I review Tim Berners-Lee's recent interview with Christopher Lydon and analyse how the Fractal Society impacts on the world of blogging.
Today I listened to Christopher Lydon's recent interview with Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. In it Berners-Lee discussed the state of the Web and outlined his vision of a "fractal society". It was also very interesting to hear his views on blogging, which I'd not heard him speak on before. At the beginning of the interview, he mentioned that the general public are "seizing on the Web as a way to have a conversation". I got the impression that TBL sees blogging as one aspect of this phenomenon, but he cautions that blogging is still practised by comparatively few Web users. Blogs are a "new structure", but just one part of the Web.
When Lydon asked him why he created the Web back in the late 80's/early 90's, Berners-Lee said he felt there was "a need to write where you can read". He initially designed it to be a "collaborative medium", but it's real impact has been as a "publication medium". A word he used a few times was "annotate" and one point in particular stood out here: that we should be able to annotate the Web in order to "make people accountable". TBL used the example of US politics, which he felt needed to improve its accountability. He suggested that the Web could enable the public to annotate what public figures say and evolve discussions around that. This reminded me of the W3C's read/write web browser, Amaya, which I've blogged about in the past. Amaya is one of the great missed opportunities of the Web, IMHO. Microsoft's Internet Explorer has roughly 95% of the market, yet it can only read Web content - it can't be used to write it (at least not without using an add-on tool, such as blog authoring systems like Radio Userland and Movable Type). I am of course referring here to the Universal Canvas, which is another one of my obsessions - and possibly right up there in mythical status with the Semantic Web. But I digress.
The main part of the TBL interview focused on Berners-Lee's theory of a Fractal Society and how the Web can be used to achieve this. Fractal Web is a complicated mathematics-backed theory and I need to read up on this some more. Indeed, TBL has been using the word "fractal" a lot these past few months in order to evangelise his concept. So people are just beginning to understand it now. Essentially "fractal" in the TBL sense means structure on many levels, which is the phrase he used to describe it. Berners-Lee observed that "complicated systems seem to be fractal" - and I inferred from this that he thinks blogging is such a system.
TBL wants people to try and achieve a "balance across the different scales". But achieving success on a global scale doesn't mean you need to become famous - it simply means "think global, act local". His suggestion is that we should divide our time over 10 channels, like so:
1 - You
10 - Your family
100 - Your social group
1000 - local community (eg your church)
etc up to the 10th level, which is a global scale.
Each of those levels represents the size of your audience, or the number of people you are dealing with (nb: TBL didn't specify what exactly the labels represented, but this is my understanding of what he said). He had an analogy of dropping marbles into 10 cans and the aim is to spread one's marbles around. TBL went on to discuss the fractal theory in terms of blogging:-
Blogging is an individualistic activity, in that you're expressing yourself via the Web in your writing and other multimedia. But blogging is also a fractal activity because, even though you're doing an individualistic thing, you're also "part of something bigger". When you blog, you're participating in a group activity. The question for us bloggers then becomes: which scale am I blogging at and therefore how much time should I be devoting to it in relation to my other activities? For example I am currently working at the 3rd level with my weblog - my audience can be counted in multiples of 10. So should my ultimate goal be to hop up a couple of levels and become an A-List blogger, where my blog reaches an audience of 10,000 or more? Or do I want to become a Citizen Blogger for my local community, so I move up to level 4 with an audience of around 1000? Or should I be happy writing for a small audience of people who share my interests? Maybe I can do a combination of these things - that is, different blogging activities aimed at different fractal levels. These are all questions that perhaps bloggers should be asking themselves. My initial impression is that Tim Berners-Lee's fractal theory helps us to balance blogging with other aspects of our social lives on the Web. Perhaps it's even an antidote to inequality in the blogosphere?
My favourite part of the TBL interview was when he said that blogging *should* be two-way. One should express oneself (=WRITE), but also listen to feedback (=READ). Berners-Lee thought that blogging has done exceedingly well to provide mechanisms for gathering and listening to feedback. But he wants people on the Web in general (and I'm hereby employing this concept to blogging specifically) to make a conscious effort to not constrain themselves to a rose-coloured view of the world. That is, don't become trapped in a self-reinforcing social group, that only links to and reads content belonging to other members of your group. Listen to other bloggers, listen to *all* the blogosphere. This is where I believe topic-based ontologies on the Web can be very useful and the likes of Topic Exchange and k-collector are improving the Web, by exposing us to content from people who we don't normally read but who nevertheless share our interests.
TBL wants fractal to refer to a balance between diversity and homogeneity. By this I took it that bloggers should be diverse enough to write about the things that interest them individually (the old 'to each his own' maxim), but at the same time the Net enables us to participate in conversations with other people in the blogosphere who share our interests - and all of this is going on at different levels. Looking at this from a personal viewpoint, my blogroll reflects the people I see as having similar interests to me and therefore I see us collectively as a "group" (nb: that doesn't mean the people on my blogroll necessarily see *me* as part of *their* group). On a local community level, perhaps this is where my Citizen Blogger post comes in - maybe I will begin to use the Web to contribute to my community as a Citizen Blogger. And on a global scale, well I need to work on improving myself on this level. It may mean doing some writing for a publication with a wider audience than my humble blog. For example, the people who volunteer their services to Digital Web magazine are involving themselves on a higher fractal level than just writing on their individual websites. They are writing for a bigger community of people and for a specific public purpose, so they have to adjust their output accordingly. This is just one example, there are many more options to explore and outside the Web Development community too.
As you have seen, the Tim Berners-Lee interview has inspired me to think and write about how I can improve my 'fractibility' (if there is such a word!). I look forward to listening to more Christopher Lydon interviews too, it's quite stimulating to the mind.