Proving once and for all that the storm pounding the Bay Area this weekend with hurricane-force winds is not only dangerous for the risk of flooding and hurtling objects but for the free time it affords all of us who like spending part of our weekends outdoors, I set my mind to doing something creative and, well, frivolous (at least that’s how it started). My frequent readers (all three of you 🙂 will know that I’m something of a compulsive reader and book collector. I’ve taken to keeping track of my library using a combination of LibraryThing and Visual Bookshelf (more about why I use two in a little bit), and late last night I stumbled upon an interesting use for a collection of the images of the book covers in my library: building a photo mosaic. So, without further ado, here I am, in all my bibliophilic glory:
Yes, that’s a geeky thing to do. But it highlighted a few things about my changing “digital existence” that I thought were worth reporting:
So Much Data
First and foremost, all of this data (the books, the covers, and even the photo I turned into the mosaic) were available with a few minutes worth of work. Admittedly, I had previously spent hours scanning the ISBN bar codes on my books (conveniently when packing my books in order to move to my new apartment). But think about the amount of data available to me for very little investment: the titles, authors, and graphic images of 1,300 some-odd books, along with their associated meta-data (length, ISBN, etc.). When I was in school (ending in the mid ’90s), gathering and manipulating this sort of data was certainly possible, but doing so was the domain of database experts, programmers, and the like. So I became one of those, mostly because I saw the computer as a tool which would facilitate information manipulation of a nature never previously possible−or indeed imagined.
Trumbull College, My residential college at Yale, for example, had a library boasting some 5,000 works. Its card catalog was positively ancient and poorly maintained. Estimates for the workload involved in cataloging it and keeping it up-to-date were so substantial that the (volunteer) project never got off the ground. A mere fifteen years later, my catalog is not only mostly up-to-date, but it contains all manner of “rich content” that a card catalog could not muster: images of the covers, other books by the same author, publication history, and of course the meta-data: reviews, social/popularity information, and even feedstock for inference and recommendation engines.
Then there is the accessibility of the inspiration. LibraryThing cleverly suggested the mosaic and linked to David Louis Edelman‘s post in which he created a similar mosaic. Call it community scrapbooking, community arts and crafts, or simply community creativity, but this sort of cross-country “we all trade inspiration” is unusual, to say the least. To be sure, historically artist communes and even local arts and crafts fairs historically provided fodder and inspiration for our individual creativity, but this is a different kind of inspiration: it is both more instantaneous (I got the idea late last night; got a full night’s rest; and woke up and produced the mosaic before breakfast this morning) and more eclectic (David is a computer programmer and Science Fiction author in the Washington, DC area; I am a technology company CEO in Silicon Valley).
Unfortunately, it’s not all wine and roses. LibraryThing is the site I’ve always used to catalog my books, but recently Visual Bookshelf has won many converts, mostly because they have embraced the Facebook Platform API and have created a Facebook application. Since some 500 of my friends are on Facebook, and since many of them are avid readers, Visual Bookshelf has already netted me 40 some-odd “reading buddies” (which I define as other people I am friends with on Facebook and who have Visual Bookshelf profiles). An 8% cross-over rate isn’t bad, especially when you consider that Visual Bookshelf is only one of hundreds of Facebook applications. (And, for that matter, it’s one of the least annoying, since it doesn’t spam the hell out of your friends.) Here, for example, is my bookshelf, as displayed on Facebook, and what my friends are reading:
Unfortunately, I cannot synchronize my book activity on Visual Bookshelf with my LibraryThing account. Visual Bookshelf finally implemented a LibraryThing import feature, but it’s unidirectional. Likewise, Facebook makes it nearly impossible to export friend information (going so far as to display email addresses as images to foil screen scrapers and other brute force export tools). So I’m stuck maintaining two databases and importing one to the other, potentially over-writing or losing information each time I do so.
Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed this problem, and it is but one example of the growing “problem” of social networking data living in proprietary silos. Such well-known Web 2.0 commentators as Om Malik have even gone so far as to propose that social networking features will end up getting built into most desktop and web software, much the same way as the Cut/Copy/Paste mechanism has become a de facto paradigm standard. But that will only work if the core social networking information (who is who and who knows whom) does not remain the proprietary information of, e.g., Facebook. Technologies from the simple XFN to the ambitious OpenSocial are supposed to fix that, but OpenSocial appears almost to have been promulgated by Google to compete with Facebook, and it will be a chilly day in the netherworld before Facebook adopts it. More recently, the DataPortability Working Group has been graced by the participation of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and others (or at least representatives from those companies). But until something concrete develops, we early adopters will continue to enjoy the benefits of So Much Data and Community Creativity, but only if we’re willing to put up with duplicate data, lost data, and the other assorted horrors of manual synchronization.
All told, the information revolution continues in directions we never could have anticipated. Here I am trading notes with friends I haven’t physically seen in over a decade, enjoying better book recommendations from the wisdom of my friends (and the crowds) than I do by poking around my local bookstore, and finding a nice Sunday morning arts and crafts project inspired by a Washington, DC science fiction author whom I’ve never met.
Now if only I didn’t have to keep three copies of it all!