Skip to content.

Peter TorpeyMedia Experience Artist

Decentralization of Persona

Excerpt published by Peter Torpey on
22 January 2007

A number of recent thoughts chose to coalesce in my mind over coffee during my weekly spell at Barnes and Noble this past Friday evening. The product of this unexpected assembly of concepts was the germ of an idea for a research project that harkens back to some of my old thoughts on cognitive conceptual hierarchies. As part of this research, I considered using keyword metadata which has somehow acquired the moniker tagging, a word that I have seen cropping up all over the web in recent months.

Had someone said keyword metadata, I would have been confident in my understanding of the concept. Tagging had me off to Wikipedia to make sure I had a good grasp of what I might be dealing with. As I am wont to do when browsing Wikipedia (or Mathworld or any of my treasured subset of heavily-hyperlinked web resources), I quickly filled Firefox with thirty or so tabs of articles to read.

I knew there were handfuls of social networking sites and Web 2.0 (a web marketing term that annoys me) applications… but as many as Wikipedia revealed? I was stunned by all of these initiatives and sites trying to outdo each other with good intentions. Competition is a wonderful thing— capitalism, survival of the fittest, and all— but also quite confoundingly fickle, noting that sites like MySpace gain popularity over better implementations and feature-rich alternatives like Facebook. Skimming through lists of sites and applications (such as IM clients), there are definitely some little-known gems with truly impressive and innovative ideas that may never make it into the mainstream.

There's a tremendous potential for online interaction and collaboration and sociality and information sharing with sites and metadata and web applications. Where it falls apart is with unnecessary complexity. The products themselves are not necessarily overly-complex; it is the multiplicity of them. When web applications were younger, it seemed like the browser would be (ignoring metaphor issues) the new desktop. The web promised to unify all sorts of applications; the network as platform; the blending of the local and the remote. Why would one want their bookmarks at and their photos at Flickr and their blog at Blogger and their e-mail at Gmail and their videos at YouTube and their profile at Orkut? (Note that four of aforementioned services are in Google's hands; the other two belonging to Yahoo!.) It's the virtual equivalent of running around town. And there are dozens upon dozens of such sites to choose from for each application, yet they all behave in a similar way with related goals. To confuse matters further, each service provides a little bit of the functionality of the others, but not enough to become a sole choice for managing personal content. The Unix philosophy of do one thing and do it well would seem to apply, were it not for the weak overlap of functionality. They all have their role in terms of application, but appeal to the same users.

There has to be a simpler way. Call me a traditionalist, but I'm perfectly happy having my own website in one place where I can post and share and link to and combine and say whatever I please (as I try to avoid succumbing to the very decentralization of persona, to coin a phrase, that I am protesting). Though, for the less web-developer-inclined, a multitude of services can simplify tasks. Is it so different than having several applications for different tasks installed locally on a system? Yes, to me, it does feel different, though I'm not sure exactly why. Now, I do see that there is some interoperability among the services. Maybe as the dream of a semantic web takes hold and RDF and RSS and whatnot facilitate the use of such disparate services to create a single seamless user presence— when these services become true modular components rather than independent applications— things will feel more natural.

Perhaps my reluctance to be a full-fledged citizen in the social web who participates in some of these sites has been simply the result of overwhelm. There are too many blogs to read, too many people wanting (or not wanting) to be my friend, too many web services to distribute my content over, too many updates I feel obligated to make, too many wiled-away minutes, too many choices, too many links to follow. These sites and services are supposed to be helping us organize and streamline our management of media, our friends, our events, our communication, our sharing of information. Indeed, even in their current unwieldy state, they do manage it… in so much as an unmanageably large mass of content can be managed.