The Web as a Creative Tool

Radio Daze, by Ian Hayhurst – creative commons license from Flickr

This year, the World Wide Web celebrates its’ 20 anniversary. I’ve been thinking about what use we’ve made of this technology during this time, and the way in which I like to think about how we could help fulfill the potential of the Semantic Web. As ever, thanks go to several people and bloggers out there whose ideas have inspired me, and the conversations I’ve had with them in general. Again, this may be stating the obvious to some people, but I feel it’s important to try and draw the threads of the patterns I’m seeing together in the hope that it will help others make the leap to looking at the potential of the WWW in a completely new way.

Up until recently, the Web has mainly been used as an enabling technology. By this, I mean that it has allowed us to do things faster, easier, cheaper, wider and for longer than ever before. However, these things that we’ve been doing with the Internet are, in the main, very much things that we were doing before the Web hit the mainstream. If anything, we’ve concentrated mainly on transposing these traditional methods of communication and interaction onto a new platform – and a platform is exactly what we’ve been using the Web for. Essentially doing the same as we’ve been doing before, but “now with added web!” as it were. On the way, we’ve (possibly accidentally) created concepts that didn’t exist before – for instance the whole notion of websites, but overall it’s been a case of doing the traditional things, using the web – and the benefits listed above have come as a kind of side-effect.

The industry in which I attempt to make a living – television and radio – is doing the same thing. The on-demand products from all the major UK broadcasters offer the benefits I’ve mentioned, but when it comes down to it, they are still just replicating traditional platforms – it’s all about using your device as a substitute for your radio or your TV. Yes, we get the extra benefits of stuff being available for longer, and potential personalisation, but we still haven’t fully escaped the mindset of using the Web purely as a platform – as if it was just a new type of box for watching or listening. It can be, but it can also be so much more.

The other way in which we have tended to use the Web has been as a commercial tool. I mean this in two ways. Firstly, again, it’s a case of imitating existing processes on the Internet – hence the success of retailers, such as Amazon and Play. However, I think that the main use has been the way in which the Web has been seen as vital to a commercial strategy – not just in terms of selling goods directly through the Internet, but in a promotional sense as well. If you want to be successful now, you need a promotional presence on the Web. Again, however, what role is the Web playing in this, apart from the side effects? Very little. We’re still promoting and distributing things, it just happens to be a new platform for doing so.

I think it’s especially interesting to note the dichotomy between the way in which we’ve transposed old methods of ‘doing’ onto the Web, whilst creating new ‘things’ which are ‘of’ the Web. But the crux of the matter is that we’ve never really (in a mainstream sense) tried to properly transfer the traditional ‘things’ which make up our world onto the Web, and then set about creating new ways of interacting with these things via the Web.

So that’s what we’ve done up until now. But what of the future?

In the mid-1990s, when CD-ROMs and the Web were beginning to puncture mainstream consciousness, the buzz-word was ‘interactive’. Yet I think this has always been a mis-nomer. The way we’ve used the web so far in terms of the creative arts still conforms to a flat structure. People create things, whether they be songs, pictures, television/radio programmes, even blog posts, post them on the Web, and that’s it. The thing that has been created is effectively fixed, static. Other people can create their own works as a result of these things, but again, it’s almost as if they perform the act of creation ‘offline’, and then only when it comes to ‘publishing’ does the thing go ‘online’.

The Web, as I understand it, is essentially very simple. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s just dots and lines. The dots are the things we identify, and the lines are the links we make between them. So far, we’ve concentrated on using the dots to represent ‘pages’, and the ‘lines’ have been (mostly) simple navigational links, with little meaning invested within them. These dots and lines, though, could be used as a model for almost anything – they are, after all, the essence of communication, the construction of a narrative. What we should be doing, is using the Web in the same way we would write a book, or make a TV/radio programme.

By this, I mean that just as you pull together ideas, resources, things in the construction of a work, we would use the Web to do the same thing – except we’d be able to retain the links back to where the individual parts of the work came from, with less need for someone to do the hard work of analysis for us. For instance, knowing that a line in a TV show is a reference to a famous film from the 50s, knowing that an author is alluding to a Norse legend, knowing that a piece of music is sampling others, even knowing that a work of art was painted using oils or watercolours, or uses symbols which have distinct meanings – all this would be explicit and available to anyone, via the links – encouraging learning, truly ‘reading between the lines’, as it were. Indeed, then we could claim to use the word ‘interactive’ properly – because a work that is published by someone would no longer be a flat, finished structure – audiences would be able to explore it from all angles, trace links to other things, and, importantly, then create their own works by linking things together in a brand new way.

Of course, one of the main objections to the trend of making things available online is that we lose the context of things, the author loses the power. I think that I disagree here – that’s not a failing of the Web itself, it’s a failing of our limited use of it. If we were to use the Web in the way I’ve talked about, then authorship would be another valid link to make – and one that should always be traversable – credit would actually be easier to give, and would also hopefully, importantly begin to encourage a true breaking down of the walls between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ – we would, and should be, enabling the audience to create entirely new things, using our things – that’s still a valid thing to do, as long as the credit is given, and the links between what one person has originally made, and someone else has remixed, are made.

As I mentioned towards the beginning of this post, it’s almost as if so far, we’ve done things the wrong way round – we’ve been so busy creating the new platforms and enablers that we’ve failed to see the true potential of them – and that can only really be achieved once we start migrating not the processes and devices (e.g. the process of shopping, the ability to watch TV etc.) but the things we create for those processes, onto the Web. Dots can be more than webpages, lines can be more than navigational links. Create the things (from which we may create exciting new things we haven’t even thought of yet…), then refine the processes that help us find, share and experience them.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting. Not sure how the ‘semantic web’ would work in practice though.

    Perhaps within an organisation like the BBC you could have groups linking everything together. I guess this is possible if you throw enough license fee money at it. Whether it’s good value for money is another topic.

    Alternatively you have Wolfram Alpha and Google Squared to make unstructured data into meaninful information. This works with moderate success. The technology is half way there, but as you say the reason we are doing it is probably further behind.

    Whether human or computer led, there’s the problem of misinterpretation and multiple meanings of data though. Once you come out of the boundary of an organisation like the BBC (or Newscorp or Reuters or whatever), I don’t know how anyone could feasibly create the ‘lines’ to be anything more than navigational links. There’s just too much information out there and what possible interface could help as unravel it?

    Instead we’d have to record references as we created the content, which I think is what you’re getting at. Something like Google Wave – their new online collaboration tool – might leave the sort of data trail behind that you need to do something like this. But I think my imagination just can’t grasp it, the best I can think of is the ‘track changes’ function in Word.

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    1. “Not sure how the ’semantic web’ would work in practice though.”

      The good thing is, it’s already starting to work – and you’re right, it’s a case of lots of groups (not just in the Beeb, but all over) linking things together. I think the value for money is definitely there – the public value in having a more useful, more intelligent online resource for the BBC would be pretty much inescapable – just think how much iPlayer has changed the perception of the BBC, and it’s not even a quarter of the way of fulfilling the potential of the Semantic Web (yet…I’m sure there’s plenty of people working on this..)

      “Alternatively you have Wolfram Alpha and Google Squared to make unstructured data into meaninful information.”

      There’s been debates recently about how much things like Wolfram Alpha are really structuring data and contributing to the Semantic Web, or are (equally valid and useful) computational engines – I don’t really see a lot of linking and contextualising going on there, it’s more about mathematical conversion and facts (not that that’s a bad thing…

      “Whether human or computer led, there’s the problem of misinterpretation and multiple meanings of data though.”

      I’m probably being too simplistic, though I believe more people more into the RDF than me know ways of achieving this, but if you just take things as ‘dots and lines’, then you can identify an idea, and link it to yourself, to show that it’s your opinion of something – then link it to other peoples’ opinions of the same thing…

      But yes, the interface and amount of effort needed to do this is still key to it all, and solutions aren’t that mature just yet. Think the idea’s solid though, and certainly worth thinking about doing things a little differently on the web..

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  2. ‘Of course, one of the main objections to the trend of making things available online is that we lose the context of things, the author loses the power. I think that I disagree here – that’s not a failing of the Web itself, it’s a failing of our limited use of it. If we were to use the Web in the way I’ve talked about, then authorship would be another valid link to make – and one that should always be traversable – credit would actually be easier to give…’

    I’m inclined to agree. The mash-up, the crazy homage, the auto-tuned news… All examples of content being built upon and developed to create new content, which while in some cases may do the originator no favours at all(as indicated by Alex Krotoski in her recent Digital Revolution blog post about piracy, involving her head photoshopped onto porn), can also create a landrush to the original intellectual property that inspired the pastiche content. If the web becomes smarter (aka if WE become smarter) then layered, adapted, ‘broken’ content will be as much a measurable indicator of popularity, web presence… Could piracy become a KPI in the semantic web? Certainly along the lines of Matt Mason’s arguments re piracy

    I do also sympathise with Daniel’s comments regards the BBC’s opportunities to be semantic within its massive self and be pleased as punch about it, while it proves a far more difficult prospect outside the walled garden sites in a the wild wild web. BUT, Tim Berners-Lee got everyone thinking and linking 20 years ago, no reason he can’t make it happen again; I think it’s therefore incumbent upon large organisations and online structures like the BBC to lead by example – show it working.

    Dan

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    1. Thanks, Dan – I like the idea of piracy being a KPI – because yes, that’s (in some forms) exactly what it is – a measure of how interested people are in something, how ‘desperate’ they are to get their hands on it etc.

      I also agree that obviously it’s probably easier given the resources the BBC has to do the semantic stuff, but I’d also make it more explicit – we can show it working within our own domains, but also link out as well, in order to encourage others and draw them in – benefits both the audience and the Beeb.

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