Making The Connection

11 01 2010

Back in the Stone Age of technology (read: about 15-20 years ago), we knew that computers and database technologies would one day lead us into some sort of a promised land. We weren’t exactly quite sure how this would play out, and to be honest, we weren’t sure we would know it when we saw it. But we have indeed already tasted the milk and honey of this very cool place.

And at the risk of repeating myself for the sixth semester in a row, I must continue to wax poetic about the book Everything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger (2007). For it is in this epic tome that the notion of our seemingly random yet hyper-connected digital lives are explained in painstaking yet pitifully obvious detail.

You see, back in those days just after the earth cooled, we lived very linear one-dimensional lives. We were the living embodiment of the Dewey Decimal System (which Weinberger dismantles quite handily), with everything and everyone classified in a typology that was as limiting as a straight jacket. You were either this or that, but never both. Once you had an ID number, you were cast for life. And perish the thought that you might represent something not yet considered (or avoided at the time the typology was made, like certain world religions). It was tough sledding if you didn’t match an established identifying number.

The abstraction that Weinberger presents is that we exist on multiple planes (and always have, for that matter). It’s like recognizing there are many leaves on a tree, some on different branches, some at different heights, some on different sides. Yet these leaves could all theoretically be connected in a zillion different ways if you were to try to take a needle and thread to connect groups of ten or more.

Let me put this in simpler terms. I have been tinkering around with Facebook a lot lately, trying to unravel its Suggestion Engine. You know…that’s the “You Might Know…” suggestions you always get whenever you check your FB page. How in the heck does it seemingly put 2 and 2 together so well?

By studying the linkages already established by you and the folks with whom you are friends. Like all those leaves on that tree, I have a very multi-layered and contextualized life. I have friends from high school, college, grad school, Chicago, Indiana, bicycling buddies from all over the world, church friends, Texas friends, WT students and alums…and the list goes on. Some folks fit into more than one category, while most fit into only one.

But somehow FB finds a way to drill down through my existing friends, and their friends, and so forth, to try to help me find (and reconnect with) even more friends. Sometimes it misses, but many times it scores a direct hit.

Never mind all that six degrees of separation business.

A similar engine is at work over at Pandora, where their Music Genome Project allows users to create their own “stations” built around an artist or genre. Pandora proceeds to then push songs our way that it thinks we might like based on the characteristics of the chosen artist or genre, to which we can approve or disapprove. The result, after much personal tweaking, is a finely-crafted station that just rocks our socks off.

There is a much simpler way to describe what is going on here, and it is tags. Whereas Dewey only allowed us one tag for life (Biography, for example), the new way allows everything and everyone to have multiple tags. It’s how I organize my photos (e.g., Colorado, vacation, RMNP, 2009, family, etc.). I can then search on one or more tags to pull from multiple albums to create new collections of photos for a specific occasion. It would like if I wanted to create a slideshow for my daughters’ weddings some day, and I want to cull 100 shots from 25,000 images. Imagine how hard that would be without the ability to sort by tags.

So what does all of this mean in the broader context of marketing? There has to be some application, right? Of course there is! Amazon has been doing this for several years now with their suggestion engine, based on your past purchasing and browsing history, as well as that of others. It explains all those emails you get from them, and all those compelling audience-of-one welcome pages every time you login.

The point is this: While the world may have once seemed orderly in a linear kind of way, it now appears to be quite random and miscellaneous…until you look at it through the lens of connectivity. Whoever can match people and products will reap enormous profit. A quick Amazon search for Everything Is Miscellaneous netted me a few other related titles I did not know existed…and I plan to order them for my library.

I’m happy, and Amazon is even happier. That’s a promised land I like to call home.

Dr “Connecting The Dots” Gerlich

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