What if it's about the People, Stupid?

Most of the science of Information Retrieval centers around being able to find and rank the right set of documents in response to a given query. We spend much time arguing about technical details like ranking algorithms and the benefits of indexing versus broadcast searching. Every Information Professional I know both deifies and fears Google because they get it right most of the time – enough so that many people tend to assume that whatever pops to the top of a Google search MUST be right, because it’s right there, in the result screen. Producing that seemingly simple list of documents from a query is ultimately what our work and art boils down to.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong?

Web2.0, by many definitions, is about collaborative content creation. Tim Berners-Lee says that Web3.0 is going to be about Linked Data.

What if the most important function of the web is really to bring people together around shared goals, dreams, and interests – and those precious documents are really just so much metadata about people’s skills knowledge, and potential?

Watch somebody study a field long enough and deep enough, and eventually it seems like it becomes more about the Big Thinkers who have characterized the field than about any individual theory or document. You want to get into their heads; understand what inspires them. If you can, you want to ask them questions and learn from them. Then you build upon it.

It’s easy to find the Einsteins, the Darwins, the Freuds. Dig a little deeper, and you find the people, themselves giants, who stood on their shoulders. But what if you want to find the person or team who knows the MOST about a very specific type of protein, about building Firefox Plugins, or about adjusting the wheel bearings on a certain kind of vintage motorcycle? This seems to happen to me all the time when I am digging into something for work or play. If you get deep enough, looking for documents doesn’t sate your appetite, and you start to look for the masters of the domain – to see what they’re up to; to get into their heads, to ask them questions, or to hire them.

We spend an awful lot of time talking about workset merging, deduplication, persistent URLs for works. But maybe we need to spend more time talking about the authors. Maybe at a certain level of research, that humble Author facet becomes what it’s all about, and we should all be spending more time worrying about the dismal state of author name normal forms and authorities in the sources we work with. Are there things we should learn about relationships among authors in published works (and mentions of authors in casual websites) that might help guide our users more quickly to the experts, the super-groups, and that one forum where most people are friendly and knowledgeable?

3 Comments

A humanist view regarding questions.

Sebastian, I just read your blog post yesterday and stumbled upon an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education which seemed to be about the same thing. [1]

The following is a quote from an article:

"... we took a totally new approach to the problem of search. We created what we called a social search engine. When you have a question, we connect you to another person who can give you a live answer. That arose from thinking about the human needs that people have when asking questions. Instead of defining a query as an information-retrieval problem, and returning a list of Web pages, we treat it as an invitation to a human engagement."

1. "From technologist to philosopher" by Damon Horowitz. http://chronicle.com/article/From-Technologist-to/128231/

Just Enough Info will Do?

Finding experts is great for intricate details and to discover something totally new, but most people seem to be happy with just enough information to solve a problem or scratch an itch and move on -- the less is more concept.

It is easy to be guilty of overthinking a solution to a problem. I'm amazed at the beauty of simplicity of say straight text based websites lacking tons of window dressing but are amazingly fast and easy to use. I love following the 'don't make me think to hard' to process "x" or "y" function for website design. Thus as back end folks the de-dup, merge sets, streamlined but powerful search features help folks accomplish what they want to do: find stuff/information and move on.

It seems the best software has a limited number of functions, but all options do distinctly different things. How many times in software do we see 2 option selections that do almost identically the same thing that only a programmer or cataloger would care about?

We all have our own interests... Would it be useful to merge wikipedia personality pages of authors to the author birth and death dates on marc records? mmm maybe? For me I would love to have more catalogs search on the certain marc record tags, maybe I'm just old school...

It is a Friday :)