Archives for Information

Information Doesn't Want to be Free

12 January 2008

In a recent blog post, Michael Arrington claims that the lack of a marginal cost for a digital copy of a song implies that the cost of music will inevitably fall to nothing. (He has a longer discussion here.) This flies in the face of our years of experience with software, which can also be copied without marginal cost but has not become free. Not only has software produced one of the world's largest companies, but there are countless people who pay the $25 or so for the programs that keep many independent software companies in business. Apple has sold over 3 billion songs on iTunes - and these are mostly DRM'ed copies of tracks that their purchasers were presumably capable of finding free and unrestricted on peer-to-peer networks. We don't just value things because they are expensive to reproduce, and we won't stop buying them just because the medium of the distribution has changed. Besides, when you can pay $4 for a coffee, $1 / song can feel like almost nothing.

Exploring personal digital archives for non-functional purposes.

26 February 2006

Some thoughts as I get ready for a two-week Applied Dream workshop entitled “Social Agents for Change” but with a brief vague enough to allow for exploration.

A home admits an infinity of constructions and decorations. Even if most people never design or build their own, by picking a place to live we express our taste in size, materials, location, layout. After moving in, we repurpose rooms, buy new furniture, paint the walls, arrange our belongings. And further, we decorate (consciously or in the course of daily life) - hang pictures, plant flowers, pile mail on a table, stack dishes in the sink, arrange books on shelves, scatter makeup in the bathroom. These activities serve functional, aesthetic, and emotional purposes: reminding us to pay the bills, brightening a room, reminding us of a distant friend. We require of a home both freedom and habit: we would prefer neither walls which we may not paint nor ones whose color we needed to choose each day. The richness of our homes results from our influence over their every characteristics and their accumulation of the traces of our activities. This richness is missing from our digital dwellings (by which I mean file systems, application windows, blogs, and mobile phones as well as the virtual locations in online worlds that more closely mimic physical homes).

Already, software logs many of our actions: the web pages we visit, the chats we have, the people we email. Programs provide functional interfaces to this data with services like auto-completion of URLs, full-text searches of old conversations, automatic indexing of email contacts. The emotional and aesthetic implications of these logs, however, are only beginning to be explored. Flickr displays the number of times a photograph has been viewed, giving a precise but ambiguous indication of the quality of a photo or the popularity of the photographer. iTunes remembers how many times we’ve listened to each song, but not where we were or what we were doing. Anything done on the computer can potentially be recorded, correlated with everything else on the local machine and all public data on the Internet, and stored forever. The limitlessness overwhelms and numbs. We need focus and inspiration, easy actions with rich futures: a Polaroid pinned for 20 years to the same window frame.

(but this is just one aspect… what about the fact that we can instantly make something globally available, we can view the results of our actions immediately, that something can be given without being given up… what does it mean to live digitally? we do it, we’d better design for it)

Using instant messenging social networks software to identify a person who can answer questions on a topic

How Gmail changes your email usage patterns (and saves lots of needless effort)

Suggestions for New Kinja Features

03 July 2004

Kinja is a weblog portal that displays your subscriptions in a single, reverse-chronological, easily scannable list. I use it constantly, and just them this list of suggestions (update: response received on 2004 June 12).

Thanks so much for taking the time to send some excellent suggestions and comments. I apologize for the delayed response. My comments are in-line.

I love Kinja; it's spared me countless hours of flipping between webpages and kept me from missing a great many posts to sites I wouldn't otherwise read. I've made Kinja my homepage on my browser at home (and maybe at work soon, too). That said, I have a long list of suggestions.

As a computer programmer and blogger, I made not be Kinja's target audience. I do, however, appreciate your site for the same qualities that appeal to a non-technical user: its clean interface and ease-of-use. So I trust that my suggestions are relevant. Here's the list.

Thank you. Even if I weren't developing Kinja, I'd be using it hourly.

RSS Feeds for Digests

This one seems like a no-brainer. Wouldn't it be great if I could subscribe to someone else's feed, rather than tracking down every one of their favorites? I could even read my own digest in another reader, though I doubt I'll find one with a better interface than Kinja.

We have this capability, but we're hoping to use advertising to support the ongoing cost of maintaining and developing Kinja. At the moment, we just can't afford to provide free digest syndication with no potential Kinja page-views. (I know we could syndicate links back to the Kinja post-excerpt instead of the original permalink, but what would be the point? All the "teaser" information is available in the feed, and a link back to Kinja would provide no additional information. Clearly the link needs to be to the original post.)

Multiple Digests per User

I know I can just create multiple accounts, but it's not as convenient. And I'd need multiple digests to support my next idea.

This is a feature that is often requested, and we have the infrastructure to support it; however, we haven't had the time or resources to rework the interface.


A way to add individual posts to a digest. It would make it very easy to edit a custom feed, without the overhead of a blog (finding a host, choosing a layout, commenting). Combined with RSS feeds for digests, this would make Kinja a method for publishing content, not just consuming it.

This is an interesting idea, but not in the plan. Having spent quite a bit of time working to develop a weblog publishing tool (Blogger), I can tell you that it isn't a trivial undertaking.

Suggested Favorites, Digests, and Posts

Kinja makes it easy for me to read content on other sites. But sometimes I'd like to spend more time on your's. How about some ways to explore other feeds and digests? You might, for example, replace the "Your Favorites" listing -- what use are partial URLs of sites I already know about? -- with a list of suggested favorites based on my current subscriptions. A list of posts (related or not) could come from an algorithm or a human editor. And other digests could contain links to similar ones.

Were you listening in on our last development meeting?

A Page for Each Feed

Give each feed its own page. That'll make it easy to browse old posts, to see how well a feed imports into Kinja, and pick out posts to add to my clippings. Plus, it's a good spot for listing users who subscribe to the feed and for displaying other feeds that are related to it.

This would be helpful. We hope to support many "digest views" in the future.

Feed Directory

If this is really a weblog portal for the average web user, it needs to be easier to find digests to read. Hell, even guys writing their own Movable Type plugins wouldn't mind a good weblog directory.

I agree. We haven't done a good job with this, and hope to eventually provide a better digest directory.

More Prominent “Manage” Link

I miss the obvious "manage" link that used to appear right below the red "Your Digest". Now it's buried near or below the fold in a list of similar looking links. Please make it more prominent again.

We'll take a look at this when we revisit the UI design. The manage link was changed when we added the "your favorites" list.

Hide the Editor's Digests

I don't need to see your list of edited digests everytime I look at mine. If I wanted to read them, I would. I'd rather get an hand-picked selection of interesting posts or feeds.

Because we currently don't have another mechanism to "explore" weblogs, we thought browsing editor's digests would provide, at least some way, for users to find weblogs to add to their own digest (by clicking on the '+'). The display of the editor's digests on all pages may go away in the future (or users may have the option to hide them).

Management of Favorites

A few picky suggestions. There's an "Add a Favorite" box on nearly every page but the one to manage a digest. Why? Pending digests should appear above the current favorites so they're visible after subscribing to the feed. And now that the feed titles are more prominent than the URLs, why not use them to sort the list?

We'll keep this in mind when we revisit the manage-page design.

Choice of the Number of Posts per Page

I may read more feeds than most users, and this suggestions might put more stress on your servers, but I really want more stories on each page. It's tedious to click through the pages of older posts until I find spot where I left out last time I checked my digest.

As I mentioned earlier, we hope to make multiple "digest views" available.

More Feeds

There may not be much you can do about this, but I'd appreciate more feeds from mainstream publications. The New York Times recently released feeds for many of their sections, but their robots.txt file denies access to them to all but the YahooFeedSeeker. It's a frustrating limitation of Kinja (not shared by many other aggregators) that there are URLs which I can access myself but not subscribe to. What if you only fetched the content when I asked for my digest? Would that let you ignore the restrictions in robots.txt?

It was decided early on that Kinja would respect robots.txt. I've had content providers tell me that they appreciate Kinja's robots file support, and they feel that other aggregators sometimes abuse feeds. I don't understand why, say, Google's 'bot' should be subject to robots.txt (indexing content, storing a cached copy of the full content, etc.), but somehow a (hosted) weblog-aggregator's crawler shouldn't.

Other Content

I can understand why you didn't go with 37signals's three column layout, but the current design does leave a lot of blank space. I wouldn't mind filling it with a weather forecast, a Google search box, and a few bookmarks, and others might want sports scores. After all, Kinja's what I see when my browser launches. This could be a big project and perhaps too like a traditional portal, but it's worth considering.

I don't think "Kinja as a home-page" was one of the design considerations, but maybe it should have been! It's unlikely that we will add these portal-like features.

More Kinja News

Finally, more posting to the Kinja news blog (in the style of Oddblog) would mean I'd already know your plans and wouldn't need to send you a long list of ideas you've already had. A place for comments would be nice, too.

Also, I was planning to post this email to (at my blog). Do you mind if I share your response?

I don't mind. I hope they've been somewhat interesting.


Feedster: a search engine for RSS feeds.

Hierarchy of Information

15 May 2004

All information can be divided, from an individual's perspective, into four levels (in order of decreasing access and increasing size): cache, bookcase, archive, and universe. Every sort of information – names and addresses, books, documents (physical and electronic), web bookmarks, etc. – fits this scheme with minimal shoehorning. Unfortunately, software often neglects support for one of these categories, making it difficult for us to find or use information in the ways we are used to. Let's examine each of these levels in turn.

The cache is a collection of our most frequently accessed items of information, usually between five and a dozen items. These are the things we're using at any given time, and include such examples as the reports on our desk, the documents in our Windows toolbar, the programs on our desktop (or our quick launch shortcuts), the phone numbers in our speed dial, the books on our bedside table. We do not usually select these items consciously, but guide their accumulation in the course of our activity. Their usefulness is dimished when they must be chosen deliberately, thus preventing them from changing often enough to be relevant, or when they are selected automatically, and therefore only a listing of the last things we have touched, and not the ones we still need. The Windows 95 version of the start menu suffered from the first flaw, the my recent documents collection from the second. Whereas the surface of our desk accumulates the papers we're working with, but without retaining the newspaper we have read in the morning or bill we've paid and disposed of. Still, increasing amounts of software are designed with support for this level of information, and we seem to have acknowledged its importance.

The bookshelf holds things you might not need today, but want to be able to see at a glance and as a whole. Though organized, it is not hierarchally arranged and doesn't require explicit categorization. This is the level of information that computers support least. If something's not in your cache, you're forced to hunt through nested folders to find, a long and frustrating process. One place this level does appear is in the inboxes of many people's email programs. Every email appears in a single list, already organized by date and sender, without any effort by the user. Another example is the desktop of many computer users, littered with the programs and documents they use often or have just downloaded. Rather than viewing this as an abuse of the desktop, we need to recognize the need for this type of information view, and support it. Why, for example, such every Microsoft Word document bear the same icon, regardless of its size, content, or use? How can we add more visual coherence and information to the desktop? A third example of a bookshelf, better designed than the desktop, is Google news, with all the day's top stories arranged on one page, arranged in categories but viewable as a whole.

The archive is any collection of information controlled by a single entity. At this level of complexity, the information requires explicit organization and devoted activity. Formal search tools become useful. Examples include all the files (or just the documents) on your computer, the Library of Congress, or the entire website of the New York Times. Archives are the traditional computer model of information and the best supported. Computers don't, however, aid in the transition from a bookshelf to an archive, and anyone who's attempted the task knows that it involves hours of renaming files, creating folders, and entering metadata. If the computer understood bookshelves, it could formalize the implicit categorizations that underlie them and automatically generate an archive. This need not happen all at once. Items on a bookshelf that were often used together could be grouped, and the user could then name the group or add other items to it. Until the information became an archive, however, the groups would be displayed in a single page and not require the same hierachal navigation as an archive or a file system.

The universe is all information in an area, controlled by a variety of authorities, and accessed in diverse ways. This is what Google is so good at helping you search. But there's still a lot of information that goes unindexed. Search for the deep web or see this Salon article for more information. Also, note that today's software does little to integrate the information universe.

That was much more than I had intended to write. This post started as a single thought that required a few hours to record. Does it make sense? Are there any good examples that I missed? Any counterexamples? Anyone who's done real research or writing on this topic?