Miércoles 6 de Julio de 2005, Ip nº 116

Web content by and for the masses
Por John Markoff

When Caterina Fake arrives at the end of a plane flight, she snaps a photo of the baggage carousel with her camera phone to assure her mother, who views the photo on a Web page minutes later, that she has traveled safely.

And if every picture tells a story, that may be only the start. At Flickr, the popular Web photo-sharing service where Ms. Fake, a co-founder, posted the photo, it can be tagged with geographic coordinates for use in a photographic map, or become part of a communal database of images that can be searched for certain colors or characteristics.

Flickr, acquired this year by Yahoo, is just one example of a rapidly growing array of Web services all seeking to exploit the Internet's power to bring people together.

From photo- and calendar-sharing services to "citizen journalist" sites and annotated satellite images, the Internet is morphing yet again. A remarkable array of software systems makes it simple to share anything instantly, and sometimes enhance it along the way.

Inexpensive to create and worldwide in reach, the new Internet services are having an impact far beyond the file sharing at issue in the Supreme Court's decision on Monday, which focused on copyright violations using peer-to-peer software.

Indeed, the abundance of user-generated content - which includes online games, desktop video and citizen journalism sites - is reshaping the debate over file sharing. Many Internet industry executives think it poses a new kind of threat to Hollywood, the recording industry and other purveyors of proprietary content: not piracy of their work, but a compelling alternative.

The new services offer a bottom-up creative process that is shifting the flow of information away from a one-way broadcast or publishing model, giving rise to a wave of new business ventures and touching off a scramble by media and technology companies to respond.

"Sharing will be everywhere," said Jeff Weiner, a Yahoo senior vice president in charge of the company's search services. "It's the next chapter of the World Wide Web."

In its race to catch up with the search-engine leader Google, Yahoo is turning to just such a shared resource: the wisdom of friends and business associates. On Tuesday, Yahoo introduced My Web 2.0, a new version of the company's search engine that will harness the collective power of small groups of Web surfers to improve the quality of search results.

The service, which the company's executives refer to as a "social search engine," is based on a new page-ranking technology that Yahoo has named MyRank. Rather than relying on which pages are linked to most frequently on the Web - the so-called Page Rank technology pioneered by Google - MyRank organizes pages based on how closely search users are related to one another in their social network and on their reputation for turning up helpful information.

My Web 2.0 allows Web pages found useful by one member of a group to be instantly accessible to a network of trusted associates and to their network contacts as well. The service, Yahoo executives hope, will combat the growing problem of search-engine manipulation by using a collection of human eyes and minds to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Yahoo is not alone in looking for ways to take advantage of digital content created at the grass roots. This month, Microsoft said it would add a content-subscription feature known as R.S.S., or Really Simple Syndication, to its software in an effort to take advantage of the explosion of user-created material. Apple Computer began offering a similar feature in the newest version of its Macintosh operating systems earlier this year.

"We are now entering the participation age," Jonathan I. Schwartz, the president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems, said on Monday at an industry conference in San Francisco. "The really interesting thing about the network today is that individuals are starting to participate. The endpoints are starting to inform the center."

And the announcements keep coming. On Tuesday, Google said it would make available a free version of its Google Earth software program that permits users to view high-resolution digital imagery of the entire planet. A feature of the service will be the ability of user communities to annotate digital images to make them more useful.

Other early examples include a user-created map of London overlayed on a schematic of the city's subway system, and a link between Google Maps and the apartment rental and real estate listings of Craigslist, making it easy to visualize where rentals are in neighborhoods or entire cities.

"It's beyond what is possible with individual effort, but once it's there, millions of people will have a tremendous impact," said John Hanke, the general manager of Google's satellite imaging group. "We have built this common ground that other people can leverage."

Many Internet developers think that the Internet's new phase will shift power away from old-line media and software companies while rapidly bringing about an age of computerized "augmentation" by blending the skills of tens of thousands of individuals.

"The giant brain is us," said Peter Hirshberg, a former Apple Computer executive who recently joined Technorati, a service based in San Francisco that indexes more than 11 million Web logs. His reference is to the 1960's fear that computers would emerge as omniscient artificial intelligences that would control society. Instead, he said, the Internet is now making it possible to exploit collective intellectual power of Internet users efficiently and instantly.

While Hollywood studios have generally scoffed at competition from amateurs, the most striking example of user-generated content may come from Spore, an online game being developed by Will Wright, the developer of the Sims series of video games.

Spore, scheduled for release next year, will incorporate a variety of software tools that let users "evolve" a civilization. Rather than a massively multiplayer game, the current fashion in online role playing, it will be a "massively single player" game.

Although they will all be connected by the Internet, game players will not interact with one another, but rather with the civilizations that other players have evolved. The entertainment value will be in exploring civilizations created by other players and interacting with characters controlled by artificial-intelligence software.

Spore is intended to appeal to young game players who have no interest in being entertained passively. "We have a whole generation of kids who feel entitled to be game designers," Mr. Wright said.

To be sure, such open collaborative projects can fall victim to antisocial behavior. Last week, for example, obscene postings prompted The Los Angeles Times to curtail an experiment in collective editorial writing using a software system called a Wiki, an Internet server program that permits users to collaborate in the creation of Web pages.

But the Yahoo My Web designers think they have found a way around that hazard with a system in which individuals invite their friends and business colleagues to join them - an approach that will create overlapping search communities based on mutual trust.

The Yahoo My Web software makes it possible for users to categorize or "tag" Web pages they have found, as well as annotate them. Tagging makes it possible for groups of independently acting computer users to create improvised classification systems.

The My Yahoo system makes it possible to use tags to find categories of information as well as experts on particular subjects. The system has a feature making it possible to see whether an associate who has found and saved a document is online and available to be contacted through Yahoo's instant-messaging system.

Yahoo is organizing the collections of tags on a central server, and they create what is being called a "folksonomy," to distinguish the classification system from a traditional taxonomy.

Similar tagging systems are being used by Web services like Flickr, the photo-sharing service purchased by Yahoo; Technorati, the Web log search engine; and del.icio.us, a service for categorizing Web pages. But Yahoo is the first major company to adopt the approach to harness group knowledge.

Technorati's founder, David L. Sifry, said the company had picked up 18 million tagged postings and more than 1.4 million unique tag names since January. He said a new set of standards would extend tagging into areas like reviews, calendar events and profiles of individuals.

The development of the tagging system typifies the bubbling up of Internet creativity. "There is a lot of innovation coming from the fringe," said Tim O'Reilly, the chief executive of O'Reilly Media, a publishing company based in Sebastopol, Calif.

Mr. O'Reilly, a pioneer of the commercial Internet in the 1990's, said he believed that new business models would soon emerge to match the technologies. "Certain types of proprietary content are being displaced by freely sharable content," he said. "Yet ultimately, this is a more complex situation, too. New ways of monetizing content are emerging." And Google, notably, has shown the business potential in software that harnesses online material.

For Ms. Fake of Flickr, however, the business model is still secondary. "We're creating a culture of generosity," she said.


  29/06/2005. The New York Times.