just hit search

For years I have heard anecdotal stories of how users are increasingly unaware of the URL itself (and certainly the term,  ‘web address’ is sometimes better).  I recall having a conversation at a university meeting (non-computing) and it soon became obvious that  the term ‘browser’ was also not one they were familiar with even though they of course used it daily.  I guess like the mechanics of the car engine, the mechanics of the web are invisible.

I came across the Google Zeitgeist 2008 page that analyses the popular and the rising search terms of 2008.  The rising ones reveal things in the media “sarah palin” way in there above “obama” in the global stats.  … if Google searches were votes!  However, the ‘most popular’ searches reveal longer term habits.  For the UK the 10 most popular searches are:

  1. facebook
  2. bbc
  3. youtube
  4. ebay
  5. games
  6. news
  7. hotmail
  8. bebo
  9. yahoo
  10. jobs

Some of these terms ‘games’, ‘news’, and ‘jobs’ (no Steve, not you) are generic categories … and suggests that people approach these from the search box, not a portal.  However, of these top 10, seven of them are simply domain names of popular sites.  Instead of typing this into the address bar (which certainly on Firefox autocompletes if I type any I’ve visited before), many users just Google it (and I’m sure the same is true for LiveSearch and others).

I was told some years ago that AOL browsers swapped the relative sizes (and locations I think) of the built-in search box and address bar on the assumption that their users rarelt tyoed in URLs (although I knew of AOL users who accidentally typed URLs into the search box).  Also recalling the company that used to sell net keywords that were used by Netscape (and possibly others) if you entered terms rather than a URL into the adders bar.

… of course if I try that now … FireFox  redirects me through Google “I feel lucky” … of course

Incidentally I came to this as I was trailing back the source of the, now shown to be incorrect, Sunday Times news story that said two Google seaches used the same electricity as boiling an electric kettle.  This got challenged in a TechCrunch blog, refuted by Google, and was effectively (but not explcitly) retracted in subsequent Times online item.  The source turns out to be a junior Harvard physicist, Alex Wissner-Gross, whose own source was a blog by Rolf Kersten, one of the Sun Green Team (Sun the computer manufacturer not Sun the newspaper!), so actually not an unreasonable basis.

In fact Rolf Kersten’s estimate, which was prepared for a talk in 2007, seemed to be based on sensible calculations, although he has recently posted a blog saying the figure was out by a factor of 35 … yes it actually takes 70 Google searches to boil that kettle.  Looking deeper the cause of the discrepancy appears to be the figure he used for the number of Google searches per day.  He took 2005 data about the size of the Google server farm and used a figure of 40 million searches per day.  Although Google did not publish their full workings in their response, it is clearly this figure of 40 million hits that was way too low for 2005 as a Feb 2001 Google press release quoted 60 million searches per day in 2000.  Actually with a moment’s reflection it is clear that 40 million hits per day (500 per second) would hardly have justified a major server farm and the figure is clearly in the billions.  However, it is surprisingly difficult to find the true figure and if you Google “google searches per day” you simply find lots of people asking the same question.  In fact, it was through looking for further Google press releases to find a more up-to-date figure that got me to the Zeitgeist page!

A Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day blog nicely lays out the timeline of this story and sees it as a triumph of the power of media consumers to challenge the authority of the press due to what Jay Rosen refers to as  ‘audience atomization‘.   Fitzgerald also sees the paradox that the story itself was sourced from the somewhat broken sources on the internet; in the past the press would have perhaps used more authoritative sources … and as I noted couple of years ago at a Memories for Life panel at the British Library, the move from BBC to YouTube could be read as mass democratisation … or simply signal the end of history.

There is another lesson though, one that I picked up in a blog “keeping track of history” not long after the Memories for Life meeting, just how hard it is to find pretty straightforward information on the web.  At that point I was after Tony Blair’s statement about the execution of Saddam Husssein, in this case trying to find out the number of Google search hits.  Neither are secret, propriety or obscure, but both difficult to track down.

… but we still trust that single hit of a search button

web of data practioner’s days

I am at the Web of Data Practitioners Days (WOD-PD 2008) in Vienna.  Mixture of talks and guided hands-on sessions.  I presented first half of session on “Using the Web of Data” this morning with focus (surprise) on the end user. Learnt loads about some of the applications out there – in fact Richard Cyganiak .  Interesting talk from a guy at the BBC about the way they are using RDF to link the currently disconnected parts of their web and also archives.  Jana Herwig from Semantic Web Company has been live blogging the event.

Being here has made me think about the different elements of SemWeb technology and how they individually contribute to the ‘vision’ of Linked Data.  The aim is to be able to link different data sources together.  For this having some form of shared/public vocabulary or ‘data definitions’ is essential as is some relatively uniform way of accessing data.  However, the implementation using RDF or use of SPARQL etc. seems to be secondary and useful for some data, but not other forms of data where tabular data may be more appropriate.  Linking these different representations  together seems far more important than specific internal representations.  So wondering whether there is a route to linked data that allows a more flexible interaction with existing data and applications as well as ‘sucking’ in this data into the SemWeb.  Can the vocabularies generated for SemWeb be used as meta information for other forms of information and can  query/access protocols be designed that leverage this, but include broader range of data types.

material culture – textiles and technology

A couple of weeks ago I was at a ‘Long Table’ discussion on Technology and Democracy at [ space ] in Hackney. The ‘Long Table’ format was led by Lois Weaver (I now note the name although didn’t at the time) and took the form of a simulated dinner art where the participants chatted about the topic. We were invited to write on the table cloth as we posed questions or espoused viewpoints – this later became part of the Not Quite Yet exhibition opening the next day.

Because of the table cloth sitting in front of me I was reminded of the role textiles have played both as significant technology themselves and in the development of technological society. It was the spinning jenny and the cotton mills that created the industrial revolution and it was needle manufacturing that was the inspirations for Adam Smith‘s division of labour. In the context of the discussion of ‘democracy and technology this is particularly poignant. Before the factories spinning and weaving were skilled cottage industries described so well in Silas Marner [G|A] and the importance of the textile factory was as more about exerting control over production than about efficiency of production.

The Object of Labout - cover imageToday a book arrived from The Book Depository for Fiona “The Object of Labour: Art, Cloth and Cultural Production”. It is a majestic tome and I’m looking forward into dipping into it sometime. It says it explores the “personal, political, social, and economic meaning of work through the lens of art and textile production”. Interesting its 408 pages are covered in words and the etymology of ‘text’ itself from Latin texere to weave 🙂

Somehow whilst my mind wandered over this I came to ponder the term material culture (maybe because have recently been re-reading Malfouris “The cognitive basis of material engagement” and Mike Wheeler’s response to it “Minds, Things, and Materiality“). The word ‘material’ has many meanings ‘raw materials’ for industry, ‘material evidence’ in law … but if you say the word to a person in the street ‘material’ means simply cloth. So interesting that cloth has played such a strong part in material culture and is ‘material’ itself.

This led me to wonder about the words (like text and textile) when the special meaning of material as cloth arose or even of they have different roots. Turning to the Shorter OED I looked up the definition of ‘material’. It is long, over half a column The etymology is again from Latin materia – matter – and there are meanings related to that (as in material culture), the legal and philosophical meanings, the sense of documents or sources used for writing, indeed the implements of writing ‘writing materials’ … but nowhere material as simply cloth, not even in the addenda of recent words.

The most common meaning of material, the most mundane, the one that sits next to my skin as I write – forgotten, written out of the dictionary, as the hand-loom weavers were written out of industrial production.