The media is changing. There’s a new kid in town that really breaks the traditional mold of how media and journalism and publication works in the world — our not-so-old-yet friend the Internet.
Newspapers, magazines, television, radio — all the traditional forms of media — primarily fit into a “one-person-broadcasts-to-many-passive-receivers” model. Plain-ole’ static websites work this way too. Even the first iteration of the way blogging was done was mostly one person just spouting their ideas for others to read. Talk radio is a bit of an exception, but it’s still more of a one-man show than anything. A slang term for it might be “the fire-and-forget media”. It’s a lecture more than a conversation — one person is contributing, sharing or speaking, and everyone else consuming or listening. This is the old media.
The new media is based on a whole new model — it’s interactive. With technology being what it is today, people are demanding that journalism be more of a conversation than a lecture. The Blogosphere is the best example yet, but an entirely new concept in the web is also emerging — called the “World Live Web”. Here, content is no longer static. It’s no longer one guy’s show. It’s a conversation. The publication of many voices on a given topic, all interacting. In this world, a blog isn’t just me spouting my idea and everyone else reading it. It’s me kicking off a conversation that everyone else participates in. Here, it’s not just a static website, it’s the collective work of many voices interacting (from WikiPedia to Del.icio.us to My Yahoo!).
Even traditional forms of media, like television and radio, are trying to get into the game. News and analysis shows now feature email segments, radio programs incorporate activity taking place on their website running simultaneously with the radio show, every “classic” static news web sites now allows you to comment on their news stories and editorials, etc. These are all attempts to make the form of media at hand a collaborative effort, instead of a lecture circuit.
And one of the biggest components of this brave new world is the online community. Here, a “common purpose, goal, or interest” is the gravitational center around which scores of people orbit — sharing their knowledge, experience and opinion. The ideal community is a constant frenzy of interaction and collaboration, with loads of valuable information available to anyone, anywhere who is interested in the topic at hand. This concept is at the center of the World Live Web — at the center of a new form of media.
To talk about observing the democratic interactions of the community and interpreting them to make decisions about the value of content and people in the community is to talk about solving a very hard problem. Surely, in order to make the output of something like this useful, we’re going to need a simple but powerful language with which to describe what we’re doing.
When we developed our engine, we had this reality in mind. We call the work of the engine — as it observes and interprets — “valuation“. We are “valuing” members of the community and their contributions to it. To describe this, we have developed a “valuation language” which calls on our knowledge of the English (or any other) language to help us describe what’s going on inside the CVE.
That may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. It boils down to defining every action that can be observed in the community as a sentence with the grammer, “Subject verb object” — just like the English language. Here are just a few examples…
- Visitor views content item
- Member refers member
- Member rates content item
- Member contributes forum post
In each case, as with our everyday speech, a subject (may be a content item or a member of the community, or even other entities) is performing an action on an object (content item, member, etc). As each of these sentences is defined, observed and interpreted by the valuation engine, value judgments can be made about the “nouns” in the sentence.
If a visitor views a content item, then he or she has made an implicit value judgment about that content item. The engine can observe and interpret that — capturing the information in the item’s score — and remember it to set context for future observations / decisions. If a member rates a content item, this says something about the member performing the action, as much as it says something about the content item being acted upon.
This is the heart of how Intelligent Scoring works, and a very simple but power language of valuation makes it possible.
Intelligent Scoring is about discovering and sharing value. The observation and interpretation of huge numbers of events behind the scenes in an active community allows the engine (the “Content Valuation Engine”, or CVE, that does the work of Intelligent Scoring) to make value judgements about the content and users in the community. We call this process “valuation”.
Valuation is how Intelligent Scoring works. It is required. The process of valuation results in values for a small set of key value indicators, we call “Building Blocks”. There are three such building blocks — score, credibility and proficiency — each of which plays a role in indicating how valuable content and members in the community are.
Score is the easy example. Let’s say you publish a blog entry, forum post, video or some other piece of content into the community. You’ve categorized it, so it’s easier for people to find. And a set of search indices have been updated behind the scenes, so searching will now include your new content item. But what else happens? Many times, not much. Maybe the number of views or downloads is tracked, or people get to vote on how well they like what you’ve created. But that’s about it. Other than that, if you find it in a search, great. Otherwise, you’re alone with your “My Library” content list.
Not so in the world of Intelligent Scoring. Rather than just relying on a clever search to dig up your newly submitted item, the CVE monitors it. Every activity relating to you or your item is tracked (even inactivity is observed), and each time something happens (or doesn’t happen), the engine interprets what’s going on and modifies the content item’s “score”. Fast forward a week or two or three. Someone in the community wants to know about all the content in a certain category (a question about red wines or a comment about a specific make and model of something-or-other). Once that context is set, the community platform displays all the related content. But in what order? Well, if you assume that the valuation mechanism has been working properly behind the scenes, then just sort by score — descending. Might sound too good to be true, but the fact is that a single numeric indicator of value is all you need. If you trust how the engine arrived at the number, then all you need to know is… the larger the number, the better. Simple.
This is what we call “content item score”, or “score” for short … a single numeric indicator representing the value of a content item, given the process of Intelligent Scoring. This value “contains” the history of all the observation and interpretation of actions in the community involving this content item.
But we don’t stop there. Understanding the score of the content item is good. But if you buy into the vision of community I proposed last week or if you believe that the social network created in online community is important, then you would agree that it’s also important to consider the value of the members of the community — not just what they’ve produced. In the same way that the Intelligent Scoring engine observes and interprets activity to make value judgments about the content in the community, it makes similar decisions — leading to similar value indicators — about the community’s members.
First, the process defines a value indicator called “credibility”. Credibility is a single numeric value — like score, only applied to a member not a content item — which represents the value of a member of the community. Credibility is designed to represent aspects of the member’s character, such as their initiative, their integrity, and their commitment to the community. Like an item’s score, this value contains the history of all the observation and interpretation of actions in the community involving this member. In a sense, credibility is a member’s score.
Score and credibility get us pretty far down the path, but one more indicator is needed. A person’s initiative and character are not the same as their knowledge of a particular topic. So, in addition to credibility, a proficiency indicator is tracked by the CVE for every member of the community, with regard to each node in the knowledge taxonomy. This value, also an historic set of observations and interactions, is called “proficiency”. The more someone knows about a topic, the higher their proficiency indicator for that topic.
Score, credibility and proficiency form the three building blocks for intelligent scoring. In nerd-speak, they are both the inputs and the outputs of every valuation equation … and will be central to our discussion as we carry it forward.
In the spirit of working hard to make information more easily accessible, we take one important que from the world of biology. Hundreds of years ago, biologists realized that the animal kingdom was far too complicated to just be tackled at face value. They wisely decided that things needed to be classified into a hierarchical structure, based on their characteristics, to that studying them would be more accessible. And the taxonomy was born. Since that point, every time a new plant or animal is discovered, it could be analyzed for its characteristics, and filed accordingly into a 7-tier taxonomy (now referred to as the Alpha Taxonomy).
Online communities are far less complicated than the animal kingdom, but they still require classification of knowledge assets to function well. The shared purpose, goal or interest of the community doesn’t have to be that complicated to make interacting around it cumbersome without some kind of mechanism for breaking down the information at hand into more digestable chunks. The same principle scientists used to conquer the world of biology is what we’ll use to conquer smaller, simpler worlds in our online communities.
To address this need, we define the key term “knowledge taxonomy”. A knowledge taxonomy is the (typically hierarchical) classification of knowledge assets, for the purpose of making them easier to find and understand. In most online community models, including Capable Networks’, the common purpose, goal or interest of the community is organized into such a taxonomy. Any content item in the community is classified to (associated with) one or more topics (nodes) in the taxonomy.
So, if you post a discussion to the community, you’ll want to let people know what that discussion is about so that it’s easier for them to find and understand. In a community about pets, you might post your comments about your favorite pet to “favorite pet” and “dogs”, because (go figure) your favorite pet is a dog. You get the idea. Same would be true if you wrote an article, or created a blog entry, or whatever. The better the information is described by this kind of categorization, the easier it will be for others to interact with it. And that’s our goal.
So, we’ve identified the problem. Lots of information. We realize that the more stuff there is, the harder it is to sort through it and find the really good stuff. The same is true with people. The more people there are “in a room”, the harder it is to identify with whom you want to spend your time.
What we need is something that does this work for us. One solution would be to hire an army of editors (or moderators) to sift through content or “work the room” for us. Clearly, they could identify the good content and the best players in the game, right? Well … maybe … assuming that they are significantly credible and proficient in the concerns of the community to represent us. But how do you know that they will make good judgments, unless you’ve already got a mechanism in place to select them out of the crowd? Pretty significant catch-22, since that’s what you’re “hiring” them to do in the first place.
We’ve already talked about the phenomenon of social networking. As the Internet grows, it has begun more and more to resemble a giant democratic community. Sites are emerging every day that leverage the power of the democratic process to understand what is valuable — check out MySpace, Digg, Flickr, Del.icio.us and Topix, just to name a few. This is because those who use the net all over the world are feeling the pain that we’re describing — sifting through the noise to find the value.
I propose that we leverage this democratic process. Give the people the vote. Instead of trying to come up with an army of editors, let’s use the army of people already in the room. We don’t have to know them by name or have them on the payroll to glean a wealth of valuable information from observing their interactions. That’s where Intelligent Scoring and our engine come in.
Lots of efforts out there are counting number of views and downloads, lots are giving members of the community the opportunity to vote for what they like, but these are only a couple parts of a much larger picture. Think bigger. The idea is to observe the behavior of the community (to collect the vast amount of data that’s right in front of us, but that is easy to overlook), and to be smart about interpreting it (to pull from the data valuable conclusions that can be drawn about the members of and content in the community).
This solution requires automating the process. There aren’t enough editors in the world to sit around watching and interpreting interactions. Who could afford to pay for all that? Instead, let’s use the computer. That’s what we built it for, right? If you’re surfing your favorite online community, and behind the scenes there’s an engine observing your behavior — along with the behavior of everyone else in the community — then you have a powerful mechanism in play from which to draw conclusions. Couldn’t these conclusions be about which content is the most valuable or about which members are the most significant?
Our goal has been to create just such a mechanism — to do the hard work of causing the good content to rise to the top, and to identify the best members of the community. We call this mechanism the “Content Valuation Engine”, or CVE. It is the heart of the idea of Intelligent Scoring.
The first time you sent an email, did you envision what the Internet is becoming today? As more and more people got on-line, two things were just bound to happen (as they’ve been want to do all through history) …
- People wanted to express themselves, and
- People drew together into communities.
There was just no way around it, and now we’re seeing it happen. In the last couple years alone, dozens of sites have sprung up that are focused on these two things. Sites like MySpace, Technorati, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Topix and a host of others are all part of a recently-under-construction section of the information superhighway called “Social Networking”.
A social network, according to Wikipedia, is “a social structure made of nodes which are generally individuals or organizations. It indicates the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds. The term was first coined in 1954 by J. A. Barnes.” Great technical definition, but let’s unpack that a bit…
MySpace is a pure social networking site. I want to express myself and connect to others, so I “create a MySpace” (how long will it be before that makes it into Webster?). I link to those I like, and those who like me link to me. In a short amount of time, the “structure of nodes” Barnes was talking about is quickly and easily created.
But isn’t a link you put on your site simply a vote for the site you’re linking to? Is it any less a social network if you post your votes on a social bookmarking site like Del.icio.us? When everyone else can see your votes and use them to create a network of sites / content that interests them, that’s social networking as well. Another step further… If everyone tags content on sites like Google Video or Flickr, we’re also creating a social networking, because the rest of the world can use those tags to connect sites and create a web (network) of stuff that interests them. Each of these “Web 2.0” tools — though different mechanisms — accomplish similar purposes … to give the masses the power to express themselves in community … to surround themselves with and share with others their network of content.
This is the Internet of the (at least near-term) future. Everyone’s voice weighing in to help you decide which content you want to check out. Even blogging fits into this category, if you think about it. First, we learned to create static pages. Now, as the 21st century really gets underway, for the second time, the self-describing power of the Internet — where the users of the system create the system — is really being taken out for a spin.