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Steven Berlin Johnson

posted by Joel Turnipseed   Nov 06, 2007

OK, Kottke faithful: this is it—the last of my interviews on The State We’re In. I know you’ve all come to know and love Jason’s short, link-y goodness (so do I) & am happy to say it returns tomorrow. Meantime, I can’t think of a better way to cap off this week’s talks than with Steven Berlin Johnson. Author of two of my favorite books, Emergence and The Ghost Map, Steven also heads up one of the more interesting social networking sites, outside.in. He spent some time this week exchanging ideas on the Web’s various geographies and the different ways we navigate both the physical and mental worlds we inhabit.

JT: Outside.in is a great idea—I love the kind of Jane Jacobs/crowded sidewalks thing you’re striving for—or seem to be: how is it working out? Have you been surprised by anything? Any new ideas?

SBJ: It has been really fun and rewarding. I had seriously resisted the idea of starting a new company, because my lifestyle as a writer for the past five or six years had been pretty amazing. But it’s just such an interesting problem that we’re trying to solve at outside.in, and it’s such an interesting time to be trying to solve it—so I ultimately couldn’t help myself. In a way there are a lot of parallels to the timing of the first two web sites that I helped build—trying to build an online magazine (FEED) in 1995, or a community-authored news site (Plastic) in 2000 is quite a bit like trying to build out the geographic web in 2007.

One of the big surprises has to do with the long tail of geography. When we originally conceived of the site, we thought the tail was all about neighborhoods—that was the geographic niche that big media had traditionally ignored in favor of cities and greater metro areas. But it turns out the tail is even longer: a huge amount of our traffic goes to our place pages, where you can see all the discussion from around the web about a specific public school, or park, or restaurant, or real estate development. So we’ve started adjusting the UI for the site to reflect that focus; the new city front door has a “Places” tab that lets you see the most talked about places in your community.

But I think the most surprising thing about it is how hard it is to convince people of the general importance of geo-tagging pages. I’ve just written a little essay—called “The Pothole Paradox“—to coincide with the new version we’re launching this week, and one of the things that I talk about is the fact that the Web itself was made possible by standardizing the virtual location of pages. And in many ways, what made blogging so valuable was that you had standardized time stamps for pages as well. So we had virtual space and actual time, but not actual space. But it turns out there are amazing things that can be done if the geographic location of pages (the location they’re describing, not where their servers are located) is machine-readable. Flickr showed this with photos, of course, and we’re trying to make the case for it as well.

JT: One thing I wonder about is whether or not you could (or, even so, should) consider other kinds of geographies: of the mind, for instance. I live in Minneapolis, but as a writer I spend a week to a month every year in New York. My daily paper—to the extent that this notion even makes sense anymore: but until very recently it was an actual paper—is The New York Times. Isn’t one of the great things about the Web—and specifically things like blogs and social networking sites—that we have the tools to build dense communities that map to more than just the physical geography of our lives? And these geographies interact in interesting ways (consider the richness of Thoreau’s remark: “I have traveled a great deal in Concord.”): are we bound to live in a world in which these maps—and their attendant communities—are disconnected?

SBJ: I think you’re absolutely right. And yet the fact that the Web creates a new kind of semantic or social geography untethered to physical space doesn’t mean that the old kind of geography disappears. 99% of the Web 2.0 companies that have launched over the past five years have been, in effect, pursuing those kinds of new associations that you describe, but there hasn’t been nearly as much focus on the possibility of using the Web to enhance physical geography. So we’re trying to correct that imbalance. If everyone was doing hyperlocal, and no one was doing, say, social networks, I’d probably start a social network site.

What we’re really grappling with at outside.in is the fact that we built the site around a very specific ideal-case geography: Brooklyn. In other words, it’s a site that works really, really well in communities where you find high population density, many local bloggers, intense gentrification and development debates, and clearly-defined neighborhoods. But it turns out the rest of the country (much less the world) doesn’t always look like Brooklyn. So that’s one of the things we’ve been tweaking in terms of the way that the database is structured.

JT: In an interview with Jason B. Jones in Pop Matters last year, the two of you talked quite a bit about the Long Zoom as a kind of guiding principle of your books, specifically in my two favorites: Emergence and The Ghost Map. In the latter, the zoom between the physical and mental map of the world—the long zoom from our senses and surroundings to our greater ideas about those things—zoomed up quite naturally into error & disaster. Then John Snow recalibrated things, created a new, different path along which to zoom, and virtually eliminated cholera from London. You and Jason referenced the great Eames documentary, Powers of Ten, in this regard: but isn’t this metaphor broken—or at least inexact? We’re not really just going up and down—but more like traversing an n-dimensional graph. Outside.in gives us a way of moving in certain directions—but I wonder whether you have any thoughts on how the blogosphere, the ways in which it creates large numbers of short paths, helps us navigate the world? Or does it, as the complainers say, just muck it up?

SBJ: One of the great things that Jane Jacobs wrote about in Life and Death of the Great American Cities is the design principle of favoring short blocks over longer ones—the crooked streets of the Village versus the big avenues of Chelsea—because short blocks diversify the flow of pedestrian traffic. In an avenue system, everyone feeds onto the big streets, and you have insanely overcrowded streets and then side streets that are deserted (which leads to storefront real estate that only the big chains can afford, and real estate that no one wants because there’s not enough foot traffic). In a short block model, the streets tend to gravitate towards that middle zone where there are always some people on them, but not too many.

I’ve always thought that the blogosphere can be thought of as a kind of small blocks model for the Web, whereas the original portal idea was much more of a big avenues model. Yes, there are some increasing returns effects that lead to some A-list bloggers having millions of visitors, and yes, there is a long tail of bloggers who have almost no traffic. But the healthiest part of the curve is what Dave Sifry once called “the big butt”—the middle zone between the head and tail of the Power Law distribution, all those sites with 1000 to 100,000 readers. That’s the part of the blogosphere that I think is really cause for celebration, because something like that just didn’t exist before on that scale. And as Yochai—who of course is very smart about all this—points out: those mid-list sites also communicate up the chain to the A-listers, who can broadcast out the interesting developments in the mid-list so that those stories enter a broader public dialogue. Maybe the new slogan is, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 Digg links.”

Your “n-dimensional graph” is exactly right, and it’s exactly that shape that makes the “death of public space” or “Daily Me” argument so silly. There are plenty things to complain about in the kinds of communication that the Internet fosters (think about the spam alone), but the idea that this environment is somehow encouraging too much filtering, too much echo-chamber insularity, is a fundamental misreading of the medium.

JT: Finally, I want to stump for story for a minute—but then raise some questions about their role & interaction with the Web and blogs and the ubiquity/inexpense of media produciton. A part of me thinks that every additional word I say about something I publish diminishes it in some way: I write a book with (very nearly) exactly the right combination and number of words to mean what I say. And then several other parts of me chime in to say, “But you know that’s not the whole story!” or “Don’t you wish you could say ‘X’ now—after it’s too late to include it in the book?” You point, for instance, to Ralph Frerichs’ John Snow site at the end of The Ghost Map and mention Tufte’s work and there are a host of reproductions of the map available (including this one, in Flash). I also think that, by now, we all know that authorial intention isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—and yet, it’s not trivial. Given that just about everything is connected to everything else now, what is the role of the discrete story?

SBJ: I’m kind of a traditionalist when it comes to the book form, particularly the writing process. The book is fundamentally a one-to-one form, in the sense that 99% of the time, you’re talking directly as a single author to a single reader, and the whole interaction is about this very intimate exchange (though of course it’s a very one-way exchange). No doubt you end up having many different readers if your books are successful, but the actual experience of the form keeps returning to that direct encounter between two individual minds. I love that about books, and I’m probably happiest and most at home when I’m in the middle of writing one. And so that part of the constraint I really embrace; I almost never discuss the book I’m currently writing on my blog, for instance.

But at the same time, I love all these new forms that are emerging where the relationships between authors and readers are far more complicated and multi-dimensional, which also causes the text itself to blur around the edges. When you look at something like TechMeme, it’s about as far as you can get from that one-to-one exchange. And that’s great. Or BoingBoing—I mean, those guys might have had only 25 phone calls, as Cory said, but there’s an incredible group jam going on there that’s entirely distinct from the much more private, interior space of book writing.

For me, the blog is where the edges of the book form blur, and blur in a really nice way—after the book comes out. I can’t imagine publishing a book now without having the blog to promote, respond, re-evaluate, extend, connect—even retract! It’s not quite as impossible to imagine as writing without Google (which seems like writing a book on a typewriter to me now) but it’s close.

Reader comments

Geoff EdwardsNov 06, 2007 at 4:29PM

And yet the fact that the Web creates a new kind of semantic or social geography untethered to physical space doesn’t mean that the old kind of geography disappears.

But the Web is not “untethered to physical space.” It exists in actual wires and servers and terminals that, when mapped, cluster in urban areas and become more sparse as their distance from the city-center grows, just like almost everything else. The difficult part of all that is the collection and mapping of this data.

That’s why I’m so excited about outside.in: I look forward to more people actively tethering their web pages to a physical location.

Adam AntNov 06, 2007 at 6:06PM

I apologise for hijacking the comments area to make an off-tangent comment, but I’ve noticed the ‘Buzz Feed’ ads on the sidebar have become a little risque of late. eg I don’t particularly want to see an ad for “Anna Sharapova’s Crotch”. Can it be rectified?

William StrunkNov 06, 2007 at 8:28PM

You ask long questions, Joel.

Joel TurnipseedNov 06, 2007 at 11:05PM

William: you make short statements.

Adam Ant: Hard to say, but you’ll have to take it up with the management.

Geoff Edwards: Do you know the work of Jon Kleinberg? It’s worth a look, vis. the proximity/density not just of our servers, but ourselves—even in our online networks. That is: it turns out that for all the seeming erasures of distance afforded by the Internet, most of us stick close to home in our relationships.

Michael HeilemannNov 07, 2007 at 7:20AM

The analogy of Jane Jacobs’ short block/long block in relation to blogs, is just downright fantastic. A true ‘of course!’ moment.

Will MyddeltonNov 07, 2007 at 7:55AM

I know you’ve all come to know and love Jason’s short, link-y goodness

It’s called writing for the web. You should try it someday…

Geoff EdwardsNov 08, 2007 at 11:54AM

Joel: Thanks for the Kleinberg link; I hadn’t heard of him.

My thinking on this subject has been informed lately by Matthew Zook, an internet cartographer. He maps domain registrant addresses, among a handful of other spatial aspects of the Internet, to reveal clusters of Internet activity within urban areas.

He attributes this clustering—especially of commercial Internet domains—to the local nature of venture capital: we’re loath to invest in new businesses to which we can’t drive.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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