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of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 3    February/March 2005

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JC Herz Addresses First 2004 Annual Meeting Plenary Session

by Steve Hardin

Steve Hardin is associate librarian in the Cunningham Memorial Library at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN 47809; email: shardin@indstate.edu

Information is all about people, and information systems that donít take that into account will have serious problems. That was one of the points driven home by JC Herz, principal of Joystick Nation, Inc. The first plenary speaker at the 2004 ASIS&T Annual Meeting in Providence , Rhode Island , Herz is also a noted lecturer and educator. She was the New York Timesí first computer game critic.

Herz began by explaining that people grounded in various disciplines have distinct ways of looking at the world. In each case, there tends to be an unspoken assumption she calls the ďcult of documents,Ē which says all we need to do is share documents. Thatís the problem to solve, according to this approach. But, she said, it leaves out the fact that information is not always explicit. Instead, itís often implicit and exists in people within their contexts. People make information manageable; they digest it and share it. They take the implicit and make it explicit.

Just why are the documents important? What do they mean? How do we incorporate them into the social context? Thereís a group of people behind each user, imbedded into a social context with a lot of implicit knowledge, Herz said. Her favorite example is Google: it succeeds because it leverages the things humans do best and the things that computers do best. Google brings together massive amounts of information from computersí and humansí information contexts. Currently, there is much discussion about the Semantic Web and metadata schemes. Herz maintains that any scheme that requires humans to input metadata with their data will fail.

She took weblogs as an example. Weblogs, or blogs, use simple technology, but that proves her point, she said. Itís the value of the human network and social interaction that makes blogs relevant. Itís that millions of people have blogs that interact. You can search across them to see such things as whoís most popular. The process, she said, ďskirts the line between information technology and high school at its worst.Ē At the end of the day, human beings are social creatures. Acknowledgement represents the smallest quantum of human interaction. When you meet someone and exchange comments about weather or sports, itís an acknowledgement that you see each other. So when youíre designing a system, you need to ask, ďHow much acknowledgement does it give to people?Ē Blogs succeed in part because itís possible to become an A-List blogger, a magnate in your community.

Herz used wikis as another example. On a wiki, everyone can enter and edit Web pages. At the large level, you have Wikipedia, a massive multilayer encyclopedia. She said she was skeptical at first Ė wouldnít it be easy for the Wikipedia to dissolve into chaos? But it didnít. What about controversial subjects such as abortion or terrorism? In some ways itís easier to fix damage than cause it on a wiki. People can do two clicks and roll it back. She said itís the only system thatís easier to clean than to vandalize. Combine teleconferencing with a wiki, and you can go a long way toward actually creating the products the meeting was intended to plan. The wiki puts context around the information.

Herz said we often donít consider how the topology of information changes over time. Does your system permit that change? If not, an organization or community finds it very difficult to adapt.

And then thereís the importance of group knowledge. Herz referred to an article that said advertisements on Yahoo are cheaper than ads on televisionís Oscar telecast, even though they reach about the same number of people. Why? Because we know everyone else is watching the Oscars, and we can all talk about it the next day. It has nothing to do with the medium, she said; itís about social currency.

But our information systems donít take many of these factors into account, Herz said, because itís all implicit. Itís all about people. Itís all about how social contexts change over time. Some would argue that the value of our tools results from how they are used. Think of flame wars on e-mailing lists, a good example of the tragedy of the commons. On the other hand, the wiki seems less vulnerable to this sort of abuse.

The way you think of design changes when you take its social context into account, she said. Look at the design of systems where people are interconnected. Thereís a difference between social software and information architecture (IA). Itís like the difference between urban planning (ďIf we zone something this way, what will happen?Ē) and architecture (ďWe built it, it is, people will use itĒ). We need both. But thereís something beyond building design that needs to be thought through.

Herz said the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) became a phenomenon because people think aliens are cool. Little green men were the catalyst for what in her opinion is the best example of contemporary art in the 21st centuryís networked age. SETIís problem was a lack of available computer power. So SETIís practitioners designed a system to allow participants to download software and link their computers to perform data analysis. The disparate pieces came together.

Many video games are group games. The people who use these games fall into several types. You must structure the rules of the game so that it rewards the types of behavior that you desire.

The medium has implications, Herz said. The speed of the exchange changes the nature of the exchange. She thinks that people already get hired for blogs; the day will come when they get tenured for blogs, too. A blog can tell you a lot more about someone than you can learn in an interview.

Do these changes make the book obsolete? Actually, it underlines the importance of a book. A book is valuable not because of the information it contains, Herz said, but because it represents a moment when the information creation process is frozen. A book speaks to the time element.

Even the idea of persistence, Herz said, is a design decision you must make. Should things really stay forever? Should there be a degree of ephemerality on the system? Itís not that old information should be erased, but how does new, succeeding information get into the system? A signature of life is that things are always being created and removed Ė whether theyíre the cells in your body that change every seven years, or blog space. Most important is the idea of the group that constitutes the knowledge. Itís more than just having stacks of information.

During the question-and-answer session that followed Herzís talk, an audience member noted that much of what she said involved joy, wonder and love. What design includes that? Herz referred back to the principle of acknowledgement; everyone has persons in their lives that are really important to them, whose opinions matter to them. How do you express and draw the energy out of that? People need to know theyíre not alone. If you could capture a small portion of that energy and computerize it, you could change the world. Herz said she thinks weíll see things like this in the next few years, and thatís very exciting.


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