Accountability and Culture in a Loosely Coupled World

Rebecca talks about finding offensive content on a Technorati tag aggregation page. Besides the usual tension between free speech and community standards (to which I think she's found a useful balance), the thing that strikes me is how well this demonstrates some of the unpredictable effects that come from having loosely coupled services talking to each other.

A lot of people have been saying, correctly, that tools influence culture. The way that easy publishing tools and passive aggregation services combine to create shared spaces has us making assumptions about content and community that perhaps we would do well to be more deliberate about. Linking, and tagging, and categorizing, have all been by choice thus far, and now they're happening almost as a side effect. (This is particularly true because Technorati treats categories in Movable Type and TypePad feeds as tags. I know some people who use them that way, and some who don't, and some who do both or who use the Keywords field, with or without the Technorati tags plugin, in a similar way.)

But how can we hold an author or creator accountable when their creation is removed from the technical context, and more importantly, the social context, in which it was created? I say things on this site knowing that the sarcasm will be understood by all of my readers except those who email me. If someone applies an "anil" tag to the post, and someone views the "anil" tag aggregation page, will that display convey the fact that I'm being sarcastic? What if the "anil" tag page is the first Google result, and someone who's never met me and doesn't know my sense of humor finds that first?

Now, someone will fire back a comment or email to me that says "if you don't like it, opt out". And that's a valid option. But I want to participate in the loosely-connected information ecosystem. I just want to know that people building platforms on this stuff are thinking about the cultural implications of the choices they make.

Some of this echoes the thoughts danah had on the LiveJournal acquisition. Of course, she raised some great points, but when I saw her last week, I shook my fist at her (playfully!), but not because someone raised the extremely important issue of making sure there's a cultural match when addressing social software as a business. The frustration comes from the hubris of so many who think that those of us who've been blogging a long time are not aware of the social implications of technology.

To put it more succinctly, there's nobody I'd trust more to understand the social impact of software than Brad Fitzpatrick. But the reason some people would second-guess his choices or our (Six Apart's) knowledge of community is because many of these decisions are invisible. In my mind, TypePad has a very distinct community, and is not merely a publishing service or a very cool web app. There's absolutely a TypePad culture, despite what it might seem to those who aren't involved in it. (For example: Why are so many food bloggers on TypePad? What draws that community to that particular choice of publishing services?)

Where this comes back to Technorati tags is in Rebecca's call for transparency around the aggregation functionality that's being shown. While she's talking about community standards, I'd like to see a conversation about transparency in tradeoffs. When you make any kind of tool, you're selecting for certain behaviors. What were the ones that were being encouraged or discouraged when making the application, or was the choice made to just build it because it's possible and see how it evolves. (That's a perfectly legitimate option, by the way.)

This has come up in a lot of different ways. PB once lamented to me that tools that have either launched after Movable Type, such as TypePad, or been influenced by Movable Type, such as the redesign of Blogger, have a publishing mode that is distinct from the place where an author reads his or her weblog. I think the data Tom published demonstrates that this, at least in part, changes how people write. Many bloggers who use tools with distinct reading and writing modes have longer posts that are less frequent and less chatty.

Other elements that were introduced with Movable Type at that time (post titles, a standard way of doing comments, individual entry archives) also had a big impact, perhaps even bigger than any of us might have realized at the time. For example, I was reviewing projects created by some of Clay's students, and one of them referred to the feedback form in their web application as "your standard Movable Type-style comments form". It's at that point that users, even if they're super-techie grad student developers, forget that someone had to invent that form.

So, to the point at hand: Technorati's invented a system of public aggregation. There's prior art, certainly, since at least 3 others had made taggregator applications. But mindshare makes a big difference, and Technorati's arrival here reflects that. Now I'm curious: How will this affect weblog culture? And since the service is new, how can it be changed or evolved to influence people to be more, well, social?

Tags: