Steven Johnson on "Emergence"
Pages: 1, 2

Sims. You write that more is different, and that seems to be the case with a city the scope of New York. With smaller cities you don't really get those districts.

Johnson. It's another way that it connects to Amazon. Early on there were a bunch of reviews of Amazon or systems like that where the reviewer wrote, "I went to Amazon and I told it I liked these two books and asked it to recommend a few more to me, and it was totally wrong." Well, there just wasn't enough data at that point. And Jacobs' refrain in her book, where she says, big cities are not like towns only bigger; they're a totally different beast. So more is different in both those cases.

Sims. Slashdot seems like another example. It filled a niche, to become a sort of watering hole for the open source community. But you wrote about how, once it grew too big to fill its role, Rob Malda implemented a solution that was partly top-down, but partly community managed.

Johnson. Yeah, when you get to a certain threshold of size, you start having signal-to-noise problems in an online community, particularly in an online community where you have people who have lots of opinions and ... some younger people [laughs]. And you can effectively solve that problem two ways. You can hire a lot of people to patrol the boards and delete spam and other useful information, or you can have the community do it for you.

Malda and his crew didn't have the luxury of putting a bunch of people on staff to do it, and I don't think they were temperamentally inclined to do that anyway. They thought it would be better to let the community do it, and follow an open source model in developing a community itself. And so they built the karma system where everything was evaluated by other members of the community, and if you contributed a lot your karma increases. Moderation filters enable you to look at highly rated things and eliminate things that are not highly rated by the community. And it created a kind of currency within the system that enabled quality contributions to rise to the surface.

It really worked, that was what was amazing about it. When you read Slashdot at the highest filter level, it's as good as many professionally edited tech sites.

Dornfest. What's interesting is that Slashdot worked for me to a certain degree, and then to a certain degree it worked for me only to the extent that I was an average Slashdot reader -- which I'm not. Even if I turned off everything but the highest rating posting, I still find a lot of noise to signal. What has emerged in the weblog community is that I don't have to become an average Slashdot reader, I can say, I'm kind of like Cory, and I'm kind of like Steven, and I'm kind of like Dave Winer in a certain sort of way. I'll read their things, and they'll point me to the appropriate things, including Slash articles.

So you have this wonderful after-market community. And if I decide, for example, that Dave Winer's focusing too much on politics, I may stop reading his blog, but I'll still get stories from him, via somebody else.

The result is that when I wake up in the morning, I get to see a lot of the stories that come through Slashdot or from the New York Times that are interesting to me, without having to wade through Slashdot to find them.

Johnson. That's a great point. I know people are working on creating the meta-blogs, and I feel there's an incredible opening to create that -- the thing like Slashdot that sits on top of all the blogs, and is collectively filtered by all those bloggers and their readers. There are a lot of different versions of that, but I don't see one that's really solved the problem. To me, the thing that has to happen to the individual blogs is that they're still too centered around the personality of the blogger him- or herself. They're still too limited to emailing the blogger, or a crude bulletin board. What I would love to see is, one way or another, by force of personality or whatever, to have these clusters of 100 or 200 or maybe 1,000 people who offered real contributions and collectively owned the thing.

Sims. A blog tribe.

Johnson. Yeah.

Dornfest. Metafilter comes closest to that of the things I've seen. It still has a personality, but it's very much a group dynamic.

Sims. There are all these little pieces being figured out -- whether it's Slashdot's rating system or meta-blogs or the way file-sharing systems make the files that are most in demand easiest to get -- but can you see a point where all these little things add up to a system that wasn't planned, but fixes the problems by grouping together.

Johnson. I had an interesting idea about that today, which is kind of a metaphor of where we need to go. I'm writing a new book that's entirely about the brain. Our frontal lobes differ dramatically from those of the other primates. It's disproportionately large, and one of the things that happens there is all the different specialized data processing going on through the rest of the brain gets brought there and kind of synthesized -- what's going on in the visual cortex, the audio realm, the emotional realm. All that stuff is brought together.

I was thinking that what the Web needs is a big neo-cortex. There are all these very specialized smart, focused tools being developed, and data that's being mined, and collective intelligence on specific problems. But we're not as good yet at, not just filtering all that stuff, but figuring out what belongs connected to what else. Google is, in a way, the beginning of that. It's letting the Web solve that pattern itself, looking at patterns and links of what should be connected to other things. But we need more of that kind of synthesis going on. I think XML is going to be a great platform for that. Once you have clear, simple markup for describing big chunks of data, it should be easier to do that as well.

Sims. And it offers the potential of two-way linking.

Johnson. Yeah, two-way linking is kind of essential to letting the Web evolve in an organic way.

Dornfest. After reading Emergence, I went back and read Interface Culture again.

Johnson. How does it hold up?

Dornfest. It holds up well, actually. The thing that struck me was the talk of exaptations. I'm wondering as I look at the Web today, what are the interesting exaptations that are coming from the way people are trying to extend the network, in ways that no one expected. What interesting exaptation are you seeing in the Internet today, the last six months, or year?

Johnson. That's an excellent question, Rael. Do you have an answer?

Dornfest. I don't yet. There was a real flurry between 1993 and 1996 in online communities, as well as how the Web was used. But I don't see, I have to admit, in the last year, much in terms of exaptations. I see in the Web services world people trying to control the evolution -- Microsoft, IBM -- trying to put more intelligence into the network. But I don't see a lot of exaptation coming from that, or coming at all. I worry that the Internet is becoming more like, it's so big we can do whatever we want with it. And the result is nothing evolving out of the Internet doing what it wants to do.

Johnson. One place where I feel there's an interesting question -- and in Interface Culture I was pretty skeptical about this idea, but maybe I'm coming around to it -- is what's evolving out of the gaming community in terms of virtual worlds.

Isn't Everquest supposed to have this economy that's the size of a small country? As these worlds that were designed to let people play Dungeons and Dragons in a virtual, networked environment, as they get more and more users, and as they develop an actual economy within that world, and as it translates into real-world dollars -- as people sell their characters on eBay and stuff like that -- are we actually, through that gaming design, is there an exaptation that leads to what the Internet was supposed to look like, a virtual world with commerce, a William Gibson-like system?

A few years ago, people were saying that Quake was going to turn into a platform for virtual worlds, with little poetry readings in Quakespace. But I think something interesting may evolve in some of these other games.

Dornfest. There were a lot of attempts to create destination spots around '94, '95, '96. What ended up happening is that Slashdot and places like that became the destination spots, but they weren't as planned. They ended up evolving. We're planning a lot today for web services, but I wonder what the next exaptations are of that. Blogging is obviously one piece of that. But it's more of a community around trading stories, rather than tapping the intelligence of the community as a whole.

Johnson. Yeah, there needs to be some other thing that comes along that holds all of that information and turns it into some higher level structure that can actually make sense of it all.

But there's enough innovation going along at the base level, and enough interesting people contributing to that, that I feel kind of optimistic that we're going to figure out interesting things to do with the tremendous amount of data that's being produced by all those people.

David Sims was the editorial director of the O'Reilly Network.

Rael Dornfest is Founder and CEO of Portland, Oregon-based Values of n. Rael leads the Values of n charge with passion, unearthly creativity, and a repertoire of puns and jokes — some of which are actually good. Prior to founding Values of n, he was O'Reilly's Chief Technical Officer, program chair for the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (which he continues to chair), series editor of the bestselling Hacks book series, and instigator of O'Reilly's Rough Cuts early access program. He built Meerkat, the first web-based feed aggregator, was champion and co-author of the RSS 1.0 specification, and has written and contributed to six O'Reilly books. Rael's programmatic pride and joy is the nimble, open source blogging application Blosxom, the principles of which you'll find in the Values of n philosophy and embodied in Stikkit: Little yellow notes that think.

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