Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Broadcatching: Capturing "The Flow"

In his Library Journal online article entitled "The Flow" Revisited: The Personal Angle, Roy Tennant observes:
some of today's communication methods are like an undammed river -- if you're not there when it flows by, it's gone. Email, on the other hand, is like a dammed river -- it flows in, but it doesn't go anywhere until you do something with it....I wonder what tools will rise up to help cope with this -- perhaps your own little Twitter dam, with filters that allow you to choose to see what you missed from particular people while you were away? Or a filter to show only those tweets with a URL? Who knows? It's early days yet for the flow, and I'm curious to see what it brings.
This post made me reach over to my bookshelf and pull out Stewart Brands' 1987 book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT to re-read his vision of the concept of broadcatching. (Note: I often see things that are the end result of the research done during the '80s at the Media Lab and documented in this book. Lego Mindstorms, custom Portals and personalized Internet, virtual reality games were developed, envisioned, conceptualized, or influenced by Media Lab research.)

Brand describes broadcatching as an application to assist content selection (hunting for specific information) and viewing (grazing a single unfiltered flow or browsing multiple flows with no particular content in mind). Station-selector buttons on a car radio are a kind of broadcatch device. While they are customizable, they can only catch a specific source and not specific content.

While I was familiar with Brand's use of the term, a little research reveal that Fen Labalme is credited with coining 'broadcatch' back in 1983, referring to an automated agent that aggregates and filters content from multiple sources for presentation to an individual user. His definition:

To understand the concept described by this term, first take a look at traditional broadcast media (such as radio, TV, magazines and newspapers) and note that they generally consist of a one publisher to many consumers flow of information, and as such rely upon common opinions and beliefs, as each published issue is targeted for a mass audience.

On the other hand, Broadcatch connotes a many to one gathering of information, using a network of personalized agents to ideally sift through all available information and return just that which is of possible current interest from trusted, authenticatable sources and in a form and style amenable to the user. Broadcatch is designed to thrive in a diversity of opinions and provide a mechanism that effectively automates word of mouth.

I have to reiterate, this was thought up back in the early 1980's.

An ideal 'broadcatch' agent would grab my RSS, Twitter, and Facebook flows and be smart enough to know which items are important to me right now based on my recent information seeking/gathering patterns. It would allow those items to flow through the dam while holding back the remaining until I manually open the gates. But, as Roy comments, "teaching it what is important is likely the hard part." Sphere: Related Content

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