Who you gonna call?

A famous American newspaper has as its slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print”. Without examining exactly what that implies in the way of editorial criteria, is seems that a more appropriate motto would be, “All the news that fits in print”, since the paper-based distribution format of the paper can not possibly contain more than a fraction of all the news. As nice as paper is to read off, and as convenient as it is to have it delivered to your door in sync with your morning coffee, it is not the most suitable medium for completeness.

Consider the paper-based telephone catalogue, the size and scope of which is determined by the material it is printed on, the area of distribution intended, the relevance of information to users, various utilitarian considerations, and, not trivially, the business model of the publisher. Further, some (private) subscribers will not want to find themselves listed and other (commercial) subscribers might prefer that their competitors were not.

The digitalization of catalogue media transforms these constraints from being factors determining inclusion and exclusion, to factors determining effective selection through filtering. There is literally no technical hinder for an Internet based catalogue of all the world’s telephone subscribers with their telephone numbers, street addresses, email addresses, professed profession or whatever. And there is, technically, no need for the existence of more than one such catalogue service.

In such a catalogue, proximity relevance is maintained by proximity– relevant search criteria like: find me all the Pizzerias in Durban, or all the Marias on my block. Commercial exposure can still be made possible by paid advertising appearing in conjunction with search results.

Or what if you wished to buy a car? Perhaps you are thinking – well, maybe a used car, that is all I can afford at the moment, and you set out to find some likely prospects. You look in the newspapers and on the Internet and maybe shop around at car lots. But the more extensively you search, the effectiveness of that search diminishes, because only a decreasingly smaller portion of the potential cars that would suit your taste and budget will turn up as you access new sources, and you will begin to see duplicate listings as well. If all the cars for sale were listed at one source, then your task would be different. Rather than having to worry about finding enough potential cars to make an optimal choice from – you would have to worry about having too many good alternatives to bother to evaluate them all.

Why is this not the case then? Why are there so few complete directories? Is it because legacy business models built on outdated technologies are so firmly entrenched in the market? Yes, this is partly true, when the accumulation of data is costly it often leads to a few specialist firms slicing up the pie between themselves. Path dependencies play their part and wannabe competitors find that the thresholds to market entry are high. But there is more to it than that.

If there are things to buy or know about, then we can assume that somebody owns them or somebody knows about them. These owners and knowers normally have some way of representing their holdings. They create w3 or dW3 representations; descriptions, abstracts, catalogues, menus and so forth. Often these representations are created for use within an interpersonal or corporate contextual framework. Without knowledge of the framework and the taxonomies used, representations can be ambiguous or meaningless to outsiders – even in dW3 formats made available over the Internet.

Directory middlepeople, or infomediaries as they are sometimes called, map the taxonomies and contextual frameworks of holders and seekers. Sally wants a Culowop, Kim has an Undel. Depak the infomediary, knowing that a Culowop actually is the same thing as an Undel, helps Sally by mapping between the two terms. Sally, when looking for Culowops, is shown Kims Undel in Depak’s directory.

Or Depak creates his own term, for culowops and undels,, so that both Kim and Sally must learn to map their own taxonomies to Depak’s, in order to find each other. If this is the case, Depak will effectively isolate Kim and Sally from any eventual harmonisation of their taxonomies. Making himself indispensable to both.

At the same time Depak might offer other services to Kim and Sally. He might provide some degree of quality assurance to both buyers and sellers. He might personalize interactions, making recommendations based on his knowledge of particular field. He might offer an appealing solution to the complexity of flimsily structured markets and ambivalent information flows. But above all he offers entrance into a network, albeit a very primitive one, limited by the technology available.

Here is a story I heard at a conference: An attractive position at Charlotte and Bob’s firm had been advertised and 200 applications came in through the post. Bob took 180 of them off the top of the stack and threw them in the trash. Charlotte was shocked, “What in the hell are you doing?” Bob points to the trash and answers, “We don’t want to hire anybody who is that unlucky do we?

It’s a funny story, but it is possible that Bob and Charlotte just didn’t have the resources to thoroughly check out all those 200 CVs anyway, and that Bob’s action was not that irrational. After all, a great deal of selective choice is made quite arbitrarily. What Bob and Charlotte needed was more information working on its own. They needed a better filtering system to avoid making arbitrary choices.

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