Webometric Thoughts

September 23, 2009

Did you forget Samuel Johnson’s birthday?

Samuel Johnson was both a great writer and a great character; according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography “..arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history“. With his dictionary doing so much to define the English language you would expect the 300th anniversary of his birth (last Friday) to have made a bit of an impact online. Unfortunately, despite some great programmes on both BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4, the public failed to be overly moved.

In fact according to Google Trends, whilst September has caused a slight blip, interest in “Samuel Johnson” has been falling over the years.

The blogosphere shows no more interest than usual, and far less than the announcing of the Samuel Johnson prize.

Obviously some historical figures stand the test of time better than others. The graph below shows the leap in interest for the mere 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (the red line at the bottom provides a comparison with Samuel Johnson).

The two men have very different legacies, but nonetheless I can’t help feeling that Samuel Johnson has been unfairly overlooked online.

September 17, 2009

On Books and the Fourth Plinth: Reactionary and off topic

Filed under: Art,Fourth Plinth,Literature,Waterstone's — admin @ 9:26 am

I love books. I love browsing them, buying them, shelving them, and (when I find the time) reading them. However pleasure from the high street bookstore (which generally means Waterstone’s) is quickly diminishing. With less stock on the floor as shops cut back in the recession, it seems as the only books available are ‘celebrity’ biographies, ‘tragic childhoods’, blockbuster novels, and quick guides which promise to make you an authority on any topic with little effort. At times like this you can’t help but despair at the reading public and be grateful for second-hand bookshops.

Today, in theory, the UK’s population is more educated than ever. Although would anyone really guess it from the books the read? Or worse still, some of the people who sit on the fourth plinth?

Sitting eating a bag of crisps and chatting to a group of girls is not art, it’s called being a bloke.

It is not impossible for a relatively small bookshop to house a decent collection of books. The London Review Bookshop is a great example. It has no more floor space than the average small town Waterstone’s, it just sells a lot less crap. Unfortunately chains have little idealism when it comes to the selling of books, they merely want to shift stock. Not only is a weighty tome on medieval history less likely to sell, but it will take far longer to read. No such problem with a Dan Brown page-turner.

Hopefully things will change, the Waterstone’s business model of little added benefit from there being a bookshop cannot be sustainable in the Internet age. I’ve just enjoyed Under Siege: Literary Life In London 1939-45, which I picked up in the secondhand bookshop at Samuel Johnson’s birthplace museum (always reasonably priced). Not only an interesting discussion of the state of literature and the arts generally in the UK in the second world war, but a reminder that the current state of the book trade is not irreversible (albeit it faces very different problems).

September 16, 2009

Can you question technology without being labelled a Luddite?

Filed under: Twitter,luddite — admin @ 8:59 am

Researchers have warned that technology addiction among young people is having a disruptive effect on their learning [via the BBC]. Like so many academic reports, it provides support for the bleeding obvious. If I, a middle-aged cantankerous git who regularly rails against the whole of humanity and desires nothing more than to be left alone on an island with a pile of books, finds myself regularly distracted by the temptations of social media, how much more so the social teenager who wants to reach out to the world.

Yet some people are not happy with such reports:

Twitter gives little room for elaboration, instead opinions become polarized. The report becomes ‘pants’ and the authors ‘Luddites’. There are questions that may be raised about the wording in the study, and the changing nature of ‘learning’ in a connected world, but Twitter gives little room for such subtleties.

When people talk about technology being neither good nor bad, they are often providing a defence against a technology’s misuse. It is important that we don’t automatically presume that a technology is good, but continue to question the effect technology is having. Albeit at the cost of being called Luddites.

September 8, 2009

Twitter is dead, long live RSSCloud

Filed under: RSScloud,Twitter — admin @ 6:27 am

RSS has had a bit of a hard time lately. “RSS is dead, all worship at the alter of Twitter and the real-time web” seems to have been the general sentiment. Over the last couple of months however, people have been working away on RSSCloud: real-time RSS. Yesterday WordPress gave it its substantial backing.

The difference between having blog posts brought to your attention as soon as they are published, rather than 15-60 minutes after they are published is insubstantial for the majority of blog readers. It will, however, encourage the sort of conversations that take place through microblogging. Whilst microblogging can be a distraction, and 140 characters is rarely enough, it has encouraged conversations, the essence of social media.

With RSSCloud the lines between blogging and microblogging will become increasingly blurred, allowing for more substance with your conversations, and the once great Twitter will merely be a site for those who don’t want to host their own real-time data stream. But who would want to give Twitter control of their data when they can keep it for themselves?

Now we just have to wait for the host of exciting applications that will be built on the back of RSSCloud to emerge.

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