I have something to say about that…

Being yourself in the virtual world

The messages we broadcast

As I wander through my day, I’m reasonably conscious of the messages I’m broadcasting: I try to dress well to present an image of being competent, I phrase my comments in such a way that my colleagues will feel good about working with me, I’m conscious of editing out any commentary about the wine from last night or having burned breakfast this morning. I’m not obsessive about it, I just try to put my best foot forward.

I think we all do this, to one extent or another. We show certain sides of ourselves to whoever the audience happens to be, some of which is selective and some of which is situational (for example, it may be that I don’t mention the breakfast mess to my colleagues because I’m too busy to remember that it happened). We try to balance the messages we’re sending deliberately (for example, the words I choose) with the back channel information we project (like the fact that I smell like burned toast or that they overheard me telling someone else about my head ringing from the smoke alarm).

We therefore end up with each person/group seeing a distinct part of us, some of which we control and some of which we don’t.

What everyone (work colleagues, flatmates, family, etc.) sees of me — each a different side
What they see of me

We play to that, trying to make the best impression possible with the information we’re sending out to each specific audience. It’s nice to be well-liked, and having allies facilitates getting things done when you need help. In the business world it’s called marketing, self-promotion and networking; in psychology it’s situationally responsive behaviour and relationship-building.

Who we are online

Now let’s take it to the virtual world. Part of the success of chat rooms, avatars, role playing games and online communities comes from the fact that you get to create and control everything that makes up others’ opinions about you.

Me online — a different person in each setting
Someone online can project the appearance of anyone they want. This picture shows that the ‘me’ hiding on the inside has nothing to do with the shape that the online contacts think they’re seeing on the outside.

As my father’s favourite New Yorker cartoon spells out (“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”), once you get to create and control the messages that go out, you can be anybody. You won’t be betrayed by any back channel information, so no one will notice that you’re having a bad hair day or are too tired to speak at the meeting or aren’t, in fact, of the same species (see below).

This is, unfortunately, not just an opportunity for reinventing yourself to hide your insecurities; it’s also an easy mark for fraud. The US House of Representatives passed the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 in response to concerns about paedophiliacs posing as children on social networking sites to build trust and arrange meetings with their prey. The controversially-worded bill was intended to protect kids from people who were misrepresenting themselves, which is evidence of how much potential we have for being anyone we like online. (The bill is currently awaiting debate in the Senate.)

Why we bother to be real

Most of us actually live in the real world. We meet the majority of our work contacts face-to-face (or at the very least, exchange phone calls). We hug our families and share a sofa when having coffee with a friend. Physical presence — and it’s associated accountability — are priorities for us. It’s how we are used to relating to each other, and the best scenario for us to communicate the most information, accurately and efficiently.

When I began this blog, I thought carefully about whether I would use my real name. There are legitimate privacy concerns around exposing any personal information that is available to the 1.076 billion people who have internet access. But ultimately, I’m out to share my views, spark discussions and create contacts who will be useful to me in my real life. I want any benefits of this ‘virtual’ work to be connected to who I am in reality. So I’ve made that link.

Similarly, the news has been busy in the past few months with stories of how online worlds can grow to successfully parallel reality. The hype surrounding Digimask‘s technology, which takes a 3D image of the user and puts you literally into the multi-player game, reflects this trend. (See today’s BBC News video rundown of Digimask). Apparently if we’re going to go to the trouble of blasting bad guys in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas on your Xbox 360, we want the credit for our real selves.

The most common example of this keeping-it-real trend comes from multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like Entropia Universe and Second Life. Entropia Universe (formerly Project Entropia) calls itself a ‘massive online virtual universe’ and maintains a (real) cash economy. In May the developers sold a ‘virtual space resort’ to one of its users for $100,000. The purchaser bought it to establish an online night club, a marketplace through which the (real-life) entertainment industry can sell their wares to other members of the Universe. When you’re looking for cash, keeping ties to reality (and credit cards) are the only way to go. (For more information, see this article on BBC News.)

Second Life is another online world that has caught the attention of significant corporations out to encourage spending by actual people bringing their real wallets. In just the past day, ABN-AMRO has announced that it is opening a branch of its bank inside the virtual world, while IBM have hosted a Virtual Worlds European Media & Influencer Event. (They’re also proud of having replicated this year’s Wimbledon inside Second Life.) This continuation of big-business commerce on the virtual site is only possible because the users maintain links to their real-people bank accounts and come to the site with their banking or marketing needs in tow. Users don’t divorce Second Life from their first lives.

Keeping it real

I’ll repeat what I usually say: technology is most useful when it is supporting something we want to do anyway. And whether that’s sparking conversations through my blog to further my professional growth, finding new routes to market for existing commerce, or knowing that the world reveres me because I slaughtered more bad guys than my buddies could — we can only collect on the real-world rewards when the online contacts know who we are.

Tessellations: a math metaphor for team working

When I was in fifth grade, our math teacher introduced us to tessellations. Here’s the brief rundown:

A tessellation is a repeated pattern of 1 closed shape, arrayed one after the next, with no gaps or overlaps. At their simplest, a grid of squares or a pattern of hexagon tiles on a bathroom floor are tessellations.

We were taught that if you start with a tessellating shape (like a square) and remove a section of it from one edge but add that same section to another edge, the shape will still tessellate. (This preserves the surface area of the shape. See diagrams below for examples.) We cut these tiles out of construction paper and glued 4×4 squares of them of them to a black background, learning from the 20-some examples in our class that this process always works.

Recently, this memory has been tapping me on the shoulder and it’s taken me a few days to figure out why. In constructing a project team, I’ve been conscious of allowing space for conflicting personalities and filling skills gaps. But the team members need go grow together: for the team to successfully accomplish its goals, each member should be adaptable, ready to interact with any of the other members at any time. They need to allow for personality differences and varieties of skills across the group. Tessellations make an interesting metaphor for this adaptation. (Each shape represents one person)

Tessellating squares, tiled one after another
A group of colleagues working in the same space, but on different projects. (Can you see the outlines of cubicles forming?)

 

Tessellated figures that aren't square, but still fit perfectly together in an infinite pattern
A close team, as you might find in a small company. Each team member is adapting for the others, compensating for gaps and allowing for preferences. This team doesn’t necessarily work much with other teams, so it’s allowed to have “rough edges”.

 

Four tessellated shapes that themselves fit perfectly into a larger square
A close team within a larger company of other teams. Each team then has to tessellate with the other teams. Smooth outside edges make this easier (on the assumption that the other teams will also have smooth outside edges, to collaborate with whomever they need).

These are ideals for a team, and generally take quite a while to build. In my experience, when you initially bring a team together, it looks something like this:

Four mismatched irregular shapes, which won't fit together
A newly-formed team

The “team-building process” is one of learning to identify the shape of your colleagues and adapt yours to accommodate them (and vice versa). With a bit of work, you can end up a bit more like this:

The four mismatched shapes are starting to form common boundaries, melding into a closer fit
The newly-formed team is adapting.

This is a model (and I admit I like the uniformity of a tessellation) and I’ll acknowledge its limitations. For the sake of argument, we should note that each team member doesn’t generally tessellate to the roles of their counterparts in the team. (Because each person brings differing experiences and personalities to the situation, they may each end up with a shape of their own, as opposed to being one repeating uniform shape labelled “team member”.) But there is one benefit to approaching the metaphor with the concept of uniformity:

When you remove one team member and replace them with someone outside, the clearer that tessellating shape is (ie., what it means to be a member of this team), the easier it will be for that new person to adapt.

Take these two teams as examples. The first is tessellating, each member has adopted a uniform method of interacting and set of expectations for their team members. (Therefore each has the same shape.) Along comes the new person, who can learn from any of the original members how to fit in and what is expected of them.

Three perfectly fitting shapes and one new one that doesn't fit with the three
A well-organised team with clear ways of working together and expectations for each other. While the new person, in black, will have to adapt to fit into the team, they should have a fairly easy time of it due to the clarity in the existing team.

In contrast, this picture below shows a chaotic team with no coherence. The new person has no idea how the members are working together, let alone how to join them. The best he/she can do is to pick an outside edge (anybody’s!) and start there, try to connect with everyone in due course and build up a shape of their own to fit the odd structure already there. If you’re the new person, it’s a much less fun scenario.

Three disparate and unrelated shapes, and a fourth new shape that also doesn't fit
A team with no coherence or organisation, attempting to incorporate a new person. This scenario is hard for the newcomer, as the team’s ways of working are unclear and even communication between the existing members doesn’t appear to be guaranteed. How should the newcomer adapt themselves?

These visual images provide a model for the ways team members work together. Though I’ve found that the shape of each tessellation changes from team to team (and even changes when a new person joins a team), it’s important to have a fundamental model. Every team member I’ve worked with has indicated that they are happier and more productive when they see the whole of which they are a part. Understanding the shape (or role) they are to take is a big step towards seeing the bigger picture — the entire team, the company, or even the entire industry.

Four complex but perfectly tessellated shapes, fitting into one neat square

Internet art: displaying our messages and feelings

These are from the Yahoo! Time Capsule, a fascinating bit of collaborative art. The capsule is accepting contributions from any and all from the 10th of October to the 8th of November. This electronic anthropology project will be preserved by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington D.C.

These are a couple of tiles that caught my attention: they’re intriguing. I’m impressed at how much contributors have been willing to share of themselves. (To see them in their original layout, click on the picture or the text. Or go check out the site — The swirling ball motif that organises all the entries is quite impressive.)

Boy sitting in a big bench, tying his shoe

Text: PICTURE/136551 From a female in her 30s in ann arbor MI, United States. A hundreds-year old plantation home in Greenfield Vilage. The women docents chop at the tobacco plants in the hot sun. My son sits on the porch, slowly working his shoelaces into a knot. Determination. Hope. Anything is possible.

A man in a jean jacket, a hoodie and brown corduroy trousers. He's looking at the camera.

Text: Text: PICTURE/136203. From a female in her 20s in beijing, China. I don't know how long I will like him!

A finger and a thumb, pushing against each other. The finger has a tiny red heart drawn on it.

Text: PICTURE/75361. From a female in her 20s in Novi Sad, Serbia and Montenegro. I love another guy! TAGS you heart another love


Text: Sophie, je t'aime, mais je ne sais comment te le dire. Veux tu que nous construisons ensemble notre bonheur? LaurentText: WORDS/75422. From a male in his 30s in Paris, France. Love declaration.

The Yahoo! Time Capsule is the brainchild of internet artist Jonathan Harris, who has also produced (in collaboration with Sepandar Kamvar) the endlessly fascinating We Feel Fine project, which graphically displays sentences that include “I feel…” from blogs all over the web. It uses a data engine to search all the usual blog sites (including LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, MySpace, Blogger, Flickr, Technorati, Feedster, Ice Rocket, and Google) for the text strings “I feel” and “I am feeling”, then maps them against a list of 500 emotions and assigns a colour to each. They become a universe of bouncing coloured balls; as a user you dynamically ‘generate’ the whole scape and then investigate whatever area (or coloured ball) you’re interested in. It’s amazing to see what people are writing about.

Many thanks to Julie for introducing me to the Yahoo! Time Capsule.

$100million could set us free

10 days ago, Jimmy Wales at the Wikimedia Foundation issued the world the following challenge:

Dream big. Imagine there existed a budget of $100 million to purchase
copyrights to be made available under a free license. What would you
like to see purchased and released under a free license? Photos libraries? textbooks? newspaper archives? Be bold, be specific, be general, brainstorm, have fun with it.

The main list of suggestions has been growing and is listed here. (Slashdot, Digg, Metafilter, Meneame, and Heise all began lists of their own to support the effort, though they’ve been combined into the main list.)

Suggestions thus far include a range of topics: textbooks, dictionaries (in particular the OED), satellite imagery and geodata, technology standards like mp3 and PDF, encyclopedias, academic and research journals, news archives and first-person historical artifacts, sheet music, pictures on the web, Microsoft software and online translators. (There was also lots of talk about drug formulations, though those are patent protected rather than copyrighted.)

A few that struck me (all direct quotes):

  • Some photos taken by Ernesto “Che” Guevara when he travelled around the world (at least one photo from each country he visited) or all photos depicting him.
  • Photos of endangered or recently extinct species
  • Legal documents: West Publishing holds the copyrights on the legal reporters (volumes of caselaw) that contain the published opinions of state and federal courts in the United States. (In some cases, West can’t claim copyright to the opinions themselves, but does claim copyright to the pagination system and the headnotes that to some extent are the basis of the most common forms of legal citation). Making this information publicly available could make it easier for people who do not have easy or affordable access to Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis to research legal points.
  • Classified Information: I suppose the CIA probably wouldn’t overtly start handing over juicy secrets for cash, but there are some private intelligence agencies that might have some pretty interesting dirt that could be made public.
  • Something like a chunk of the video archive of the BBC might be nice to have. (This is already in progress… see here)
  • Make wikipedia easier for elderly people and people with age related disabilities to partake in. Think of all the knowledge that the elderly contain ‘because they were there’ that they cant share because of an obfuscated geek designed interface prevents them.
  • The song “Happy Birthday to you…” is still under active copyright which is why you will never hear it on TV, Radio, etc. If there is any cash spare this would be a good one to purchase.
  • Medical quality photographs and diagrams of the human body and its organs etc both in health and disease (all too often we have to fall back on a single image from Gray’s Anatomy when any article could benefit from more than one diagram and photographs with different focus/perspectives)
  • All the archives about the murder of JFK

Is there anything you’d add?  $100 million free a lot of information, knowledge and processes to the world.  What do we need to know?  The site is still open!

The pub: Fingerprint first, then your beer

This article from Friday’s Register, Beer Fingerprints to go UK-wide, tells us that South Somerset District Council‘s pilot scheme of fingerprinting patrons of local pubs seems to have led to a 48% drop in alcohol related crime between February and September 2006.From the article: ‘Offenders can be banned from one pub or all of them for a specified time – usually a period of months – by a committee of landlords and police called Pub Watch. Their offences are recorded against their names in the fingerprint system. Bradburn [principal licensing manager at South Somerset District Council] noted the system had a “psychological effect” on offenders.’

Apparently the Government is so impressed that they’re willing to fund the scheme for ‘councils that want to have their pubs keep a regional black list of known trouble makers’. The Home Office have agreed to fund similar systems in Coventry, Hull and Sheffield, while general funding for the rest of the local authorities is to come from the Department for Communities and Local Government‘s Safer, Stronger Communities budget. The article says that the DCLG is distributing the funds through local area agreements (description sites from the central government side and from local government).

This news article fills me with so many questions I’m not sure where to begin.

  • Why is no one else reporting on this activity?? I’ve had a look at South Somerset’s, the DCLG’s and the Home Office’s sites and wasn’t able to find any news on this scheme (though that may be the fault of the search technologies they’re each using. The results I didn’t get, in general, weren’t particularly relevant). I’ve also checked Google news — nothing their either.
  • Where is the fingerprint data going? What kinds of Data Protection Act considerations have been made? How easy will it be to find out that your no-good lazy husband was in fact having a pint when he said he’d be at work late? And what about that female fingerprint in the database just before or just after him?
  • The previous point of course brings up all kinds of data-sharing questions within the government too. As seen in the Climbié debacle, the Government isn’t fantastic at sharing information when it needs to. Does that help or hurt this scheme?
  • How much has business fallen for these pubs? Is all of South Somerset okay with this?

If anyone knows more about what’s going on here, I’d love to be caught up. How bizarre to find this story slid in under the radar.

Searching: then and now

Let’s talk about information retrieval algorithms.

I’ve been comparing search engines, looking for something suitable for a large amount of unstructured data from a lot of repositories. Now, option 1 says it operates on the probabilistic model of information retrieval (a description of this model is in this paper: part 1 and part 2), though the implementers are extremely vague on exactly how they’re using it.

As far as I can tell, the probabilistic model creates a score for each document based on the probabilities of each of your search terms being in that document. Probability of term 1 being there + probability of term 2 being there (etc) = matching score, which you can then use to rank this document against other documents.

In this implementation, they then weight the search terms that are rarest in all the documents (so that if you’re in a law firm and search for “Smith litigation”, “Smith” will be more important than “litigation”. Your firm will probably have a lot using the term “litigation” so it won’t be as useful to pick out the docs you need). It then normalises for document length, balances repeated terms (so that searching for ‘smith smith litigation’ doesn’t mean it looks for documents with “smith” twice as often) and trims words to their stems using something like the Porter Stemming algorithm.

Okay, now I’ll admit I’m learning. But this algorithm isn’t new: this ‘City model’ of the probabilistic was initially proposed by Robertson and Sparck Jones in 1976 (‘Relevance weighting of search terms’. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 27, 129-146)  Is this still as good as we can get?

[Tune in next time: we’ll weigh this up against probabilistic latent semantic analysis and I can finally get around to asking my question!]