Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Form over Substance

Steve Rubel's immediate response to Yahoo's apparent acknowledgement of Google's unassailable ascendancy in the sphere of search was to proclaim:"That's it...I have no interest in using a product that the company doesn't aspire to make best of breed."

Yet in fairness to Yahoo, they may actually be onto something. Of course this sudden reassessment of core objectives has been largely forced on them, but historically there has always been a vein of human intellectual intervention in the Yahoo approach, which has distinguished it from algorithmic alternatives such as Google. (Esther Dyson: "Yahoo is intelligent design...Google is blind evolution")

In general, when it comes to understanding things, there have always been two (mostly) separate currents in our thinking processes:

  • Substance (components, structure and quantity)
  • Form (pattern, order and quality)
The first, where we ask what things are made of and how they fit together, is the basis of all analysis and information processing. It's a methodology of measurement. The second, arguably the trickier, seeks to comprehend the configuration of internal relations − and patterns generally need to be mapped, not measured.

With all the processing power that has fallen into our laps over the past decade or so, it's hardly surprising that maps of pattern and quality have continued to play second fiddle to measurements of quantity and models of structure. Indeed, matters of quality are often supposed to be irredeemably muddled with meaning and values − compromised by subjectivity. However, the information processors typically anticipate that the problem of subjectivity will go away if the numbers are big enough - the so called wisdom of the crowd.

Google is still the best way of understanding the substance of the Web. In most instances, it's all we need to know: relationships are secondary.

Yet the very term Blogoshere, with its echoes of biosphere, suggests that social media represent a new order of webbiness where networked patterns of meaning and citation will matter more. By implication, counting up individual blogs may not tell you all you need to know about an individual organisation or brand's social media 'footprint'.

Last week Valla Vikili from Yahoo told a group of my colleagues in New York that the widespread use of social media heralded the "death of meaning". No longer would consumers so readily accept (and pay for) the meanings that communications consultants bundle in with products and services, because they now had the tools for making their own. And Yahoo has a growing interest in these tools. Their assimilation of social media start-ups like Flickr and surely reflects a strategy that is now perceptibly geared towards form rather than substance, which has been the natural territory of their great rival Google.

With home-made meanings increasingly emerging from and looping around the social media in unpredictable, non-linear ways (rather than being seeded into the earlier Web of comparatively atomised sites and pages) this may end up being the space to be.

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