Sunday, September 18, 2005

Social surfing and knowledge management

This sounds rather interesting: Will web users ‘Flock’ to social surfing?

The idea is to create a browser (or more precisely, to enhance an existing browser -- Firefox) "to make writing, editing, sharing and displaying web content faster and easier." Among the operations it would assist are inclusion of images and maintenance of shared bookmark collections.

There's already an intriguing service for managing shared bookmarks on scientific topics, called Connotea. Basically how it works is that you register with the service under a user name of your choice. Then by saving a special bookmark in your browser you can save the URL and other information about a page you are viewing simply by activating the bookmark. Many blogging packages provide a similar facility, which saves the page information as a blog entry in your own blog.

Connotea allows you to specify tags for each page you select. Thereafter, other users can find the link by a search on the tag. For instance, this search shows Connotea bookmarks with the tag "small rna". (You don't need to be registered with Connotea and logged in for this to work.) It's also possible to search for the bookmarks of a particular user (such as yourself), and there are a number of other capabilities.

It seems to me that there's a very important need that "social surfing" addresses. There are now several billion pages on the Web. Most of these were created (at least indirectly) by humans. But finding specific, useful information among all the billions of pages can be quite difficult. The main tool now used is a search engine like Google. But that's an entirely automated computer process. A search process that intimately involved human judgment of hundreds or thousands of people to index information for specialized topics would be a great advance. This would appear to be what "social surfing" offers.

There is some overlap here with another form of "social surfing", namely "wikis", such as Wikipedia. This involves a group of people collaborating to organize information in a given topic area (from "everything" as with Wikipedia, to very specializsed topics, such as abstract algebra). The information being organized includes Web links, but also substantive topic expository articles as well, and just about anything else deemed relevant, such as pictures, audio and video files, spreadsheets, databases, etc.

How long will it take, do you suppose, before sociologists take up the study of a new subfield, which might be called the "social management of knowledge"?

I think that as long as 40 years ago Doug Engelbart foresaw all this coming about, at least in a general sort of way.

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