Geeks with big ideas

AUSTIN, Texas – Once a year the country’s top techies escape cyberspace to engage in real-life – albeit often socially awkward – conversations. In the days before the notoriously wild South by Southwest booze and music fest began, people in Austin congregated around power outlets rather than concert stages, discussing the future of interactive media, particularly the World Wide Web.

The 13th SXSW interactive doused participants in a dizzying array of tech jargon, hardware-induced goosebumps and words ending in “” Certain buzzwords echoed loudly throughout the crowds.

“This is the year of Web 2.0,” proclaimed author, journalist, blogger and “visionary-in-residence” Bruce Sterling in his concluding keynote speech.

Never heard of Web 2.0?

To Sterling, that wouldn’t come as such a surprise, after he so eloquently surmised that we’re “drinking our own bath water” up here in Washington. However he and others concluded that the recent explosion of blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS feeds and user-selected keyword tags constitutes a renaissance in the tech world.

“This is the hottest innovative period on the Web since the invention of the browser,” Sterling said, describing how more companies are opening their application programming interfaces.

Open APIs allow people to engage in what SXSW panelists often call the “remix culture,” whereby individuals can modify and build on existing technologies according to their new ideas and user preferences. For example, Sony at first closed PlayStation 2 APIs in order to restrict people from writing PS2 games, but then reversed this position with PlayStation 3, making all APIs open and publicly available. The game console essentially operates as a platform where anyone can develop new games.

Similarly, most computer operating systems (Microsoft Windows, MAC OS X, etc.) keep their APIs open to encourage people to develop desirable software that is compatible with their operating systems.

Google is often cited as the trailblazer of Web 2.0 because all its sites have open API. This explains why so many Web sites are able to add Google innovations – such as its search engines or Google Maps – to enhance their own site.

Through the use of open-API Web standards, new Web design techniques and Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the Internet is becoming a series of read-write platforms rather than read-only Web sites, Sterling said. This is Web 2.0.

The general public seems to best grasp Web 2.0 through examples. Web sites such as Flikr and, as well as wiki software, blogs and podcasts, clearly illustrate Web 2.0 principles – such as common-based peer production and tagging.

Flikr, an online photo-sharing site, allows users to publicly post photos with freely assigned keyword tags, and search other users’ photos according to the tags they have created. What Flikr does for photos, does for Web sites. It allows users to publicly bookmark any page according to one or many tags. They can then search the site through other users’ freely assigned Web tags.

In his “Tagging 2.0” panel, University of Texas-Austin professor Don Turnbull explained that tags are a new way to re-find information and create order in online chaos.

“Tags means what the popular consensus says they mean,” Turnbull said, explaining that they are less about dictionary definitions than they are defined by their use.

Tags allow people to quickly categorize Web content, and then aggregate and rank data about what’s useful and popular among a community. However, they are not without technical glitches. Spelling errors, synonyms, homographs and unusual, highly “personalized” tagging systems complicate interoperability, individual searching and tag aggregation. However, most social book marking sites are developing algorithms to cluster and rank troublesome keywords.

Panelist Thomas Vander Wal has gained notoriety for coining the similarly buzzworthy term “folksonomy,” which combines the concept of “folks” and “taxonomy,” to describe the point at which words become useful to groups. He said that instead of relying on top-down dictionaries, non-hierarchical Internet communities should organize information through bottom-up tags.

Today, most Flikr and members tend to be a more tech-savvy bunch. However, several panelists said that the simplicity of tagging technology means that it could easily be adopted by the public at large for any type of content – sports, dating, music, pets. Use of the words tag, tagging and even “tagginess” increased with each passing day of the SXSW interactive conference, eventually used to describe any idea that was defined and shaped by public use.

“The wisdom of crowds” was another virally communicated SXSW interactive concept. Used by New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki as the title of his new book, it asserts that a group’s collective intelligence supersedes the intelligence of its smartest member. Examples of collective intelligence are illustrated in both the stock market and racetracks, where individuals essentially bet against the larger population’s predictions.

In his SXSW presentation, Surowiecki explained that groups can essentially combine everyone’s individual knowledge if members act independently and are randomly selected from diverse backgrounds. “Widening the perspective allows people to see gaps in ideological thinking,” he said. “The Internet is the perfect medium for harnessing collective intelligence because it casts such a wide net. It allows us to achieve ties randomly and promotes individual independence. People make judgments based on their own knowledge and intuition.”

Tagging 2.0 panelists explained that tags approximate “the wisdom of crowds” because they employ cognitive diversity, decentralization and independence.

Sterling noted the growing gap between policymakers and “nerd-vana,” saying that Web geeks like himself are “fatally easy to push around” because they “ignore reality for months on end.”

“We’re on a kind of slider bar between the unthinkable and the unimaginable now, between the grim, meat-hook future and the bright green future,” he said. “There are actual ways to move the slider bar from one side to the other, except that we haven’t invented the words for them yet.”

Sterling said that in the end it all depends on how smart people adopt new technologies at street level. “That’s where the real story lies.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.