I'm almost finished reading John Battelle's "The Search", and I say that with a little bit of sadness. Part business history, part Internet text book, all told with an almost science-fiction like wonder, It has been one of those books which sets your mind spinning during every reading session, both with the ingenuity of the past development of "search" and the implications it has for our future. It has inspired ideas for many, many posts which I'm sure will become a series of sorts that I'll write about in more detail in the future, but one of the things I read towards the end of the book has really gotten me thinking, tonight. If you'll allow me a little metaphorical latitude, there's both a decent point (I hope) and an explanation of a small change to this blog at the end, however I'll heed caution by pointing out that, I'm sure, my thoughts on this subject are hardly original. I'm simply thinking about them for the first time.
The future of the Internet (or Web 2.0, which I am woefully unqualified to talk about. The whole subject feels like one of those that pulled out of the station a long time ago, and was accelerating down the tracks before I even realized it had arrived. That's not the metaphor, by the way) is much more interesting than it is now. Our relationship to the Internet is limited in structure. Removing things like email and instant messaging for a moment (though those are important to the future in their own right), our usage is basically comprised of entering a query into a search engine, getting results, and going there. It's based entirely on the existing data that someone has created, which was then subsequently indexed by a search engine's crawlers.
But there is another form of data that is being created in the process, and that is the history of the sites we visit, or our clickstream. After a period of time, the clickstream may begin to provide some interesting insights into our intentions (that is, what we desired when we set out on the search in the first place). If that information could be harnessed and then redirected to better serve the searcher in the first place, then the very process of searching could become a powerful tool in fleshing out our online identity (that is, the virtual manifestation which represents the various parts of our lives that interact with the Internet. In the case of search, it represents our intentions and what our minds thinks is the best route to get to where we intend to go). Search would become a very important part of our lives.
And search is important, but it isn't important without something to search for. Think of your computer. You write a paper on "Lincoln during the Civil War" for your English class and save it on your hard drive. You realize that during your family's trip to Antietam 2 years ago, back when you first got a digital camera, you took a few pictures of the battlefield which would go perfectly in the paper, but you aren't sure where you saved it. You pull up your computer's search engine, and enter the query "Antietam." The search engine scans your hard drive until it finds textual matches, and you find the pictures you need.
The search was important, but no where near as important as the actual information, in this case a digital photo. This original content had already been created and then organized within the confines of your computer. The information was there, you just used search to help you find it.
Now, if we imagine the entire Internet is like your computer's hard drive. It is merely a collection of content, of information that has been created by other people. Search becomes the method by which we attain the information we set out to find. The possibilities only get grander the more information we add into it, and as the amount of information collection grows to include the entirety of human knowledge (not such a far off idea, but I'll get into that into another post), search becomes the portal by which all humans, with an Internet connection, can access it.
Now, to the point. Battelle talks about the importance of the idea of tags, especially as they pertain to bloggers:
...to get more perfect search, we need to create a more intelligent Web. That means tagging the relatively dumb Web pages that make up most of the Web as we know it today with some kind of code that declares, in a machine-readable universal lingo, what they are, what they are capable of doing, and how they might change over time.
For a blogger, this presents both an interesting opportunity and, perhaps, a more grave duty to protect oneself. Back to the concept of online identity, now. If search represents our online indentity's intent, then a person's blog represents our opinions. That's important. Opinions are one of the few things that makes me uniquely "me." The control over how our opinion is represented online (aside from the creation of the "opinion content" in the first place), is something that should be taken seriously.
Here's where tags become important. As search grows, and the metadata (like clickstreams and tags) become more utilized in the search process, the connections that the metadata makes brings its subjects into focus. Again, Battelle remarks:
By letting anyone tag anything, the theory goes, ultimately a kind of fuzzy relevance for any given item will emerge.
In this case, the "item" is our blog. The tags bloggers create for their posts, when aggregated in the not-to-distant future of search, will create a representation of what our blogs "are." And, given that our blogs are really representations of ourselves, that is a critical image for us to control.
Of course, the applications go beyond protecting or projecting our virtual selves. I saw today that Collin is ruminating on what this means for the future of academics. Once you begin thinking about the possibilities, there really is very little part of our lives that is left untouched by this.
For this blog, it means a simple but important change. Categories are no longer going to be applied to this blog for the purposes of simply grouping similar posts together to function as a filter for the reader. They will now serve as tags, and for each post there will be multiple tags, each of which are more specific. For instance, the tags for this post will be "Search", "John Battelle", "Online Identity", "Web 2.0" and "Tags".
There is much more about the book that I intend to write in the very near future, but needless to say, this book has become, in addition to a fascinating read, a sort of guidebook for proper "existence" on the web.