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The Search for Meaning Begins at Outside.in

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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007
While business analysts view search as a Goliath (Google) versus David (every other company) battle for wrapping advertising around people's need to find information, the local news portal, Outside.in, has quietly changed the nature of the game, and made local information matter. Outside.in may be the future of search.
Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir

Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir


It may seem like nothing at all that Outside.in —an aggregator of local information from blogs and news organisations—has added the ability to make a general “search within the site”, but in its own quiet way Outside.in may be altering what it means to search for information on the internet in a way that will eventually have everyone else scrambling to catch up with them.


Conventional wisdom has it that in “web years” we’re in the second, adolescent, phase. The first was the invention of the internet, the second was the ability to connect, the third—web 3.0 as it’s sometimes known—is referred to, by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners Lee , as the ‘semantic’ web. With web 3.0 we’ll move from the phenomenal amount of connections (a Google search for Tim Berners Lee turns up 1,840,000 entries) to results that are dense, specific and meaningful, the adult’s lifetime of knowledge and experience distilled into wisdom. But while companies define meaning as an index, and see it as revenue enhancing, Outside.in has defined meaning as value. Information means something because it has a context, it’s not just a series of answers pruned by a human (as you’ll find on Mahalo) it’s locally tested information from neighbours.


We are pleased to announce that the exciting technology known as “search” has come to outside.in. That’s right - as of today you can actually enter a word or phrase into a search box on the home page, and see the results immediately. Amazing, huh? We know that this might not strike some of you as groundbreaking, but what makes search at outside.in so useful is what you’re searching: we have over 500,000 pages of web content, all organized by city, neighborhood and topic. We have over 30,000 pages relating to the places in your cities and towns. We have maps for local blogs in your area, and stories and comments submitted by your neighbors. We have topic pages for every neighborhood and city that show you all the recent discussion of “music” or “politics” (and many other topics) in that area. And we get bigger every day. Almost all of that information is news and commentary coming from the people who actually live in these communities: local bloggers and outside.in neighbors and local media. So if you’re looking for information about that new real estate development that’s being built down the street, or gossip about the new principal at the local public school, or the latest update about a crime that happened in the neighborhood—you should think of outside.in as the first place to look.
From an e-mail to Outside.in “neighbours” from co-founder John Geraci


The conceptual leap that Outside.in has made is that “local” is a frame-of-mind. Joseph Campbell, just before he died in 1987, said that he believed the mythology for this new century would be something that encompassed everywhere in the world, at once. The photograph of the earth from the moon’s orbit, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, showed us a view outside of ourselves that went deeply inside as well, showing us that we are all connected, on one earth, bound together. The computer tools and commercial tracking and mapping devices that came to market spun off from the space research and missions made possible Google earth, whose maps are Outside.in’s “glue” holding all of the information together, geotagged and pinned to a map.



  


Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson


On his blog writer and co-founder Steven Johnson explained what Outside.in is and some of its principles when it launched last October:


The post’s location is more important than the blogger’s location. People have been creating maps of blogger locations for years now. (The NYC subway blogger map is one of our favorites.) But from our perspective, we’re less interested in the location of the blogger than we are the location of what the blogger is writing about. So in our system, each item (a blogger post, or a link submitted by a user) can be associated with its own specific point in space.


Neighborhoods are more important than maps. We love the neo-geo movement as much as anyone, and continue to marvel at the amazing work being done with Google map mash-ups. But maps can often overwhelm with too much specificity. Most of the time when you’re thinking about local issues, you don’t actually need specific geo-coordinates or street addresses. You just want to know roughly what’s happening around you. That’s why we’ve made the navigational unit for outside.in the neighborhood. And if the neighborhood is too specific, you can always zoom out on the navigational map and see a broader view.


Steven Johnson’s books have made philosophical sense of media innovations, linking them with developments in psychology and science. In an interview you might have read on Pop Matters in April this year he described his thinking process. In Everything Bad is Good For You he makes the argument that popular culture—television shows and computer games—are making us smarter because of the complexity within the actions we have to carry out, and the brain’s subconscious response to the activities. The content of the games might be often be mindless but they require, and create, more than just hand-to-eye co-ordination. He wrote a magazine feature [subscription required] for the New York Times in October last year about Sims creator Will Wright’s new game, “Spore”, which will allow players to build, and shepherd a world from its creation through the development of life and onto the emergence of civilisations. It’s a piece of journalism which fixes and defines a time, and is a valuable perspective. The article begins:


Most eras have distinct “ways of seeing” that end up defining the period in retrospect: the fixed perspective of Renaissance art, the scattered collages of Cubism, the rapid-fire cuts introduced by MTV and the channel-surfing of the 80’s. Our own defining view is what you might call the long zoom: the satellites tracking in on license-plate numbers in the spy movies; the Google maps in which a few clicks take you from a view of an entire region to the roof of your house; the opening shot in “Fight Club” that pulls out from Edward Norton’s synapses all the way to his quivering face as he stares into the muzzle of a revolver; the fractal geometry of chaos theory in which each new scale reveals endless complexity. And this is not just a way of seeing but also a way of thinking: moving conceptually from the scale of DNA to the scale of personality all the way up to social movements and politics — and back again.


It is, by any measure, a difficult way of thinking, in part because our brains did not evolve tools to perceive or intuitively understand the scales of microbes or galaxies. You can catch glimpses of the long zoom in special-effects sequences, but to understand the connections between those different scales, to understand our place in the universe of the very large and the very small, you have to take another way in. To date, books and documentaries have done the best job of making the long zoom meaningful to mass audiences, starting with Charles and Ray Eames’s proto-long-zoom “Powers of Ten” documentary of the 70’s, which took the viewer from the outer cosmos to the atoms spinning in the hand of a man lying by the lake in Chicago. But a decade or two from now, when we look back at this period, it is more likely that the work that will fix the long zoom in the popular imagination will be neither a movie nor a book nor anything associated with the cultural products that dominated the 20th century. It will be a computer game.


It might also turn out to be Outside.in. A few weeks after the magazine article was published Steven Johnson began a series of guest columns within the New York Times Subscription-only Select service, called “Urban Planet” in which he was thinking out loud about applying the “long zoom” to community news. The prevailing opinion at the time was that technology distances us from those who are close to us. Global Affairs columnist Thomas Friedman had just published an editorial in Times Select where he described being driven from the airport in Paris by a driver talking on a cell phone and watching a television screen on the dashboard as he drove while Friedman, in the back seat, tapped away on his computer while listening to his i-Pod, but Steven Johnson countered with the argument for new ways that might connect us, through a re-invigorated need for community news, things that matter to us, that are around us.


Connectivity – in most instances the specific form of connectivity offered by the Web – has also greatly enhanced and amplified the kinds of conversations that happen in real-world neighborhoods. “Placebloggers” are writing about the micro-news of shared communities: the new playground that’s just opened up, or the latest the city council election. The discussion forums at Chowhound are dissecting every change of menu in every hot restaurant in most American cities. Real estate blogs dish about last week’s open houses, and trade statistics debating the inevitability of the post-bubble dark ages. (Full disclosure: I have, as James Baker likes to say, a dog in this hunt, in form of a new Web site I helped create called outside.in, which tries to organize all those conversations.)


So the idea that the new technology is pushing us away from the people sharing our local spaces is only half true. To be sure, iPods and mobile phones give us fewer opportunities to start conversations with people of different perspectives. But the Web gives us more of those opportunities, and for the most part, I think it gives us better opportunities. What it doesn’t directly provide is face-to-face connection. So the question becomes: how important is face-to-face? I don’t have a full answer to that – clearly it’s important, and clearly we lose something in the transition to increasingly virtual interactions.


Outside.in hasn’t been tied to an advertising push, a need to immediately begin carving revenue out of the operation. On his blog in June Steven Johnson announced that Outside.in was starting to think about how to add advertising to the site, and what form this might take.


Obviously, the outside.in structure is optimized for hyperlocal advertising, so that’s one piece of the puzzle. But there are many others: potential relationships with traditional media companies; national advertisers who wish to target specific zip codes; local search; international markets and partnerships; classified listings, and so on.


The line between advertising and content can be thinly, dubiously and confusingly drawn. So Outside.in’s eventual embrace of advertising will have to embody trust, to draw some line between someone commenting on a place or service and shilling for that place or service. Trusting information gained in online searches was the topic of an essay that Steven Johnson wrote for Wired in June of 2003.


What happens when you start seeing the Web as a matrix of minds, not documents? Networks based on trust become an essential tool. You start evaluating the relevance of data based not on search query results but on personal testimonies. (“This page is useful because six minds I admire have found it useful.”) You can research ideas or breaking news by querying the 10 people whose opinions on the topic you most value - what Cory Doctorow calls an “outboard brain.” A tool recently created by Dave Sifry of the blog analysis site Technorati lets you take any URL and automatically generate a list of bloggers who have commented on it. Almost anything you stumble across can be filtered through the perspective of other bloggers. ...


Ever since the Web entered the popular consciousness, observers have noted that it puts information at your fingertips but tends to keep wisdom out of reach. In a space organized around connected minds, however, the search for wisdom becomes more promising. The Web remains a space of functionally infinite data, but that space is increasingly mapped by human minds, linked in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. If it’s wisdom you’re looking for, you couldn’t hope for a better guide.


Soffia Gisladottir is a photographer based in Iceland. She exhibits her photographs in galleries as well as doing photo shoots for magazines, and making music videos that she painstakingly compiles one perfect image at a time. This photograph is called “Centre of the Universe 2006”. “This is an annual postcard I make,” she writes. “This is the 5th time that I’ve done this.I arranged all the faces I found in the photos I took in 2006 around a photograph of me, in accordance with their relation and familiarity to myself. I am in the centre, my family around me, then friends and relatives, then people I know and finally people I know little or not at all.”



 


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