Coming soon: the disruptive molecular age of information

Now we’ve seen what Google has had up its sleeve with Google Buzz. I expect this is the last tool of the atomic age. No, not the energy field, the real-time content field.

“Huh?”

Before I start, tomorrow I’m giving a talk to Stanford University MBA students with MC Hammer and Loic Le Meur, founder/CEO of Seesmic (he wrote about his part of the presentation on his blog tonight) about what social media is doing to our marketing, and I’ve been working with a few companies on products that will come out over the next year that will move us from an atomic age of information streams to a molecular one, so wanted to talk about it, both here, and tomorrow at Stanford to see what bubbles up.

Look at Google Buzz. Each status message there is an information atom. You can’t easily grab two of these status messages and join them together.

Or look at Twitter. Tweets are information atoms. They stand alone. You can’t really combine them with other tweets.

Same with YouTube videos. My videos stand alone. You can watch one embedded on a blog and you aren’t even aware that the others exist. Atoms.

How about photos? Atoms. Try to join a photo from SmugMug with one from Facebook with another from Flickr with yet another from Picasa. You can’t easily. Yeah, yeah, geeks can by copying and pasting URLs but not in any nice way. Atoms.

Go to Facebook or Google Buzz. Each status message there is an atom.

Joining information atoms takes a LOT of work and a LOT of energy. Sort of like with nuclear energy, isn’t it?

Let’s discover what this molecular age of information might look like and what it might enable.

Before I start, though, can you find the original tweets that were made WHILE the Haiti earthquake was happening?

I bet you can’t. Go ahead and try. Go to Google search. Go to Twitter search. Search all night long if you want. You won’t find the original tweets.

Want them?

Me too, but they are hard to get to. Why? Because today we live in an atomic age of real-time streams. Once those atoms (er, tweets) streamed by they are almost impossible to pull back out. Why? Because our search systems don’t have the kind of metadata they need to make searching for them possible. No one linked to these tweets. You probably didn’t even know about them. They were on my screen for a few seconds and then, well, they were gone. Luckily I saved them for this post.

Here are the tweets that were made by people in Haiti DURING THE EARTHQUAKE: The first Tweet I could find was from Michelle Maura who wrote “Earthquake right now.” Within a few minutes a bunch of others had Tweeted similar things. My favorite was Ivon Bartok who wrote “The place rocked like a mofo.” While I was writing this post he also said he felt a 5.9 aftershock. About five minutes after the quake, MSNBC was the first news outlet with this breaking news Tweet.

How did I get these? Easy, I opened up WordPress’ editor and copy and pasted them where they sat unavailable to anyone except me until right now.

Now you notice that a blogger CAN make an information molecule. But look at how hard this is. I had to copy and paste URLs and if I wanted them to look like tweets I’d have to open them up, take a screen capture, upload that screen capture somewhere, link the screen capture in here, then link the tweet up. Whew, a lot of work. Like I said, making molecules takes a lot of energy.

But what if you had an iPad with a new tool? One that had a column that looked like Seesmic or Tweetdeck’s columns? One with a middle column where you could simply drag tweets into a molecule. One with a third column that would be an outbound column where I could add a text block, a video, an audio clip, and then distribute it out to Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, LinkedIn, or whatever else will be a place that humans want to read real-time streaming information?

Wouldn’t that enable a new kind of information curation?

Think this is just for info geeks like me? I’ve interviewed normal users about this and they keep complaining that it’s too hard to make a page of all their baby photos from their kids’ first birthday party, for instance. Think about it. You invite 30 friends over to your house. Some put photos on Facebook. Some on Flickr. Some on SmugMug. Now you have to join them all. I dare you to try. Yes, my audience can because we’re all geeks who understand HTML and copy and paste. Now put yourselves in the shoes of people who don’t have those skills or patience. They want a new system and someone over the next eight months will deliver it to them.

When the molecular age does arrive, it will have deep impacts on corporate social media. On traditional media. On us all.

Finally we’ll be able to share the patterns in the streams we’re seeing with other people.

Finally the search engines will have enough metadata to find those bundles of tweets, blogs, photos, videos, audio clips, and other info atoms that are actually important.

So, how do we get from the atomic age to the molecular age?

First, ask yourself these questions to put pressure on the industry to answer these questions:

1. Why can I tag a photo in Flickr but we can’t tag tweets or Google Buzz items?
2. Why do I need to come to a blog tool to join Tweets, blogs, photos, videos, etc together? Why can’t I do that where I read real-time streams like at Twitter.com, Google Buzz, or in tools like Seesmic or Tweetdeck or Tweetie?
3. Why can’t I build real-time information molecules simply by dragging and dropping these atoms into a molecule builder? Why do I need to copy permalinks and paste them into a blog editor?
4. Why haven’t we seen a real-time reader system that lets us see Tweets, Facebook status items, Flickr photos, Yelp restaurant reviews, Google Buzz items, YouTube videos, and other items all in one place?
5. Why hasn’t the web evolved so I could drag a tweet from Twitter.com into WordPress.com’s editor and have it linked up automatically?
6. Why can I favorite tweets (I’ve faved about 12,000 into this stream in past 10 months alone) but I can’t bundle them together?
7. Why can we work collaboratively on Wikipedia to build an encyclopedia of the world’s information, but we can’t work collaboratively on people’s profiles to add data we know about each other onto our profiles?
8. Why can’t brands join their tweets to your tweets about them? Or, why can’t I do that myself? When I write about a Ford car, for instance, I’d love to join tweets from @scottmonty, who works at Ford, in with mine, especially since I might be responding to a tweet of his.

Someday soon these questions will be answered and then you’ll know we’re in the molecular age of information.

I want to mix content together to make even more powerful content, but no one is giving us tools to create real-time molecules.

When will the molecular age of information start? Tomorrow I’m visiting Stanford University where Google and Yahoo started to see if the students there have any answers.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

76 thoughts on “Coming soon: the disruptive molecular age of information

  1. It's got to have the UI you describe that makes it easy for everyone. Delicious was an early incarnation of this tool – but looking at it now it feels so cumbersome… you still have to tag and remember tags and the output isn't visual or editorial. Check this chart out I gave Erick on how the web was becoming a “web of objects” – http://techcrunch.com/2008/11/20/genwi-further-… – ease of use needs a molecule tool

  2. We started as “me and you” and moved towards “me me”…. And I think the prefixes you might explore should be 'info/nano/bio/cogno-' for areas of disruption/re-invention that lead to enhanced human performance.

  3. I agree with the thrust of this post. However, I don't think you need to be a geek to use copy and paste.

  4. This is a pretty small thing to care about in the business. Social networks are functionally serving the purpose of people talking to other people, no different than people using a telephone or IM or email to do it with exception to it being done in a group. It's certainly no more instant. I'm sure brands would have loved to be able to track, monitor and analyze people's conversations over other platforms like the telephone, but i don't really think it's going to be that impactful in the end to do it. At least not nearly as important than a top level, trickle-down focused strategy, which is what the Obama crew used to help put him in the White House and what will likely ultimately rule as the approach when the world's on a single, streamlined communications and information distribution platform (the internet).

  5. Agreed, favorites are the unsung hero of Twitter. I use them a lot but Twitter hasn't take advantage of the huge value there – favorites can tell you a lot about a person and what they like. I recently built them in a recommendation engine. Why hasn't Twitter done this? As you said, the feed is nice but the more tweets you favorite the harder it gets to go back and find them. Again, a need for more metadata.

  6. Unfortunately, hashtags don't work very well for 2 reasons: trust and space. They are too easily manipulated by the content creator and it's difficult to work the right tags into the limited space.

    I've been working on an app that uses tagging services to tag tweets. This is far more reliable because they're built by a human network which is harder to game.

  7. Our university systems are ripe to produce premier curators in the information age. However, academia can move kind of slow. Every professor can move in this direction by blogging and in essence pulling together the atoms of information in their field into molecular learning objects to share with the world. Information curation should play a huge role in tenure and promotion. One complaint about the open nature of the read/write web is that any fool can say what they want, however, on the same token any intelligent person can say what they want as well. For this reason, premier learning institutions around the world should play a leading role in facilitating and indexing blogs for their community. Every educational institution should seriously consider creating a blog directory for faculty, staff, and alumni, so that the world can really see what kind of ideas come out of various learning communities around the world. I have had the opportunity to create this system using WordPress as the foundation for Bowling Green State University in Ohio and we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg as to what can be done. https://blogs.bgsu.edu/

  8. Robert, I totally agree with what George is saying. The largest hurdle is that each vendor (Twitter, Facebook, Google) wants their solution to be THE platform. Too much money at stake to play to well with others.

    Seesmic is a great tool but client side integration is never as good a tool as server side integration. Too many moving parts on the desktop to get your everyday user to pull it all together. We need the vendors to make this happen and, right now, they will not.

    Loved the post..

    Matt

  9. When you add mobile users to the mix I believe the gps on the mobile device will tell the system where the event the person just talked about is taking place.

    So when a search engine gathered the data it would add items like location without the user having to properly tag things.

  10. This would be the new hyperlink if I am reading correctly. i.e. webpages are atoms, but websites(groups) are molecules.

    Great idea, execution would be very hard. First of all, each atom would have to conform to an open source standard for its meta-data so it could be pulled and included in the molecule easily.

    So taking the earthquake example, if we have a tweet, a buzz, another tweet, a picture, another tweet, a picture, a picture.. are they shown in order of posting? There is a lag time of when a picture is taken to when you see it (uploading, sharing). And this is considering that all those atoms have been hand picked.

    If it was automated it would be a mess. 1000 tweets, 1 pic, 5000 tweets, 450 blog posts, 50 pics, 20000 tweets… impossible to tell the good from the bad with meta-data.

  11. You're spot on that it's a very big and very real problem… we've been working closely w/ London's creative agencies for the last 6 months and it's a consistent pain more-or-less across the board.

    Those discussions have led to the recent launch of http://habitstream.com to help brands & agencies combine & re-broadcast the testimonials that are popping up all over the social web. It's all self-serve – would love to hear your thoughts.

    I also agree that there are loads of discrete opportunities in this space.. for personal media, for business PR, for advertising, for content authors. Looking forward to seeing what evolves.

  12. Interesting. Hard to pull context out of 140 characters though ('there's an earthquake'. .. which one? where?). You'd need to capture manual meta-data over what you can pull automatically (geo, date&time..). Will people do that? Maybe for videos, blog posts, photos, news stories etc. Maybe.

    Experience in the enterprise document and records management field has shown that it's hard to get people to do that accurately though, and for updates that people are used to blasting into space (e.g status updates, mobile pics etc) it's unlikely they will.

    Automatically contextualising massively different 'atoms', in different formats, on different platforms, through a multitude of APIs is a big ask.

    I think we'll definitely see services that move further along the path being taken by Seesmic, Tweetdeck etc., which is to say lists of disparate data sources presented in a single interface. And we'll see more consolidation of providers through M&A activities, which will also help.

    But I personally think we're still a long way off your molecular world unfortunately!

  13. Like the metaphor, but had imagined it would be about something slightly different.
    Your post on Scobleizer = an atom. S.
    My comment on your blog = another atom, attached to your atom. From now on it's a molecule. S+C. More comments and it grows. S+C34.
    But there is also comments on Buzz coming in. S+C34+B45. And Friendfeed and Twitter and Facebook … S+C34+B45+T88+F23 …
    At the end of the day this is your total information molecule. But there is nowhere, nowhere on the web where I can see that. I can come to Buzz, and see S+B45 molecule. Or search on Twitter and maybe get the S+T88 bit.
    If moving to the molecular information age would solve this – keeping the atoms of a molecule together, from whatever angle I'd choose to look at them – I'd applaud chemistry!

  14. Robert, hashtags need a systematic engine for them to work as actual
    tags. Twitter should add this.

    But nonetheless they provide a way of categorising tweets. Tweetdecks
    tweet filtering works primarily due to hashtags. For events, for
    example, hashtags are brilliant.

    Friendfeed related items link may primarily be for noise reduction,
    but this functionaity could be greatly extended. Comments are content
    as well, but quite often they provide context too. See Jesses' FF3.0
    FF posts this morning for an example. Where links between FF items are
    posted in the comments.

    If this were extended to solidify the relationtionship between items
    beyond simply showing the items linking to the same page, we'd have
    your information molecules.

    The sum total of tweets, posts, videos, foursquare check ins, you name
    it about something often ends up providing more context than any one
    single service or method can provide.

    Typically speaking blog posts have filled this need for creating
    context, collateing all this related information together in a single
    article. This tweet, that twitpic, this video. The first instance of
    an information molecule.

    As noted above we already have been manually adding in links between
    related content. Geolocation services have always created information
    molecules, combining tweets and google maps. In like manner, the
    services concerned need to solidify these methods for other types of
    information.

  15. The CEO of Pip.io introduced me to a new term that fits here: collaborative narcissism. I like that a lot because we need to move from the “me me” age to the “me and you” age of social media.

  16. There's a good reason wikis and blogs allow “molecular” activities like the ones you describe, Robert. There's one answer and it's called Free Software.

    It's no coincidence that GPL'ed, free software projects such as MediaWiki and WordPress have taken off and created such architectures that facilitate what you describe. As long as online services embrace proprietary standards and architectures alone, they cannot work together very well.

    RSS/Atom is the only cross-platform standard I can think of which enables “molecular” activities. We experimented a lot in my startup Kaplak with combining items from different sources using RSS and tags to create new contexts. And I know there's a lot of activity still going on with feeds.

    I am a big fan of many online services. I use Gmail and Google Docs extensively. I use Twitter some of the time. I often use YouTube. I am one of the biggest fans of Prezi, the flash presentation & storytelling tool. I would love if these tools would make it a lot easier not just to embed, but to make their services work together across platforms, so that it was lot easier to bring related stuff together. The best tool to do this I've seen so far is MediaWiki, which can be incredibly powerful given it's very flexible extensibility possibilities.

    Also there's the question of copyright all over again, as part of the reason true “molecular” activities have yet to take off. Enabling open standards and using free software means you can't hide how you work, and you can't control the flow any longer. Twitter cannot shut users down. Google cannot expell a user for illegitimate use of their Gmail accounts. And YouTube cannot easily take down infringing videos, or videos they deem to be infringing on someone's rights.

    It's about control. Free software is the right path, I believe. But the trouble is it's getting really hard just sticking to one's blog, as an increasing amount of our exchanges takes place using proprietary platforms.

  17. I sort of understand where you are coming from. We have moved from the age of non-sustainability to the age of irrelevant communications.

    I think it is the “century of the self”. Like the atom, we are all powerful nuclear individuals who each perform a specific role (in chemistry) however unfortunately the weak nuclear force isn't quite strong enough to make sense of all the commotion.

    We are all Atoms. Or Eves… if you will…

  18. Exciting way to look at the future, Robert. Your post reminded me of Pearltree, but only because its visual metaphor matches the molecule concept. It can only bookmark blog posts at present.

    I can't wait to play with such a tool, whenever it becomes a reality!

  19. I left a comment on Buzz but really this + your buzz + your tweet are really part of a single “molecule” which is the title of this blog post. Would be neat to somehow wrap them all together. Open Standards should help with this, along with API's and tools … and identity.

  20. Definitely some of it is open web standards, but already Seesmic and Tweetdeck can read both Facebook status items and Tweets from Twitter, so there already is some of this solved even without web standards.

  21. Isn't a big part of this Open Web Standards? Last week's 'This Week in Google' podcast (ep 29) talked about that and Google Buzz quite a bit, and how currently all these social networks are just creating silos of information.

  22. Sounds great. I want it to succeed. But I hope that in 8 months your source launches service x, succeeds in making it cross-browser and cross-platform, and stays commercially viable.

    And that the W3C, or Google, or Microsoft or Adobe don't torpedo it. And that other companies don't launch slightly different x-killers and we don't have to have profiles on all of them (e.g. commenting systems).

    Not being a cynic, but this makes me think of Dapper, the data mapper, when it launched. It went tits-up and now flogs dynamic adverts… No semantic web yet…

  23. Very interesting – and in response to Adriaan's response to Robert – we do seem to be talking about meaning/interpretation/semantics and finding a way to implement that – in a way that's more interoperable than a million different informal tagging systems, or a 2010 yahoo clone for the social web, or some kind of reputation + tagging synergy – and way less esoteric and inscrutable than the academic Semantic Web aka RDF/OWL.

    Maybe we're talking about a kind of DISQUS that travels across all the social networks – as Robert says – just drag anything into it anywhere you are – on the web on a PC, iPhone, etc. The DISCUS molecules can be chained together between networked friends to create amino acids and even GENES … Ha !

    Its fascinating and thnx to Robert opening up the possibility to see the emergence of apps that can create the building blocks and assemble them into information GENES maybe even this year !

  24. in the age of Twitter and 140-character updates…. this post is way too long to read… but i got the main point…

  25. Hmmm… while all of what you write is true, it's also all too familiar. It's the same thing that's plagued (web) content management systems almost since the start. (How granular does content have to be for effective re-use?) It's been the promise of the “semantic web” for years, as well. (Which was “the next big thing” until we got to “web 2.0,” so the visionary thing to say nowadays is to call it “web 3.0″.) It's been a huge problem in (enterprise) search since the start (as one vendor told me, “we need rich data for us to be able to enrich it” :P). And mashing all of it up… well, we've been talking about that, for years, as well.

    And while tweets are an excellent example of what you can't do if you don't think these things through before you start, and it's interesting to think of what it could be if it were fixed somehow, it does have a sense of reinventing the wheel for the umpteenth time.

    But as we were struggling with getting these things to work right in a single ecosystem (i.e., the corporate document management system, intranet or website; or even the largely separate communities, the Facebooks et al of this world)… the real disruptor is everyone's still largely trying to cope with “publishing out.” And maybe ingesting. But the new reality isn't one or two way. It's in every direction.

    We're talking about solving problems with roads leading from A to B, adding exits to C, crossroads, then building overpasses, then connecting those. The reality is more like the playing field for bumper cars. It's not very intuitive and something we need to deal with. But what we get now, instead, is everyone trying to become the single most important hub for those roads. That's why we don't have standards and effective tools for it.

    (Hope that's helpful in any way.)

  26. Interesting comment Robert about “At least they aren't anything like the tags that Flickr photos have”. The more I read your feedback / comments, the more I think what we're building goes in the right direction! :)

  27. I've had problems searching for important tweets myself, and just like you that's why i use faves (to make sure I can get to them!). Doing anything special with them ain't happening right now, except for sticking them in a feed..

    @Robert you've already started with the meebo script here, drag and share. Personally didn't like that on your blog, albeit a subtle effect – it does make sharing easier but wonder how many people actually use that. BTW Loved #5.

  28. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times…. It's just a matter of time until Googlezon or something similar will provide the kind of aggregation between “atoms” that you want. My take is that in the next 6 to 12 months we will have something like this from a startup that will end up being acquired by a big one.

  29. Nice try. Hashtags are NOT tags. At least they aren't anything like the tags that Flickr photos have. FriendFeed does NOT have tags. It has comments. Not the same again. Not even close. FriendFeed's related items? They are to remove some duplication noise and that feature doesn't work anywhere close to as well as a human curated system would. Try again.

  30. I love your metaphor Robert. To stretch it a little further, as information molecules grow in mass, they will have an increasing gravity, gaining them more attention (as popular conversations do in Friendfeed and now Buzz). As you mentioned, this will help important (or popular, not necessarily the same thing) information to cut through the noise.

  31. Er, Scoble. You can tag tweets. Its called hashtags. What we DON'T have is the ability to search and mine that information.

    Friendfeed has hashtags as well. And FF has a far more power search engine for all these little atoms of information.

    Friendfeed is way ahead of you. They show you related items.

    The future is here, its just not evenly distributed yet.

  32. Yup, getting everything to interoperate isn't easy, but already Seesmic is intermixing Facebook and Tweets. Adding YouTube videos isn't hard (each video has a URL and embed code). Well, it might be hard for a non-coder but this isn't rocket science.

  33. Robert – one of the reasons it so hard to manipulate information like this easily (“5. Why hasn’t the web evolved so I could drag a tweet from Twitter.com into WordPress.com’s editor and have it linked up automatically?”) is that each company (Facebook, Google, WordPress, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, etc) wants their service, language, browser, hardware, blogging platform, plugin, theme, CMS, or whatever to be the THE platform or infrastructure that everyone uses.

    Until companies start adopting more universal conventions for tagging and describing content and meta data, this will be a hard slog.

    The semantic web, http://www.microformats.com, open source, and new types of content licensing are all starting to come together as pieces of the puzzle. But like I said, its gonna take a while. Either way, what you're suggesting is a great idea, and very useful in further freeing folks who aren't very technical to create, share, and innovate just like us geeks.

  34. I like your molecular phrasing a great deal in describing how humans can elaborate the contextualization and curation of needlessly granular social content. Your model is akin to those describing a “Synaptic Web.” I'm particularly interested in the convergence of human/machine intelligence applied to media, for I think the public interest would be served in extraordinary manners.

  35. important post- fantastic stuff. citizen editors weaving stories and slinging metadata seems to me to be the future of not just journalism but probably search also.

  36. Once again I agree with what you say.

    Actually, I think the years to come are calling for a change of status/format for curated data.
    It's the same problem we are having with the feedback on a piece of data we publish and share. When you post on your blog, I can answer it on tweeter, or on your blog proper. Where will you look to get this answer?
    Better, if I want the feedback for a photo and I share it on 5 SNS, I'll have to check all the 5 to get the related comments.
    I think next years data generated online or uploaded need be be turned into objects, traceable, with their related meta-data (comments and so on) open for consultation through a single service.

    (I say more about it in my blog [/shameless self promo] )

  37. Avoiding noise in the molecular world will be a lot easier than avoiding it in the atomic world. Why? There will be a lot more metadata for search engines to study.

  38. Plus some users will gain brands as great curators. Already Tim O'Reilly, Dave Winer, Atul, and a few others are that for me. They pick interesting items. So, we should be able to search for “info molecules” that were built by curators we know and trust.

  39. I think that part of the problem when creating molecules, is to avoid all the noise which can drown the important information. This is especially the case when the item is used to prove some point in a marketing or political issue. We'll need some strong neuroprocessors to filter this complex structure.

  40. Robert,
    We're building something that may answer a small part of these issues.
    Drop me an email if you want to find out more, our product will ship out in about 2 months.
    Best regards,

  41. Paul that is exactly the point. At the moment all the information is a sea of unrelated atoms. Everyone digests this information as individual atoms. The idea is that these atoms can be joined together to make molecules of related information, and that then an person can digest this molecule of information in one sitting.

    Or watch the molecule as it grows. Sounds very related to the idea of linked data and the semantic web.

  42. Sigh. I've moved a single iron atom across a piece of copper. Joining atoms with other atoms is very powerful. You ever hear of chemistry? You take two hydrogen atoms and join them with an oxygen atom and you have a molecule of water. Now, try to do that with information. You can't easily.

    1. Robert,

      Paul has understood Chemistry better than you. Your comparison to atom to highlight the point you are making is not a good one. You should have taken a better term to highlight the information isolation. You can either criticize my comment like you did to Paul but if you open yourself up, you may end up learning more. Your call.

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