Tim Berners-Lee's Web of people

Amid the dot-com jargon and techie talk, World Wide Web granddaddy Tim Berners-Lee conceded last week something about his offspring: That somewhere beneath the convoluted coding, acronyms, zeroes and ones, the Web is human, after all.

Speaking to a fire hazard of computer programmers, Web producers and journalists at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication last Thursday afternoon, Berners-Lee crammed a career’s worth (OK, maybe several careers) of wisdom and clairvoyance into a little less than an hour of accessible Netspeak. He waxed nostalgic on the Internet’s historical terrain, then prognosticated a Web future rooted in sociability, customization and, above all, user demands.

“We’ve got to keep building those wish lists, because they will inspire people who are doing the coding,” he said. “There are a bunch of geeks… who are itching to find a problem to solve.”

The moral: keep feeding the innovators. You never know what they might come up with, and there’s no predicting what bizarre idea might take off running.

“What if, just before wikis came out, somebody had said, ‘Hey, suppose there was a website that said: Anybody can edit this. Please be careful. It would be nice if this were an encyclopedia. Those are all the rules.’ You would not have invested. You would not have been the manager that said, ‘Yes, OK. Write it.'”

And per his road map, the Web’s uncharted territory is vast and ripe for discovery. As he has since day one, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee sees a blank, royalty-free canvas.

Berners-Lee on what’s in store:

We just hope that there is just a natural tendency to broader interoperability. That we will end up with a very powerful platform in the future. The sea of interoperability…. One of the things that you have to remember now is that we’re seriously thinking that the Web isn’t all there is… that downstream, there’s a huge amount of stuff. So that means that you don’t have to do your work looking to the Web as though it is the geographical terrain. You can do it as though it were something you can send back. Like undercooked beef. It’s OK to say, ‘The Web is fine, but what we really want is this.’ You know, ‘blogs are great. They’re interesting. But what if, instead, we had this?’ So the technical community needs to have feedback from people who are maybe being frustrated by how the Web is doing in all this.

If you go away today with any one thing in your head when it comes to the Web architecture, it’s that it is a universal space. It’s got to be there like a white piece of paper, for people to do other stuff on it. And the Web is great because of all of the creativity that other people have put in. It mustn’t control what other people want to do with it. It clearly has got to be able to work on any hardware platform.

There are some things we can worry about and some things we can get hopeful about. A lot of people are excited about virtual worlds; second lives and things. Some people are worried about the fact that my ISP might stop me from accessing all the new video sites because they are my cable company, and they want to be the person to decide what movies I watch this week. There are some slumps around there, but I think we’ll avoid them.

On digital humanity:

When you design something in the Web, there is a social side to it. The Web actually has protocols like http, but it’s got human protocols, too…. I make a link to another Web page because if I link to good Web pages, my Web page will become valuable. And if my Web page becomes valuable, it will be linked to. And if my Web page is linked to, it will become more read. And I like to be read! It all comes down to psychology. Sometimes it comes down to money, OK? ‘I like to be read because I get cash.’

It’s not a web of computers, it’s a web of people. It’s people that make links, it’s people that follow links. People are affected by many things in what we do; in the policies we should enact — or that we should tweak, or that we should interpret. There’s psychology at the base. There’s a large amount of mathematics about it. There’s a very, very large number of disciplines around websites, and there are great people in the spaces and doing great things who probably don’t know each other. So one of the motivations of Web science is to get people in these disciplines talking to each other.

On creativity:

The creativity has always been the exciting bit for me. We do our software design in such a mechanical, mathematical way. We analyze it and we use software engineering tools. But the actual creative leap to how we’re going to do the thing, or the fact that we will write the program in the first place, is done subconsciously by a mechanism that we cannot analyze. It is not provided to us. We do not have a portal, we do not have the debug access to a brain that allows us to figure out how it was we came to it.

Individual creativity is very special, but group creativity — when we do things together, which is what we actually have to do to solve all these big problems — is even more interesting. And one of the reasons I wanted to make the Web a big sandbox is that I wanted it to be a tool for group creativity. I wanted us to pool all our thoughts and brainstorming together so that we will somehow make our combined brains be slightly less stupid than our individual brains.

On social networks:

These social networking sites are starting to develop new ways of actually determining how you trust friends, and friends of friends have a different status than friends or friends of friends of friends…. One of the things they’re doing is creating new forms of democracy. Or new forms of meritocracy…. It kind of works, but maybe we can improve on it. And maybe, out there in the Web, we will end up producing a new social mechanism, which will improve on the existing democratic systems we’ve got today, and we’ll be able to run the country better. How about that? Run the world better. Don’t aim low! OK?

On inventing the Web:

Inventing the Web was actually rather straightforward. It was the sort of thing you could do on the back of an envelope and code up in two months. But explaining to people that it was a good idea—helping them get over all their misunderstandings of what it was supposed to be, was very difficult.

Because it was a paradigm shift, the difficulty of explaining the Web in the first place was that we didn’t have the vocabulary like “link” and “click.” So I could show someone a Web page and click on it and, tah-dah! Another window would open with a different Web page. So what? No big deal.

What they couldn’t understand was what was really interesting about this link was that this one really could have gone anywhere; to any data you could imagine being out there and conceivably interesting. Now the fact that pretty much anything you could imagine existing out there has got a high chance of being on the Web. And the fact that that link could have been there was just really difficult for people to understand.

In our meetings I wanted us to build the Web as a collaborative design so that we would always leave pointers back to why we made decisions. We would always leave pointers back to the documents we’d read when we had our meetings. So that somebody coming in would be able to understand. Somebody who’s going to reverse a design decision we’d made can find out why it was made; find out what they’re going to damage. And also, when they leave, they don’t have to do the big debrief and explain to everyone what they’ve done, because it’s there. They’ve woven it into the group…. So the first Web browser was an editor. It was designed really to be a collaborative thing.

On Gopher:

It was way more popular than the Web. Taking off exponentially, with I think maybe a sharper time constant. The University of Minnesota then announced that, by the way, they might be licensing the material. You might have to pay royalties. They were toast. Overnight. And people were putting a huge amount of pressure on me to get something from CERN. And CERN, to their huge credit, did produce, 18 months later… a document that declared that CERN would not be charging royalties on the World Wide Web. And that’s why it happened. That’s why it took off.

On bobsleds:

There’s a phase at the beginning of a bobsled run when you’re pushing. The whole team is pushing. And it’s really hard because the bobsled has in fact got some inertia. And then it picks up speed. And then in the later phase, you’re all in the bobsled steering, and things like that. But there’s a very important transition phase when you stop pushing and jump in. And for the Web, that was about 1993. So I was concerned in 1993 and started sort of rushing talking to people about what sort of consortium we would do. And eventually the result was the World Wide Web Consortium.

Journalism can be welcome in 'smart homes'

News organizations seem to be throwing open many doors, if not windows, hoping the right one or combination yields the secrets of audience attraction. Maybe the search should be more reflective – not based on science, necessarily, but at least on principles more closely tied to what’s going on in the information ecology of homes, offices, schools, libraries, cars, trains and buses.

Ideally, the equipment or products used to spread words and images would create micro-environments where news can flourish. Wired-up homes, a big opportunity for online journalists, create a space where news undergoes cognitive processing, to use research talk. Studies indicate that audiences prefer content when both the media environment and delivery mechanism match the natural or biological capabilities of the consumers.

Evolution is not necessarily a remote theory. Whether news is sent via print or through TV or computer screens, earplugs, baby-faced mobile devices or trained-pigeon messages, its success may depend how the delivery engages human sense organs and minds formed by millennia of biological development.

The TV screen, floating in a space where humans can either focus or interact among themselves and ignore it, has had a lot going for it. The movie theater, a dark space redolent of unhealthy candy, butter and popcorn, inhabited by strangers who seem more and more to get on each other’s nerves, has been waning in a culture absorbed by interaction. IM fits the needs of teen organisms. Radio hitches itself to the fertile Internet and draws a global audience seeking to escape broadcast boundaries. Music lovers migrate from CDs to the mobility and flexibility of iPods and cell phones. Each medium makes use of heritable human traits, like curiosity, mate searching and a preference for mobility. The losers are anachronistic.

This train of thought brings into question assumptions about the usefulness of displays, formats and delivery systems that have decidedly non-evolutionary origins – like engineering compromises chosen to get commercial products off the ground at a set deadline. Many news websites were pushed into the public sphere by senior editors and executives out of panic, not planning or calculated resource allocation. What success journalism has had in new media often seems more accident than design.

As the wonders of the “smart home” unfold, this might be a good time to re-examine assumptions about how electronically delivered news is used. The developing space for news in the home represents the opposite of what happened when Macs and PCs came through front doors in the mid-‘80s. The devices went into dens and separate bedrooms for single-station use; personal privacy and segmented content within the home became the norm. Gender, marital and age gaps were allowed to squelch domestic discourse –sometimes with unfortunate results.

That may not be true now. The creation of info-nodes, wide screens and hybrid TV-Internet-games platforms for the home has the potential to change news consumption from isolation and segmentation into a more communal dynamic where family members actually talk about what they learn, are amused by or share in common. They can interact among themselves, as well as within the virtual worlds they enter. It is not just mixed but multiple use, where the physical and virtual co-mingle.

Game designers are putting these tools to good use. Military and aerospace trainers have developed extraordinary simulators. Medical innovators are making important use of telepresence in surgery and remotely monitored therapy. But news providers are only beginning to offer access to space imagery, panoramic perspectives, 3-D and immersive delivery formats. Even though the ability to combine virtual reality technology and interactive immersive environments has been available since Howard Rheingold brought it to public attention in the early 1990s, the potential of virtual reality (VR) as a news conveyor has lagged behind developments in other fields.

And like phylogenic trees, media trees tend to diverge and channel. Military and entertainment needs moved VR development in directions that haven’t been much help to journalists. Bendable worlds, exotic avatars and complex battle scenes don’t fit well with journalists’ need for accurate, timely, verifiable and in-depth information. But delivery tools need to be thought of separately from content.

As wired-up homes open their doors, journalists will have to give more thought to how they want to be received and how they will make use of not just wide screens but of local wireless networks, surround sound systems, laptops and games technology – haptic devices that convey physical feed-back, intuitive controllers (think Wii news) and sophisticated head-mounted displays, which are also becoming cheaper, more powerful and accommodating (even for adults).

Taken together, these developing technologies have the possibility of making broadband news delivery a different experience, more like the ‘60s family gathered before the TV, but with 21st Century feistiness and a taste for global connections based on common interests. News content can be shared both within the physical group in the home – on networked devices, if not physically together – and within alternative worlds.

Take a crass example: The smiling guy with a beer behind home plate who’s waving to the family at home and talking with them on a cell phone. “Right, I’ll buy that team shirt on the way out, don’t worry.” This is a complex event, involving media crossover and telepresence or intervention in a parallel reality. Crass, but a mustard seed. Computer scientists and engineers are working to develop layers of reality and multiple paths for audience intervention.

Here are examples of barriers that threaten to keep news websites in a state of perpetual anachronism. They are drawn from current discussions in the computer science, communications and media design literature:

1. As VR technology becomes more accessible, the tendency is to think of it as a “home theater.” That’s not a good metaphor, since theaters are dying. Journalists should be moving away from the lights-out, no-talking tradition of passive theater experience. If what is happening in research labs is an indication, the future lies in cooperative tasking in mixed reality.

2. VR’s capability to simulate real environments, which should be a plus for journalists, can also inhibit graphic imagination. News and information can sometimes be best told in non-literal ways, as designers at the more forward-looking print publications have discovered. If print has become comfortable with abstractions, why does online journalism, with its vast capacity for animation and collage, lag behind?

3. VR worlds tend to function in isolation from one another, a legacy of audience segmentation. It’s hard to traverse multiple worlds, when scale, navigation, sound and avatar portrayals have little standardization. No rules exist on what may be accurate or authentic vs. fanciful content. This may be keeping news organizations from thinking creatively about VR news applications that would fit into the ecology of the smart home. Indeed, coming to grips with VR technology could be an expensive, difficult task, but think of the alternatives.

4. Screen-based personal computer displays have a fixed field of view and a concrete frame that limits interactions. It’s hard to collaborate when you have to do the electronic equivalent of peering through a key-hole. But that is changing, if the width of screens at Best Buy check-out lines are any clue. Expect homes to have multiple wide high-definition screens, panoramas of at least 180 degrees and user controls of perspectives that can free up the human eye to rove and make full use of peripheral vision.

5. Commercial virtual settings, including Google Earth, provide spaces where interaction can take place, but then what? It’s nice to navigate cities, buildings, landscapes, pyramids, veins and arteries, molecules, etc., and fiddle with mash-up information. But critics of shared virtual environments argue that often “there’s nothing to talk about within them.”

What an opportunity for bright, entrepreneurial journalists – converting sterile spaces into human places.

Take a fresh look at your site's posting rules

When was the last time you took a look at the rules you ask readers who post to your website to follow?

Social media evolves without pause. From politicians editing their Wikipedia entries to bloggers creating “sock puppets” [scroll down linked page for definition] to intimidate online foes, Web users are finding ways to manipulate social media that application designers may not have intended or foreseen.

If you last modified your content-submission rules 10 years ago, they might not address all the conflicts that could arise today on your discussion board or in your comments sections. I’d like to offer a few suggestions for rules that you might want to consider adding to your interactive website.

First, I’d like to credit Damon Kiesow, managing editor for online at The Telegraph in Nashua, N.H., for raising this issue. Earlier this month, he posted to The Poynter Institute’s online-news e-mail discussion list his staff’s discovery that a local elected official was posting anonymously about other election contests and candidates on the paper’s discussion boards. In addition, the official had created at least three other user accounts and was using them as sock puppets in the forums.

Kiesow asked for guidance, sparking dozens of responses from other online journalism pros. Several warned against allowing anonymous posting on discussion forums (ground that is well-plowed for long-time OJR readers), but a few noted that the paper could be exposing itself to charges of hypocrisy, if not legal sanction, if it chose to “out” the official, due to the paper’s published website privacy policy.

Kiesow eventually deleted 14 posts from the three accounts, and explained the move to readers in a forum thread on the Telegraph’s website. However, the paper did not reveal the identity of the official.

The incident should remind all of us to be proactive about discouraging reader abuses, both through communicating with our readers up-front, as well as implementing back-end technical strategies.

I’ve long believed that websites which accept content from users, from comments to discussion boards to wikis, ought to tell those users, in the plainest possible language, the rules that the site expects those readers to follow when they post. (The eye-glazing, mind-numbing legalese of a site’s terms of service or privacy policy isn’t enough.)

If you want readers to use their real names, not to post copyrighted content and to be nice to one another, tell them. On OJR, we ask our readers to click to and abide by our guidelines for writers whenever they submit content to the site. Based on the Telegraph’s experience, I’ve added a few elements to those guidelines, so that we make explicit to OJR readers some of the actions that the Telegraph found that we do not want to see on OJR.

In addition, I’d like to propose a few other elements that I believe are worth considering for a site’s posting rules, but that often are not included.

No impersonation

Insist that readers be who they are, and not attempt to pass themselves off as someone else. If you site allows pseudonymous posting, insist that readers use a consistent handle or account name, and take whatever technical steps you can to keep people from posting under others’ names.

Don’t allow readers to mislead others about their identity, either. Warn readers against omitting information from their profiles or posts that would lead other readers to believe that they are someone other than who they are. Elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that they are not when posting to a discussion about local politics, to use the Telegraph’s example.

No unlinked multiple accounts

This is the “no sock puppets” rule. On many websites, you should simply prohibit readers from having more than one account. However, if there are valid reasons for allowing certain readers to control multiple accounts (a parent who has one account for himself and others for his kids, for example), they should be linked in such a way that the reader can’t easily turn them into sock puppets, making that individual appear like a crowd.

No offline harassment

Many forum rules prohibit readers from attacking one another within the forum by using profanity, hate speech or other threats. But I’d ask you to consider a prohibition against off-line harassment as well. Here’s what I’ve added to OJR’s guidelines: “We also will not tolerate members who use any means, including offline communication and messages to third parties, to intimidate or harass fellow members over their posting on OJR.”

On another website I’ve managed, we banned members for calling other posters to berate them for their forum messages. No, people should not expect that the words they publish online will not have consequences. But when other posters move past respectful disagreement into harassment, a website should retain the authority to toss those offenders, no matter where that harassment occurs.

Explicit rules for commercial solicitations

Strong communities have a knack for developing into economies. Just take a look at some of the markets that have developed within multiplayer role-playing games online.

In many cases, readers selling and buying with other readers is a good thing. That creates great opportunities for publishers to make money through advertising, sales commissions and lead generation. But one or two bad deals can be enough to poison an entire community. And a growing ad-to-content ratio will likely drive away readers, too.

Don’t wait for trouble. If you anticipate a problem, make explicit to readers where and when they can hawk stuff and services, or look for work or people to hire.


Finally, make explicit the potential consequences to readers if they violate any of your site’s rules. Check to ensure that your site’s formal privacy policy and terms of service do not conflict with your new rules, enlisting the help of a lawyer or company legal team to make changes, if necessary.

If there is one characteristic which distinguishes lively, informative discussion communities from others, it is leadership. Show your leadership by taking a fresh look at the rules governing your site, then work with your community to make changes your community needs to prevent situations might hurt the community or its members.