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?