Search Wars: Man vs. Machine

The more I learn about social media and Web 2.0, the more I think that cyber futurists are getting it wrong.  If we indulge their claim that we’re advancing towards a world in which machines and robots are going to reign, then technology – or at least the web – is going backward.  It’s become less mechanical and more social – and if the popularity of social media is any indication, most of us web users love being on the flipside. 

I’m not just talking about blogs and social networks, but the recent explosion of social search.  New search technologies that provide interactivity, personalisation and dynamism offer a remarkable alternative to mainstream search engines.  It’s time we look beyond Google because it doesn’t have all the answers.

Search 0.0 – 3.0
Search 2.0 developer Ebrahim Ezzy’s explanation of the three generations of search technology helps to understand how search has evolved:

Traditional Search Engines work to retrieve information using Boolean queries, link analysis and text relevance. These first generation search engines, like Alta Vista, rank sites according to page content.
Second generation search (eg. Google) uses link analysis for ranking search results.
Third generation search engines combine the functions of the “old” search engines with new models that take into account “user preferences, collaboration, collective intelligence, a rich user experience, and many other specialised capabilities that make information more productive”.

I’ve compiled a list (by no means comprehensive) of third generation/social search engines that will make you think twice about declaring Google King of the Search Wars.

Scour is a social search engine aggregator that allows users to vote and rank search results using their own criteria.  It delivers search results from the top 3 search engines  (Google, Yahoo and MSN) after taking into account  user feedback.  Users earn points for each search, vote and comment they make, which can be redeemed for Visa gift cards.

Rollyo is a community-driven search engine that allows users to create their own personalised search engines based on sites they add to their SearchRoll.  Given the information overload that we have to endure on the web, these search engines conveniently allow users to filter and control the amount and quality of their searches.  Swicki works in a similar way to Rollyo, but returns comprehensive text or multimedia searches on a specific topic/theme chosen by the user. 

While Google is great for searching pages, it’s less handy when searching for people.  That’s where Sightix comes in.  This unique service provides users with personalised searches based on their social networks, friends and connections.   While traditional search engines will return the same results to different users, Sightix takes into account the identity of each user and returns unique, personalised and relevant results based on that user’s social graph.    Whozat, SpocK and Zoominfo are other people search engines that are worth a visit, especially if you want concise information on an individual.

A major shortcoming of Google is that it doesn’t index multimedia content and Flash files, but now there are search engines dedicated exclusively to this.  Mediawombat is a search engine for multimedia and Flash files only.  Snipp.tv is another valuable multimedia search engine that can be used for finding video and audio files.

My favourite of the lot is Clusty, which organises search results into folders, making it easier and faster to navigate.  So while a Google search of Nelson Mandela will return millions of page results that you’ll have to wade through to find specific information on his 90th birthday celebration, Clusty returns this impressive, organized  collection of folders ranging from Biography, 90th Birthday Celebration, Nobel Peace Prize, etc. 

Another search engine that will speed up your research is Cluuz, because it goes beyond providing mere links as search results.  It peers into the Web, extracts information, images and tags relating to your search word and presents them to the user so that relevant information can be found faster.

Niche search engines are also on the increase: 5tvs is an Internet TV search aggregator, Metaverselink can be used to search within virtual worlds, Gogooligans is an educational search engine for kids, and Codase and Krugle are every programmer’s dream as they index only source code (Java, CSS etc) and technical information.

Traditional vs. Social Search
Social search may be more innovative and intuitive than traditional search, but it cannot replace traditional search engines.  When used together with mainstream search engines, they can yield powerful search results that can be more productive and valuable for the user. 

One of the problems with community-driven search engines like Scour is that they depend on the participation of users to stay afloat , and are also susceptible to spammers.

While many new Search 2.0 tools are aspiring to be the next Google, it’s not about competition but collaboration.  As Ezzy points out, even the mainstream search giants have realised the potential of social search and implemented some of its features.  Yahoo! has introduced My Web 2.0 and Google offers bookmarking and tagging of search history for users. 

The future of search- and the web at large – is definitely leaning more towards man, not machine.

23 July, 2008 at 10:13 am 7 comments

Hiatus

I’ll resume blogging in July, after my exams, the National Arts Fest and a much-needed vacation.

2 June, 2008 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

What digital revolution?

Last year, while a few New Media lecturers (read digital evangelists) in the Rhodes Journalism department were sporting cool t-shirts that said “Print is dead”, my Writing & Editing lecturers (read print loyalists) were citing figures about increased newspaper circulation and proclaiming that online news will never replace the print medium.

Since changing from writing to a new media specialisation this year, I’ve been on the hunt for one of these t-shirts. Not to wear right now though, but just to keep in my closet and pull on when the time is right.

Let’s face it: South Africa is nowhere near a digital media revolution at present. Not when only about 11% of all South Africans have Internet access. Not when the majority of the people in this country are struggling to afford the basic necessities, let alone an ADSL line or 3G modem. Not even when 83 out of 100 South Africans have mobile phones, but not necessarily the airtime or the technology to surf the Net. And not when more people are reading newspapers.

Still going strong
The Audit Bureau of Circulation’s figures show that South African newspaper circulation has increased by a small margin between 2006 – 2007. The circulation of daily newspapers has grown by 2.7%, weekly papers by 5.4% and weekend newspapers by 4%. The latest All Media and Products Survey results are also impressive: there are 14 572 million newspaper readers in the country, and 46.8% of South Africans over the age of 16 read a newspaper.

It seems print is not dead;it’s alive and well.

However, one must consider the bigger picture of Living Standard Measures (LSMs) and demographics when thinking about South Africa’s print newspapers and their digital editions. SA’s leading daily, The Daily Sun has almost five million readers, whose monthly household income is around R4 541. Compare this with the 467 000 Mail & Guardian readers, whose monthly income is about R14 598 – or Business Day readers, who have R18 953 a month in household income. I’m not saying that a print newspaper’s readers are also its only digital newspaper’s readers, but the point is that those who have disposable income to spend on an Internet connection are mostly middle-class, educated, employed citizens who prefer a particular type or quality of media. This explains why the Mail & Guardian and Business Day have online websites, and The Daily Sun doesn’t… yet.

Internet boom
According to the AMPS and Online Publishers Association (OPA) reports, Internet usage is on the increase too, but what’s most interesting is that South Africans are using it to consume media, not just Facebook.

News24.com is South Africa’s most popular website on the OPA’s Top 10 list, with more than 1.1 million unique browsers since March this year. That’s a growth of a whopping 44% since March 2007!

The other online news website to make the list is Independent Online (IOL), with 585 000 unique browsers, up 15% since March last year.

Local news websites dominate the list of the fastest growing websites in South Africa. The Engineering News, Mining Weekly, Carte Blanche, Sowetan, and SundayWorld websites have registered a user increase of 100% or more during March 07 – March 08.

These impressive figures are great news for SA’s digital media, because it means more people are consuming and interacting with their content.

Social media and access
The increased popularity of local online media is due to the fact that they’ve realised the importance of Web 2.0 and social media for traditional journalism. It’s simple: in order to attract more web users, news sites have to offer them more than inverted-pyramid style stories… and even more than multimedia news.

So they’ve brought on the blogs ( M&G’s Thought Leader and Tech Leader, News24’s blogging portal), bookmarking (Laaikit, Digg, Del.icio.us), a bit of citizen journalism (readers can submit pics and stories), q-&a services (Answerit) and of course, the inclusion of a comments box for readers to have their say.

Both M&G and News24 have jumped on the social networking bandwagon and created Facebook applications so users can read the latest headlines on their profiles. They’ve gone mobile too, by delivering breaking news alerts, weather reports, and even the lotto numbers to users via sms.

Die Burger has gone a step further by instituting a web-first policy, which sees them break their news stories online instead of in their print edition.

All these strategies are working well, but, at the risk of sounding like a tape on rewind, they’re only available to the five million of us who have the option of accessing them.

That’s a digital divide, not a digital revolution. And definitely not a digital democracy.

When South Africa’s internet access statistics begin to rise as high as its fuel and food prices, then I’ll throw on my “Print is dead” t-shirt and not feel like a pretentious idiot for wearing it.

27 May, 2008 at 7:56 am 3 comments

Twittering your breakfast – and the earthquake in China

Since setting up my Twitter account a month ago, I haven’t been bothered to update my status or follow other friends because I could do just that – and much more – on Facebook. I’ve struggled to think of how Twitter, a micro blogging service which provides bite-sized messages, could be useful to me or anyone else, beyond letting each other know what we had for breakfast.

Until now.

The blogosphere is currently abuzz with debate over whether micro blogging is an effective tool for providing and reporting the latest news. This follows proof that users on Twitter beat the news wires and journalists in reporting the earthquake that hit China on May 12 .

According to a timeline of tweets, the first message on the earthquake was posted by Twitter user scribeoflight at 2:35:33pm Beijing local time, and said simply: “earthquake. not sure how big. maybe four”.

The earthquake occurred at 2:28pm.

Minutes later, news agencies like Bloomberg News, Reuters and Dow Jones broke the story of the earthquake hitting Beijing, and later, Sichuan province.

In this blog post, Robert Scoble, famous for having 24000+ followers on Twitter and receiving a tweet every second of the day, says several Twitter users in China reported the quake to him while it was actually happening. He then used Twitter to provide news and updates about the quake to other users. Scoble also claims that Twitter had news of the earthquake even before the United States Geological Survey, which monitors seismic events.

Since then, users like inwalkedbud have been providing regular tweets on the earthquake and its effects, making Twitter one of the main sources of news on the quake. Users on Fanfou, Taotao and Jiwai.de, Chinese social messaging services, are doing the same. Photos and videos of the quake and its devastation have also been posted on Flickr, YouTube, and Chinese video-sharing sites like Tudou and Youku, providing eye-witness accounts that mainstream media have struggled to get. Global Voices Online and the BBC provide a roundup of social media coverage of the quake.

Social media in emergencies

A recent study at the University of California claims that social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia are more effective than traditional media in providing information and warnings in an emergency/disaster situation.

During the Virginia Tech shootings in the US last April, the study found that emergency services and the media were slow in providing updates on the situation at the college and of the students who had been killed.

However, within 90 minutes of the shootings, a Wikipedia entry accurately describing the events had been posted and updated several times. Twenty minutes later, Facebook users had set up a group called “I’m OK at VT” for students and staff to reassure their friends and family that they were safe.

Researchers found that during the California fires last year, web users used Twitter to inform their friends of their condition, while traditional media struggled to provide updates on the fire. They also used Google Maps to track the fire’s route and indicate the areas where businesses and schools had been closed.

The study says the mass media were “unreliable” as they struggled to gain entry to remote areas from which users with Internet access could easily report.

It found that while traditional media focused on sensationalist news like the burning of celebrities’ homes, ordinary web users could provide important and accurate information as it unfolded.

Mainstream media

While the recent earthquake in China is enough proof for me that Twitter has greater utility beyond letting the world know what I had for breakfast, we should be careful about glorifying it as a rival news source.

Twitter and other social media tools may provide immediacy, global reach and first-hand information, but how accurate is it as a news source? Ofcourse, it’s hard to be wrong about an earthquake, but I wouldn’t write an article based solely on a tweet that says “Yay! Mugabe is dead” without verifying it first.

Nevertheless, it’s evident that the power and utility of social media has a huge impact on mainstream journalism. Unless journalists are arrogant and stupid enough to think that they’re the sole gatekeepers and producers of news, they need to join the online conversation.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how some South African news websites are doing just that, and how web 2.0 has changed conventional media-audience relationships.

19 May, 2008 at 10:06 am 4 comments

One flocking cool web browser

I’ve got two questions and good news for you.

Which sites do you visit every time you’re online?
If it’s your blog, e-mail, Facebook and/or RSS Reader, then it’s safe to assume that you are a social media enthusiast.

What web browser do you use?
I’m guessing Internet Explorer, Firefox or Opera. They’re all fine for surfing the net… but we social media fans don’t just surf. We facebook, we bookmark, we chat, we upload pics, watch videos and blog. And we often do this all at once, so it’s about time that a more integrative, social media-friendly browser comes along.

Well, it has. Flock is here, and it delivers.

The latest version of this open-source social web browser that’s based on Mozilla Firefox comes with many built-in and customisable social media tools. Here are some of them:

Social Networks
Flock has a People’s Sidebar that keeps track of all your Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube contacts. This means you don’t need to keep visiting the Facebook site after you’ve logged on to it – Flock keeps track of your friends’ status updates, allows for instant messaging, and lets you check if you’ve got new messages, or if your friends have posted new pics or content. If you use Twitter, you can instantly interact with your Twitter friends, post a Twitter, and check your friends’ updates, all from Flock’s sidebar.

E-mail Services
Flock has integrated Gmail and Yahoo! mail in its browser. It automatically checks your email for new messages and lets you send e-mail directly from Flock, without you having to be on the Gmail or Yahoo! site.

Blogging Clients
The browser comes with a built in blog editor that allows you to post and publish text or images directly to your blog (as I’m doing right now). This service supports Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal, Blogsome, Xanga and TypePad blogging platforms.

RSS Feeds
With Flock’s built-in Feed Reader, you can track, organise and read the latest content from the sites you subscribe to. The browser also automatically detects RSS feeds on every site that you visit, and has a handy RSS button on the toolbar that glows orange every time a feed is detected. You can then click on the button to subscribe to the feed of your choice. Easy as pie.

Bookmarking
You can instantly bookmark a site by clicking on the blue star button on the navigation toolbar. If you click on it twice, you can add tags to your bookmarks and organise them however you wish. Flock also lets you search among your bookmarks and your web history.

The browser conveniently supports online bookmarking with del.icio.us and ma.gnolia. You can bookmark sites to Flock and your del.iciou.us or ma.gnolia account simultaneously.

Media Bar
Flock’s Media Bar lets you do amazing things. Firstly, you can search for YouTube videos or Flickr photos using the Media Bar Search Tool. Again, no need to visit the actual site! If you come across content that you like, you can instantly bookmark it to your Media Stream. Secondly, once you’ve activated your online video or photo account in Flock, you can view your own public photos/videos in the photostream on the Media Bar. Thirdly, you can share, e-mail or blog any image in your Media Stream simply by clicking on the white arrow on each thumbnail. Alternatively, Flock lets you drag and drop a pic from your own or any Media Stream directly into your e-mail message or your message to a Facebook friend. No more searching your computer for the right photo to upload; no need to go to the YouTube website to search for stand up comedy. You can do all this directly from Flock.

Verdict
I’ve been using Flock for a few weeks now, and can’t stop raving about it. It’s definitely enhanced my browsing experience since I can surf the net, Facebook, read my e-mail and blog from one convenient space. That’s what I call a unified social media experience.

However, more serious web users may think of it as an overdose. If you’re surfing the Net for a term essay or a work assignment, it’s probably more productive to use the conventional browsers because Flock can be quite distracting.

In every other context though, it’s the ultimate browser for social media fans.

Download it now, and say goodbye to boring browsing.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Tags: , , , ,

11 May, 2008 at 11:18 am 2 comments

The green web

While I’m typing and while you’re reading this, we’re indirectly contributing to global warming. Just by using a computer, which runs on electricity that is in turn is produced by fossil fuels, we emit 60 grams of CO2 per hour.

I’m loathe to preach about how we should conserve energy to save the world from exploding (and South Africa from intermittent darkness), especially when I’ve got my heater on, cell phone on charge, and a casserole in the oven. My “wrongdoings” probably warrant an entry on True Green Confessions, a website that’s the equivalent of a church’s confessional booth for “sins” against the earth. It’s strange, but addictive.

It may be too little too late, but the new web is making significant attempts to become environmentally friendly, just as food, fashion and business has. Here are some web 2.0 attempts at going green.

Save-the-earth Search Engines

Eco-friendly search engines were the brainchild of Mark Ontkush, who wrote this post on the amount of energy Google could save if it changed its home page from white to black. This is his basic argument:

“Take at look at Google, who gets about 200 million queries a day. Let’s assume each query is displayed for about 10 seconds; that means Google is running for about 550,000 hours every day on some desktop. Assuming that users run Google in full screen mode, the shift to a black background will save a total of 15 (74-59) watts. That turns into a global savings of 8.3 Megawatt-hours per day, or about 3000 Megawatt-hours a year. Now take into account that about 25 percent of the computers are CRTs, and at 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, that’s $75,000, a goodly amount of energy and dollars for changing a few color codes.”

Heap Media launched Blackle last year, a “black” search engine that uses Google search. Unfortunately, the site lacks many of its features like iGoogle, advanced search, and images. A better alternative is Earthle – known as the Black Google -, which is powered by Google, uses less energy and has the exact same features that you’d find on the original search engine. (It looks much sexier too!).

Then there’s the Yahoo! owned GreenBackSearch, which returns the same results as an original Yahoo! search, but the site gives back to the environment by using 50% of its revenue to purchase carbon offsets/credits. Yahoo! also powers a search engine called Ecocho, which grows 2 trees for every 1000 searches conducted on the site.

Eco-friendly social media

Care2Make a Difference is the biggest green social network on the web, with more than eight million users. The network provides a great connection and a wealth of information and services for eco-enthusiasts ranging from healthy living to saving a rainforest with a donation or a signature. Similar green social networks like RiverWired are also on the increase.

The green equivalent of YouTube is Empivot, which aggregates all green- related video content and allows users to upload their own. The site hosts a large amount of audio-visual content from both individuals and companies.

Hugg is the eco-friendly alternative to social bookmarking communities like Digg or del.icio.us. The site is popular and active, and is a useful source of information for anything green related.

Internet users in the US are using Gigoit to donate or get rid of unwanted items instead of dumping them in landfills. The site is like Craigslist, where other users can call dibs on – or as South Africans would say, shotgun – items that they want. The giver then chooses who he wants to donate his stuff to, and the two make arrangements for the exchange. It’s a philanthropic and eco-friendly way to get rid of old cellphones, kids’ toys and dad’s tools that have been collecting dust in our storage room since the 1960s.

Green online shopping has also taken off, with sites like Iallergy and Green Deals Daily offering a variety of environmentally-friendly products to consumers.

For environmental offenders (like me, you and let’s face it, everybody else), EcoGeek and Green Marketing 2.0 provide the latest news on technology and inventions that will help reduce our impact on the environment.

Making a difference

Eco-friendly web 2.0 strategies have taken a lot of flack for their perceived lack of effectiveness. Critics dismiss green social media as mere fluff, and snort in derision at the “black web”, seeing it as regressing towards the ancient MS DOS interface.

But these initiatives, however small their impact may be, are noble and a step in the right direction. Web users should realise that the Internet, for all its wonder and uses, does have a tangible and negative impact on the earth. Given the millions of users and hours spent online, and consequently the amount of CO2 emitted, attempts to create a greener web should be supported.

With that said, I’ve changed my home page to Earthle. Now that I’ve gone black – or should I say green? – there’s no going back.

5 May, 2008 at 2:30 pm 13 comments

Learning the Web 2.0 way (2/2)

Technology is not always a student’s best friend. It’s more like a moody, unreliable and can’t-be-trusted ex with whom you have a love/hate relationship. Everyone’s got a few tragic tales about lost essays, blue screens of death, and MS Word suddenly shutting down on them before they could save their work.

But thanks to Ward Cunningham‘s invention of the wonder that is Wiki, there is one less problem we have stress about. Gone are the days of e-mailing a document/project/essay back and forth between group members, bickering over who has edited or deleted crucial information, and freaking out when the most updated version can’t be found in anyone’s e-mail account.

A wiki is a combination of a website and a Word document that allows multiple users to access and edit the document collaboratively from a single location. (Hence, no need for feverish e-mailing). More importantly, it keeps track of all the changes made to the document, stores older versions of the document and allows users to compare the older and new version.

Wikis in education

Wikis have great educational value and are being used widely by universities and some schools. Students can use it to work on a group report, compile results or analyse data (Google Spreadsheets), and teachers can use it to collaboratively structure their courses and interact with their students. Because a wiki is a “wide open space” in which everyone has equal power and access, it allows students to “own [their] education experience”. See Wiki evangelist, Stuart Mader’s post on ways to use wikis in education.

Mader has argued in his book that “today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach”. Students have grown up surrounded by technology and are comfortable with it; and it’s up to teachers to revise their teaching methods to incorporate tools and resources that could help them build a better, more engaging rapport with their learners.

Teachers at a middle school in the States are doing just that: they are using this wiki to teach their French classes, and provide notes, videos and assignments to their students. Brown University has also set up a course advisor wiki that allows students to edit and review the courses that their professors teach. A lecturer at Bowdoin College has been quite successful in using a more scholarly wiki to engage with students in his Romantic Literature Course. There are also countless number of wikis set up by students to facilitate their own learning, like this one.

Wikis seem to be most commonly used to teach students writing skills. Not only do they encourage engaging writing, close reading and careful editing, they also teach students “network literacy”. According to Jill Walker, a prominent blogger and web 2.0 theorist, this involves preparing students to write collaboratively and for public consumption. It means, “jolting students out of the conventional individualistic, closed writing of essays only ever seen by [their] professor”.

Challenges

When used in the context of educational instruction, wikis have encountered various criticisms. Because it allows anyone to chop and change content, it’s difficult to keep track of who has edited what. Linked to this is the issue of security and how much of “control” should be given to students to edit course content or review papers, etc.

Brian Lamb importantly notes that control is only an issue if teachers/lecturers try to impose it on the medium. The aim of a wiki is ultimately to facilitate learning among students, and with their teachers, in a setting that doesn’t mimic that of a classroom. A teacher’s role on a wiki should be to engage students, not pull rank on them. Lamb argues that teachers must relinquish some of their authority in order for students to engage meaningfully on a wiki. Otherwise, wikis will have no real use or effectiveness for students, and we may as well just be content with PowerPoint.

Wikis present a huge departure from the conventional teacher-student relationship, so it’s understandable why those who are still devoted to the chalk-on-blackboard method of teaching frown upon it. The value that students and teachers accrue from wikis will depend on the extent to which both parties are able to handle the power issue – teachers have to give up some of theirs, and students need to use theirs responsibly.

Sources:

Brian Lamb. “Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, Ready or Not“.

Stuart Mader. “Using Wiki in Education“.

29 April, 2008 at 9:38 am 1 comment

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