Power of the New Digital Disorder

David Weinberger is an Internet Age philosopher. His latest book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books, May 2007), examines ways the Web is reforming our basic ideas about organizing and accessing information, concepts that have helped shape Western thought since the time of the ancient Greeks. Weinberger’s previous books include an early examination of Web culture, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, and (with co-authors Christopher Locke, Rick Levine and Doc Searls) the influential Cluetrain Manifesto. A Ph.D. in philosophy who has worked in academia, the tech industry and as a gagwriter for Woody Allen, Weinberger spoke with CIO Insight Senior Writer Edward Cone about the practical implications of this philosophical twist.

CIO Insight: How does the organization of digital information differ from the organization of other information?
David Weinberger: There can be only one way of organizing a physical store; that’s the way atoms work. Digitally, not only can there be as many ways as we can imagine of organizing, but the organization doesn’t have to actually move any of the objects, which means the owners of the stuff no longer have to own the organization of that stuff. You don’t have to move the objects; customers can just point to them, like they do with playlists. You can organize by musician, events in your life the music narrates, year produced. The shift is not just in multiple ways of organizing, but that anyone can do it.

Why is that a good thing from a business point of view?
Weinberger: Letting users organize information makes the information more usable and more valuable. Traditionally you figure out a way of clustering products online or in a catalog, based upon the season or price or how they are used, and that helps customers find what they need, and to see other things they might want in the cluster. That mirrors the way we organize things in the physical world. We can still do that, but also enable our users to decide what matters to them, and to pull together clusters around that. That makes a site far more usable, much more directly relevant to their interests and their needs and their way of thinking.
An example: Amazon has a standard set of categories for organizing books, very similar to the Dewey Decimal system, a treelike structure of information. Yet it’s all the way at the bottom of the page and hardly anybody uses it. Instead, Amazon organizes in ways you’d never organize a [bricks-and-mortar] bookstore, but that may be useful to some readers. One of the most important [ways to organize] is clustering books by the purchase patterns of other readers. They also do a linguistic analysis of each book to find statistically improbable phrases that are distinctive to the book, and let you click on the phrases to find books that use them. Someone’s going to buy one of the books that’s linked that way. Amazon also lets users create their own lists and publish them on Amazon pages, so on the page for Little House on the Prairie books there may be a list of 19th century recipe books–that’s an usual cut through the material, created by a customer around a topic he or she found interesting. You can also tag or categorize books as you want.

And that can increase sales?
Weinberger: There is tremendous practical business value in enabling users to bring to the surface their ways of organizing your stuff. Maybe some small group of people who would have never found your stuff, who wouldn’t have known it belongs in this or that category unless somebody else had done it, will find it. It’s a Long Tail thing: Businesses are good at figuring out the most valuable categories for the majorities of their users, but there’s money left on the table because some number of potential customers–possibly a very large number–would come to your site and buy your product if they knew that this thing you’ve categorized one way is to them an example of something else. You want to enable customers to sort and organize things in the way they think about them, and to allow them to do it for one another. It’s a social activity, not just individuals acting alone.

Are these hard changes for businesses to make?
Weinberger: The technology is really simple. The hard part is the bigger shift this entails. We are very used to the notion that the owner of an organization owns the organization of that stuff. If you own a store and customers rearrange the stock, you throw the customers out, even if they rearrange it in a way that makes complete sense to them and may make sense to their friends.

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