James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

You Are What You . . . Read (but You’re Still Living in a Silo!)

by James G. Beldock on February 24, 2008

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.

Community Creativity
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).

But Silos—Still
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:

Visual Bookshelf on Facebook

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!

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Adam February 25, 2008 at 8:25 am

Hello James, Adam L here from Hungry Machine Inc, the developers of the Visual Bookshelf. I just wanted to thank you not only using the application but also encouraging others to do so as well.

As you mentioned, there are data portability challenges that are challenging for social networks and application developers alike. That being said, we are currently working to meet this challenge. Maintaining two data bases is exactly the type of inefficiency we hope to eliminate for all of our users.

Happy reading,
Adam L
Hungry Machine Inc

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