The Origins of Our Ideas

“Tell me what you read and I shall tell you what you are” is an anonymous play on a famous proverb.

Every day we take in a lot of information from a variety of sources. This information shapes our ideas, opinions and to some extent our personality. But where is it coming from?

Most of us don’t pay a lot of attention to this. We believe we make up our own opinions about the things that matter to us and leave the rest to professional and / or self proclaimed pundits.

Among the media that shape our opinions are movies, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and of course (and largely for many of us) the things we read on the Web. If we would somehow keep track of all the content that we “consume” this way we could – at least to some extent – trace the origins of our ideas. Who it is that really shapes our opinions and views on the world. I think it would be amazing to see how uniform these origins are for most of us in the Western world. And talking about the Western world, it could be argued that it is the origins of our ideas that defines a culture and separates one from the other.

Tracing ideas
In the last couple of years tools have been emerging that make it possible to trace the origin of ideas more than ever before. This is largely due to the increase in “personal publishing” with blogs and blogging tools. At the same time, the tools are almost entirely limited to the blogosphere, but its a start.

One of the defining things for a blog is extensive linking to the sources and related information to the topic in question. The TrackBack functionality of some of the blogging systems such as MovableType make those links two-way so that not only do my readers know where my ideas are coming from they can also see who’s catching my train of thought and continuing the discussion, linking to me. This allows for some traceability of ideas from one weblog to the other.

But this is nowhere near sufficient. The TrackBack functionality is not that widely used and therefore covers only a miniscule part of all the content that appears online every day, let alone all the content that is already out there.

Many people have spotted this and you can now find several tools on the web that are dedicated to tracing links to and from web pages, especially weblogs. I think Blogdex was first in that line (coming out of MIT’s Media Lab), but others followed such as DayPop, Popdex and last but not least Technorati, probably the largest such index now tracking almost 3 million weblogs on a daily basis.

Theses tools allow you to enter a url or domain and see who have been linking to it. As an example I can see who’s been linking to Spurl lately. Interestingly enough none of these tools seems to allow you to see a list of the urls a given weblog has been linking TO only who has been linking TO IT. Such a list would be very interesting to do a quick “background check” on a blog you come across as ideas generally flow in the opposite direction of the link. When I link to a news article on BBC that almost certainly means I’ve read the article. Instead I suspect that the majority of searches on Technorati and co. are self-centered (ok self-conscious) bloggers trying to find out if anyone is linking to them. It should be very simple for the Pop-Day-Dex-Ratis to add this functionality.

Keeping track of the consumption
Obviously not everybody has a weblog and even those who do don’t write about everything the read. In fact it is interesting how bad the browsers we use every day are at helping users to keep track of the information we consume using them. Ever spent frustrating minutes or hours on Google or in the browser’s history list trying to find again that vital piece of information you read the other day?

Even the bookmarks / favorites that are designed to capture those “What a great page!” moments are very limited. They are only stored locally, so you don’t have access to your home bookmarks at work or in school and they usually get lost when the computer is upgraded or the hard drive crashes. In some browsers, bookmarks can not even be searched, let alone searched using a full-text search of the actual contents of the marked pages. The result is that few people use the bookmarks except maybe as a shortcut to a dozen or two of their most used web sites.

This problem has also been spotted and in the last few months, tools have been emerging that far exceed the traditional bookmarks in terms of functionality and usability, and even tap into some of the interesting social aspects emerging from the fact that thousands of other users are also using the same tools. Among these tools are Spurl.net (of which I am a founder), del.icio.us, Furl, Simpy and a few others.

To a varying degree, these tools offer functionality such as for example full text searching in all the pages users have marked, storing the entire contents of a marked page (addressing the “linkrot” problem), browser sidebars and toolbars for quick access, recommendations by matching user profiles, and of course access from any Internet connected computer (there is a lot more). Combined this makes the tools not only a replacement for traditional bookmarks, but rather a permanent record of the content a user has consumed during his or her browsing. The user can then use this record almost as a memory augmentation to later recall the information.

And there we have another piece in the puzzle that can help us seeing where our ideas are coming from.

Drawing the flow
Stephen VanDyke wrote a very interesting blog entry in the beginning of March, touching up on the same subject: “How News Travels on the Internet”. He even drew a flow chart of how he sees the flow of news online.

Obviously the flowchart only shows a fraction of the entire news-flow and the graph is rather centric to the blogging world, leaving out some of the more traditional ways news travel, such as press releases from the Source directly to the Traditional “Big” Online Media or even all the way to the Offline Media. A very thought provoking graph none the less.

The material that travels in the “Dark Matter” is especially interesting, i.e. emails, chat and instant messages where people are sending simple messages saying “Hey check this out.”. In the end, what captures the attention of the Big Media is largely coincidence, but as they reach a far larger and broader group, their coverage feeds into the blogosphere again and the circle can even repeat itself.

Another interesting attempt at drawing the flow of ideas is the Blog Epidemic Analyzer from HP. The project has indexed the flow of some 20,000 URLs as they go through the blogosphere from one blog to the next, spawning more blogging until they gradually fade from the discussion (and a new “hottest thing” emerges).

All the way to “The Source”
…sounds a bit like the plot for Matrix 4 – doesn’t it?

What I dream of is that I can one day – using tools similar to those described above – find out where the news and other information I’m consuming is really originated. That way I can see if my sources are colored by the influence of a single media company, religious group or government; the Bush administration or Michael Moore; the WWF for Nature or Texaco; the fans of the Pistons or the Lakers.

And if my sources turn out to be uniform I can at least say that it is on purpose or spend a little time studying the arguments of the opposite party. Then I can say in good faith that my opinions are formed after taking the arguments of both sides into account and making up my own mind, but were not deliberately or accidentally forced upon me by a like-minded group of people with a single view on things.

There is still a long way to go, but these tools and other similar attempts hint that this may very well be an achievable goal.