications if the prize to be charged is low to non-existent? If many consumers see digital-only content as a substitute for printed content, it is hard to argue that the online version of a publication will create only minor additional costs, thus it can live without ads.

The question is what kind of advertisements can be offered to customers so they are not bothered or annoyed, but find them helpful and a hint to useful resources or services - or how to bundle media consumption with other services (such as an internet connection or IPTV service with additional value), thus charging the end user a competitive fee so the included media delivery costs are not experienced as an additional burden. What would an additional value that customers are prepared to value appropriately be like if publishers in Britain and North America expect to generate as much as 20% of their total revenues from digital platforms within the next five years, while in Europe, it is only 10%?

An interesting idea seems to be a stronger interaction between official media providers and blog articles, but this needs a bit more thinking.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Personalized News

These days, telecom operators can be seen experimenting with customized news delivery. While Amazon already offers a portable device for e-books called Kindle (not available in Europe yet), in order to trigger their e-book sales (available at $ 9.99 per item), there are a couple of projects in Europe that aim to deliver electronic news to the customer in a mobile device (such as Orange / France Telecom, which is cooperating with five major newspapers in France in their Read&Go trial with 150 testers, or Deutsche Telekom in Germany, planning a trial under the (project) label News4Me with a few dozen test users in Berlin this fall. The claim is, of course, to offer personalized news, but this requires a cooperation with news agencies or newspapers, as well as a hardware manufacturer offering suitable devices that are portable enough to be carried around, yet offer an appropriate screen size and resolution.

When it comes to news aggregation, Google does a good job when being online - the main feature being the search field to filter out relevant articles. However, when it comes to mobile usage, the following features seem to be mandatory in order to guarantee ease of use and offer enough attractiveness for potential customers:

  • a categorization for articles (which could be selectable via tabs), this requires a categorization mechanism, mapping the categories from news providers to a built-in categorization scheme (including the treatment of synonyms)
  • a keyword extraction mechanism that generates tags for news articles based on the contained text
  • a rating mechanism, allowing users to influence what is being proposed to them (i. e. dynamic profile adaptation). This could be explicit rating as well as implicit mechanisms (e. g. for articles spanning several pages, if the next page is selected, this could indicate an interest for the selected article). Explicit rating mechanisms should have a stronger influence than implicit ratings.
  • a profile management mechanism, allowing for an easy generation of initial profiles (e. g. pre-selection of genres) and an adaptation of profiles based on ratings and other user interactions (causing positive and negative weighing of tags and genres to influence the current profile)
  • annotation mechanisms that assume pen-based interaction, as (virtual) keyboards are not an appropriate interaction mechanism for mobile devices. This includes handwriting recognition and pre-defined labelings (such as indicating consent, disagreement etc.)
  • forwarding mechanisms to other users participating in the service, including a text field for personal notes
  • a Web version of the personalized news portal, allowing an alternative usage via ordinary PCs or notebooks, and also allowing the inviation of users not yet participating in the service (by sending them an e-mail or, alternatively, a SMS on their mobile phones)

Of course these are just a few thoughts that are by no means complete - any additional comments are welcome.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Self-regulating social networks

The basic idea behind social networks such as LinkedIn or MySpace is that you have a set of registered users you are connected to, but the influence this has on the kind of resources you get recommended is almost non-existent. The most I could think of right know is that your connections to other members are exploited for collaborative filtering. What is missing is some kind of social network model which is able to express the kind of connection that you have to someone else - let's say, someone that is working on exactly the same problem as you are, another person that you usually go jogging with, maybe a third person that you share your love for music with, and the like. It would not be much effort to specify the kind of connection to a person when you ask them to be added to your list, but the requirement I would have is that this relation will adapt itself in conformance to the interactions with the system where you have your social network. In that case, I imagine it would be really fun discovering new people that otherwise you would never have met, or get recommended really useful resources to look at.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Two dot oh

I am getting a bit tired of reading all this stuff about Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0 and the like. Seems as if you could take any term, add some versioning number greater than two and then you have a new buzzword that you can explain anyway you like.

But this blog is not here to just rant along, so I try to be a bit more precise. The versioning number 2.0 seems to indicate some level of user participation so operators of backend systems (such as a CRM module) get regular feedback from end users as a by-product from user interaction. If you find 3.0 as a suffix, this seems to indicate that the collected data from user interactions are not only grouped and associated to specific instances (such as database objects and processes), but that the relation between the user interactions is also exploited semantically to deduce semantics, meaning and, in the long run, user intentions.

When you read the press, all kinds of neat scenarios are described, but we almost never read how much modelling effort is needed. On the other hand, while being placed on hold after having specified what type of service I could possibly want via an automated agent, I ask myself if I would not prefer to talk to a human instead of a machine. Why do I need to tell the agent that my phone connection is broken if it is possible to check that automatically? Why do I need to spend a minute or more interacting with a machine if waiting intervals are not reduced?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Open Access

It's nothing new: subscriptions to journals are getting increasingly expensive, while in theory anyone can publish anything online. Some publications like the Journal of Universal Computer Science have been forerunners, making available all research papers for free, at least regarding the online version. The more research results are visible to a greater public free of charge the better the advancement in science, at least in theory. This is also good for private research institutions and companies who are interested in cooperating with universities and turning research results into products. As the initiators of the open access initiative say:

The main advantages of open access are the increased visibility and thus the increased impact of scientific articles.

It is not clear what the added value of publishing houses is anyway, as neither authors nor reviewers are getting paid for their job. Publishing online does not really generate high costs beyond setting up a web server with a database and someone that implements user interface and server functions - at least it is a task that only needs to be done once in a while and could be added to subscription costs for bound volumes.

While the costs for subscriptions have doubled between 1986 and 2000, the accumulated inflation rate would be around 40 percent - and it is well known that the budget that is available to universities is constrained. We're talking about yearly costs of between 900 and 3.400 $, as a recent periodicals price survey reveals. When looking at the 10 most expensive journals from Elsevier, who has a share of 13.6%, all of them have a price tag of more than 10.000 $. Who is able to pay that?

The argument goes that publishing will produce one-time costs that may be covered by the authors themselves or their sponsors, but once these costs are covered, the availability should be free of charge.

At the moment, only about 10 to 15 percent are available without constraints - and wouldn't it be nice to see this percentage increase to something like 50 percent? The other question probably is: who will read all these publications, and how will it possible to find more easily what is really relevant for me? This also would require some rating and annotation mechanism in order to make published results more useful to their readers, such as with services like Connotea or Faculty of 1000 for biologists.

Social network aggregation

It would be really cool if there were only one social network to belong to, with the possiblity to tag the kind of relationship to the contacts one has. This is why we now have social network aggregators, which is a good idea to begin with. However, if we think about the content our contacts produce, of which not all would be relevant, given a specific context, I start to think that some intelligent filtering on top of contact aggregation would be helpful. This might also help discovering new, potentially interesting, contacts relative to what my current concerns are.

Tagging is the first idea that comes to mind, however, as any string of characters can be a tag, I feel that some semantic support is necessary. What I am thinking of is some controlled hierarchy with additional cross-links between terms, so any given term would have potentially several paths to some root node. Nothing new here.

When it comes to some well-defined contribution (e. g. a video about a place, a review of some restaurant), this may be not too difficult to integrate, but how about short utterances, e. g. via twitter? If this utterance contains a link, it might be not too difficult if it is possible to extract the kind of relationship by looking at the destination. But how about if the utterance is just some kind of statement like "I just can't stand the weather", or if one utterance is a follow-up of another?

I would be interested in any kind of thoughts regarding the semantic integration of micro-blogging - feel free to comment or to directly get in touch with me! Thanks in advance.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Virtual worlds - do they help in collaboration?

Today I found an announcement in my mailbox that Google has released Lively where you can create a virtual alter ego (also called avatar) together with all sorts of apparel and virtual spaces. Well, after having played around with it a bit (it's free of charge, being paid by advertisements), I can say that, while it is easy to use, it needs a bit of time to get ready to go, without me really being able to see what the benefit is. Maybe one thing that is missing is a number of templates, involving rooms, avatars, furniture, clothing and the like which would get you started really quickly. But on the other hand, I may be one of these persons that is getting too old in order to really grasp the benefits and perhaps the fun that may be involved in using this kind of virtual space.

But the question was whether virtual worlds may help in collaboration, that is, in a professional context. If I do not see the person I am working with (for example in international project work), I personally do not mind, as I am likely to either know who that person is, or, if not, I am able to at least see a picture via their web page or get some other information via their blog etc. What counts for me is to have an impression how well I can work with that person, and on what basis. In other words, I need to know what language (technical, marketing, research, adminstration) my partner is used to, added by how well I can get along with that person (although personal sympathy should probably not have too much of an influence). So, why do I need the support of virtual gadgets? After all, I am not earning my money fooling around with cool stuff, but working on my projects and getting my tasks done.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Personalization and Context

Well, it's been some time that I last posted here. While some say that blogging needs to occur at least a couple of times a week, I take the liberty to post whenever I think I have something to say. This time, it's about personalization, a term that seems kind of fuzzy, as it seems to refer to services that are tailored to the current needs of their users. These needs are related to the current user context (e. g., location, time and wheather), as well as their areas of interest.

To take the example of someone looking for a restaurant, their context will be defined by where they are and what time it is (e. g. looking for lunch as opposed to having dinner), while their area of interest may be partially determined by the kind of food they like.

Personalization and mobility often go hand in hand, as it is rather tedious to enter terms in search fields of mobile browsers. As the needs and tastes of someone are rather not too dynamic, it makes sense to manage them via user profiles, as opposed to context information, which may vary in case of someone that often changes locations.

This said, I am interested in discovering context models and research pointing in that direction. I do explicitly welcome any insights and hints that may help me understand the issue of personalization a bit better.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Online Encyclopedias and Reliability

Which is the product name that comes to mind when talking about encyclopedias first? Well, I suppose it is Wikipedia (and not the Encyclopedia Britannica). I also assume that many people my age do have a multi-volume encyclopedia at home, but when did you last use it? As most people nowadays (including myself) do use Google for search, and as Wikipedia entries always show up as the first couple of search results, printed encyclopedias (or their counterparts on CD-ROM or DVD) increasingly seem to be a phenomenon of the past.

There are many criteria by which to judge an encyclopedia, some of which are timeliness, trustworthiness, comprehensibility, detailedness, elaborateness and others. Talking about Wikipedia, whose ideas was that everyone can contribute, correct and expand, a criticism was that you would never know if a given entry was reliable. On the other hand, the timeliness of Wikipedia seems to be unbeatable. Now, even though there is a team of editors that takes care of surveying updates, the question is that if they are really experts to be able to judge whether a contribution is not only correct, but also contains the major issues in a concise way.

Enter Brockhaus, which is more or less the German equivalent of the Encylopedia Britannica, that will unleash their online encyclopedia "for free" to the general public. (As nothing really is for free, this service will be paid via advertisements, and I do hope that I will not be annoyed by flashy banners). Does this mean that Wikipedia and Brockhaus entries will now be displayed side by side in Google (at least for German-speaking users)? Will there be a translated version of Brockhaus articles? What will be the return on investment (assuming that it also means the death for the printed version of the encyclopedia)? What will happen in order to keep the posted articles up to date? What feedback and collaboration mechanisms will there be in order to involve selected readers in an editorial process?

As it seems, timeliness is an increasingly important key factor. While it seems sufficient for ordinary (non-fiction) publications to have an updated version every couple of years, this is not enough regarding encyclopedias. And, last but not least, how to make sure that copyrighted articles in encyclopedias by ordinary publishing houses will not be copied to collaborative encyclopedias such as Wikipedia?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Motivation and trust

Web 2.0 applications live from the contributions of participating individuals. With respect to services that are considered as a private issue (e. g. writing one's own weblog or participating in writing Wikipedia articles), intrinsic motivation seems to be enough to ensure a regular usage. (Well, this blog is not quite a positive example for this hypothesis - but this may be more related to the fact that my time for coming up with new and interesting thoughts is rather limited. If I were only writing it as a personal diary, it might be different, but I don't think it would be too interesting for the general public). When talking about corporate usage of social software, extrinsic motivation does not really seem to result in employees making more use of the systems that are being offered to them as means to share their knowledge. Some more thoughts about motivation can be found here. Intrinsic motivation may be good, but then why should an employee be willing to post what they know to a public they do not know? I may be willing to share my expertise with people I like or trust (or both), but why go beyond? Why should social software change the current situation of sharing information in an enterprise where content management has not really helped?

With these (and other) questions in mind, addressing the observed situation of selective motivation, it may be helpful to install social software with the possibility to mutually define who should be able to read one's own contributions. This means that by default, the documents that a being written by an author are not visible by anyone else, but the author may invite others to join his personal network. As the network grows, it is likely that not everyone in the list of contacts should have the same visibility with regards to the author's contributions. This means that it will be necessary to introduce levels of privacy, e. g. on a scale between 1 and 5, which may be added to any contribution and any link between two users, which will result in the lists of contacts being segmented with regards to (mutual) trust.

I admit that these are only first thoughts without being further elaborated - but whereas the technical side does not really seem to be a big issue, the question remains how to convince the management to support such a personal information ecosystem. If I have some more thoughts about it, I may come back to this issue later ...