In another article, I’ve discussed the idea of the WIDE WORLD Web — the idea that people with significant connections outside the US have made disproportionately large contributions to innovation and quality on the Web. I suggest in that article that one reason for this is that Wide World people seem to have a particular appreciation for Simplicity & Elegance. In this article, I’ll discuss examples of this.

First, people and services that I’ve discussed before, with links to my articles about them:

Tor Ahlenius was a librarian at the Karolinska Institute library in Sweden. I first observed the surprising quality of Wide World web work when looking for quality link-lists in pre-Google days, and found that Ahlenius had the most elegant lists on the Web in health and medicine. Beyond Ahlenius, I found in working on Hardin MD that many others of the best link-lists were also from outside the US. Some may question the idea of characterizing link-list-keeping as “elegant” — But in pre-Google days it was an essential service, and comprehensive and well-maintained lists were difficult to find — A simple but critical skill, perfected to elegance by Ahlenius.

Moving forward and on a much larger stage, a couple of examples that are fairly well-known, but not usually thought of as having connections outside the US. But I’d suggest that they do indeed.

Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, and Apple – Jobs was raised in California by adoptive American parents, but his biological father was from Syria. The secretive Jobs rarely talks about this, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see a connection with his career as a tech-genius. Jonathan Ive, who made the elegant designs of  the iPhone and iPad, has solid Wide World connections, being a native of England.

Sergey Brin and Google –  How would the world be different if he hadn’t moved from the USSR to the US when he was six years old and grown up to help invent Google’s elegant search and design revolutions?

Twitter was not developed by anyone with Wide World connections, but I’m including it because it’s elegant simplicity has been so firmly embraced by the Wide World community. I especially learned to appreciate this from following the prolific tweeting of Portuguese librarian Jose Afonso Furtado. He tweets mostly on library/publishing subjects, but during the serious outbreak of Swine Flu in Mexico in 2009, he tweeted on that and I made good international contacts on Twitter through him.

Below are some Wide World examples I haven’t (yet) written about:

Tim-Berners Lee and the WWW – Lest we forget! — The Inventor of the Web was from England. As John Naughton says in his excellent profile of Berners-Lee, TBL’s great contribution was that he created a simple, elegant way to make hypertext, which had been around for several decades, usable by non-geeks — The World Wide Web.

Luis von Ahn, who grew up in Guatemala and is now on the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon – CAPTCHA inventor and MacArthur Genius Grant winner at age 27. He also was the developer of Google Image Labeler, an elegant application of crowdsourcing/gaming to tag pictures.

Yuri Selukoff – A very recent Wide World rising star – Russian developer of GoodReader, widely hailed as the best PDF reader for iPhone and iPad (and one of the two top-sellers of all iPad Apps). The simple, elegant trick of GoodReader is that it extracts pure text from PDF files and “reflows it” into wrapped text format. Selukoff’s GoodReader work reminds me of Tor Ahlenius, discussed at the top of this article, which was my first discovery of simple, elegant Web work originating from the Wide World community. As with Selukoff and GoodReader, it makes me wonder — Why does it take someone from outside the US to give the world such a simple, useful tool?

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

In its original meaning Elegance had to do with tasteful and graceful. In Sci-Tech-CompSci, it’s come to be associated with simplicity – surprisingly simple yet effective (Wikipedia) … cleverly simple (FreeDictionary) — I’ve written quite a lot on this blog about the concept of simple design, especially in the context of  library user-interface (UI) issues and design for mobile devices. Recently, I’ve also been thinking about simplicity in the context of my experience with Hardin MD, remembering the value of list-keeping in pre-Google days — A simple task, but a surprisingly difficult one to execute.

Quality list-keeping, UI design and mobile design — those fit well within the concept of “simple” — But moving beyond those, I’m seeing that there are broader topics that I’ve been writing about that extend the concept of “simple” to something more like “elegant.” I think of there being a continuum from the simple list-keeping of the early Web to simple design to the full-fledged Elegance of the giants discussed below, and I see all of these as being motivated by the same instinct, and blending together so much that they’re hard to separate. So I’m making a new category — Elegance — and putting all of the blend into it — Simple to Elegant.

Here are some highlights of my recent articles – The boldface name links (Apple, Google, etc) go to all of the articles in the category. The links within each paragraph go to articles that are more specifically on elegance:

AppleSteve Jobs and Jonathan Ive have set the standard for elegant design, as stated in a recent iPad review – “Led by British-born Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design team has created another iconically elegant piece of hardware: the iPad.” (boldface by me)

Google – Like Apple, Google has contributed much set the standard for elegant design. I suspect when Google first became popular, the Wikipedia definition of “elegance” given above — “surprisingly simple yet effective” — is just what a lot of people thought — How could this young upstart, with a homepage that was made up of mostly white space compete against the link-laden gateway pages of the era?

Twitter – Tim O’Reilly captures the essence of Twitter’s secret, I think — In writing about why he loves Twitter the first reason he gives is – “Twitter is simple – It does one small thing, and does it well” — Again, echoing the Wikipedia definition of Elegance – “surprisingly simple yet effective.”

And, of course … Wikipedia fits its own definition of Elegance – “surprisingly simple yet effective” — Who would have predicted the simple idea of users making the best dictionary in the world?

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

When I saw Sarah Kessler’s recent Mashable article Five Things the Library of Congress is Archiving Online, it struck me as being a disconnect — Mashable talking about libraries?! — Mashable is one of the largest blogs on the Web, covering especially social media and tech subjects. I watch it fairly regularly, enough to know that they rarely mention anything having to do faintly with libraries.

When I looked at the Mashable/LC article I wasn’t surprised to see that the first on Kessler’s list of five things archived* at LC is Twitter feeds–all of them. The surprising announcement of the LC Twitter archiving certainly did get unprecedented attention for the Library of Congress when it was announced in April. Many eyeballs that normally don’t pay any attention to libraries sat up and took notice — Mashable did, and it looks like they’re continuing to pay attention. Great! …

I’d suggest that we in the library world watch closely how the world’s view of libraries may be changing to our benefit with the LC-Twitter alliance. When I first came across the Kessler article on Twitter, a few days after it was written, it had, of course, been heavily retweeted. But I was surprised that few of the RT’s were by people I recognized in the library Twitterverse. And of the few library Twitterites who did pick it up, almost none of them mentioned that it was in Mashable — Missing the element of Context, I’d say! Context is a critical on Twitter — It’s not just WHAT is being said on Twitter, but how it’s connected in the Twittersphere — WHO is saying it and WHO IS READING IT — Exactly the sorts of things that future historians will be able to study on the LC Twitter archive!

So, Librarians — Get on Twitter and learn how to use it! The eyes of the world are watching!

*The other four things mentioned as being archived at LC (none of which would have drawn the attention of Mashable without the Twitter archive, I’d guess): election websites, a few Facebook pages, historical events, and news sites.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

After hearing Daniel Pink’s keynote at the recent Medical Library Association meeting, I watched his TED talk (The surprising science of motivation) and I found it at least as inspiring as his words at MLA. Pink’s ideas on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation are well-known — People doing creative tasks, he says, are more highly motivated by inner drives than they are by external rewards — I won’t go into detail about his thesis here — I’ll just talk about a couple of stories — One that Pink tells and a little follow-up of my own.

Pink’s story that I found especially interesting is about Wikipedia and Encarta. I’m transcribing it since I don’t find that anyone else has done it. Here’s a link to the segment of the video with the story:

In the mid-1990’s Microsoft started an encyclopedia called Encarta. They employed all the right incentives. They paid professionals to write and edit thousands of articles. Well compensated managers oversaw the whole thing to make sure it came in on budget and on time. A few years later another encyclopedia started — A different model — Do it for fun. No one gets paid a cent or a euro or a yen. Do it because you like to do it. Now 10 years ago if you had talked to an economist … anywhere … and said “Hey, I’ve got these different models for creating an encyclopedia — If they went head to head who would win? 10 years ago you could not have found a single, sober economist anywhere on planet earth who would have predicted the Wikipedia model. This is the Titanic battle between these two approaches. This is the Ali-Frazier of motivation, right, this is the Thrilla in Manila, alright — Intrinsic motivators vs extrinsic motivators — Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose versus Carrots & sticks – And who wins — Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose — in a Knockout.

Great story, well told! Indeed, who would have predicted Wikipedia? Or, in the same vein, who would have predicted blogs and Twitter threatening to replace paid journalists?

My own little story — After returning from a long week at MLA, I watched the Pink video on Friday night of Memorial Day weekend. Partly inspired by Pink’s words and partly by ideas from MLA, I decided I’d spend some holiday time on Monday Twittering about the BP Gulf oil disaster — A subject out of my usual more “serious” use of Twitter but — Intrinsic Motivation 😉 —  It’s an area of personal interest, and a chance to put my Twitter skills to work to do a tiny bit to help save the world, maybe?

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

Nick Bilton’s title phrase — Controlled Serendipity — in the NY Times last week spread virally in the Twitterverse for several days. The phrase resonates for me, with hints of “Zen and the art of Web searching” — How to approach the whole idea of Web searching, cultivating an awareness of when it’s good to follow unexpected paths and when it’s a waste of time (the subject of another article maybe).

The point I want to make here is that Bilton’s article is a good read for librarians — Beyond the catchy title words, he also uses other “library-like” language. Marcus Banks, a librarian at the UCSF Medical Center Library, makes the same point on his blog

Bilton’s language in this post is very reminiscent of library talk:  “filtering,” “curation,” even “serendipity”  (call number systems are designed to encourage serendipity while browsing the shelves.) So there is definitely a role–a huge one, if still ill-defined–for librarians in taming and honing the Web.   As this role becomes more clear, each of us should continue to make our deposits into what Bilton terms the digital “daisy chain.”

So, Librarians — Join the Discussion! If you use Twitter, now’s the time — The stream passes quickly…

A last point — Not enough credit seems to be going to Maria Popova, who’s cited by Bilton as having coined the “Controlled Serendipity” phrase, and who also uses many of the other “library talk” words cited by Banks. So, thank you, Maria — @brainpicker on Twitter — for the great language!

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

Dan Cohen gave an excellent talk in a panel (Is Google Good for History) at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association that brought much attention in the media and in Twitter by people following the conference’s hash tag #AHA2010.

The main focus of Dan’s talk was Google Book Search — He gave a nicely balanced view, noting that it’s been a valuable new source for historians, but also discussing problems with it, especially what he sees as a lack of openness on the part of Google.

The discussion around Dan’s paper brought in many voices and opinions on Google Books — It was especially encouraging to see positive opinions on the usefulness of GBS by historians (about which I’ve blogged) — An opinion that gets little attention and respect on Twitter 😉

So, because I found this discussion so valuable, and because tweets stay in Twitter Search for only 10 days, I’m taking the unusual step of recording all of the tweets retrieved with this search: #aha2010 google, which follows below (The search was done on Jan 14):

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

[Sample pictures from the article discussed below are here — Optimized for mobile viewing.]

A few days ago, Roy Kenagy wrote these interesting comments:

Browsing Twitter today, I was led to a wonderful blog which consists almost entirely of fine art images of people reading. [O Silêncio dos Livros, The Silence of the Books] … As far as I can piece together, the blog is from Hugo Miguel Costa, a bookseller in the small Portuguese city of Portimão.

Costa’s Silêncio is indeed an interesting article, and Roy does a great job of tracing how it got spread around the world in typical Twitter fashion, with many hands keeping the ball rolling, including mine. Building on Roy’s detailed description of the people involved, and their geographic locations, what I found interesting is the combination of “fields of specialty” and nationalities of the tweeters — Starting with the one who really got it going, Andréia Azevedo Soares (@BordadoIngles), a London-based science journalist, who’s from a Brazilian-Portuguese background (which is probably how she happened upon the Silêncio article), with a specialty in health/medicine (which is probably how I happened to be in her Twitter-community.) Here’s Soares’ tweet that got it started:

BordadoIngles: The iconography of the act of reading: the most beautiful list I’ve ever seen:
6:48 AM Dec 22nd

After I picked up the tweet from Soares and @EvidenceMatters, science and medicine people in the UK, it quickly got spread in the US (and back again to Europe, and to Asia) by people in those areas, as well as among librarians, who Roy helped to bring in.

What I find most interesting about this whole sequence is the word “iconography” — Which was first used to refer to Costa’s Silêncio article by Soares, when she introduced it to the English-speaking Twitterverse. I was doubtful about using the that word in my retweet, thinking that it sounded a bit too archaic, and that it would put people off from looking at the elegant pictures in Silêncio. But, to my surprise, it got attention, to the tune of ten RT’s in a day.

As Roy Kenagy points out, it’s difficult to trace the source of Silêncio. It’s also difficult to establish the date when it was first published, since the article has no date attached. Searching for the Portuguese title (Silêncio dos livros) in Google Blog search, I find articles as early as November 12 that refer to it. So it had apparently been around for at least a few weeks before Soares passed it on to the English world. Since Twitter search only goes back about ten days, it’s not possible to see how much it got tweeted in the Portuguese world in November and early December. Searching now for the Portuguese title and its English version finds only two tweets that are not related to the “iconography” thread.

This whole discussion has been especially interesting to me because it touches on so many of the themes I’ve blogged about here. Some of them are:

  • The importance of concise, creative writing in Twitter – The initial words in Soares’ tweet – “The iconography of the act of reading” essentially gave Silêncio a new English-language life. Her qualifying description “the most beautiful list I’ve ever seen” no doubt helped draw interest, but I’m pretty sure from my own experience that the first few words of a tweet are critical in drawing attention. As quickly as Silêncio got spread in the little corner of the Twitterverse that I inhabit, I suspect it will sooner-or-later spread among other Twitter-communities, maybe with another imaginative Tweet handle. (Seeing the Picture: Writing to Get Retweeted: Emphasize What’s Important!)
  • The vibrancy of science journalism on Twitter – There are several people with connections in this area in my Twitter-community, and I’ve learned much from them, I think because they straddle the world of science and publishing, both of which face similar problems to librarianship. (Seeing the Picture: Librarians & Publishers Twitter Together)
  • The uniqueness of Pictures – Silêncio is essentially a blog article made up of nothing but pictures – Pictures on the elusive theme of “reading books,” that many people seem to find fascinating – But how to communicate the subject in a few words? – “Iconography”? “Silence of the books”? As I said, sooner or later someone will think of something better. This all comes back to the ineffable problem of connecting pictures and text, as I discussed in Seeing the Picture’s first article: Think Different: Pictures.
  • Twitter and blogging working together – Silêncio is made up of “silent” pictures, that don’t “talk for themselves” i.e. have few to no words attached. Twitter is a way to hook some words to it. (Seeing the Picture: Keep the Ball Rolling: Twitter & Blogging Together)

Another theme that strikes me here, that I haven’t blogged about (yet), is the remarkable vitality of Net activity in the Portuguese world — Costa’s Silêncio article from Portugal and its spread by Brazil native Soares. I first noticed that there are interesting Portuguese net-happenings last year, when I discovered the phenomenal Twitter presence of Jose Afonso Furtado (@jafurtado), who tweeted circles around the world with his prolific high-quality messages.

Roy Kenagy is @RoyKenagy

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

It’s been occurring to me that our old categories — books and magazines — are losing their meaning in the transition to eBooks and eMagazines. So I was interested to stumble last week on the serendipitous series of Twitter tweets below that nudged me to write this article …

Just as I was about to tweet this message …

ericrumseytemp: Difference Between “Web Pages” & “Magazines” is Getting Blurry View Tweet

What should appear in my Twitter stream but this …

doingitwrong: Worst thing about this piece: The assumption that in 2020 eReaders will be about the same as they are now. /via @PD_SmithView Tweet

And the day before, I had tweeted this …

ericrumseytemp: Prognosticating eBooks – “What Exactly will Define a Book at the End of 2010?” (LA Times: @paperhaus) – Tweet

The three articles linked in these tweets, on eMagazines, eReaders, and eBooks, have the common theme that the digital world is very much in flux, that old formats are likely to change in unpredictable ways. I think this is especially true in the case of picture-laden magazines –The experience of reading an article on the Web that combines text and pictures is pretty much the same, be it on a blog, news source, miscellaneous webpage, or part of a “magazine.” So I’d guess that “magazines” will fairly soon disappear as a category separate from other Web sources. The category of “books,” on the other hand, I think will take longer to lose its meaning – For now, the experience of reading a book is quite similar whether its in paper or online — The game-changer for the “book” category will be when eBooks become connected to each other so they all blend into the ocean of the Web.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

I’ve blogged before about the almost universally negative opinion of Google Books on the blogosphere/twittersphere — I found another notable example last week. On Dec 14, there appeared in NY Times a 12 paragraph article France to Digitize Its Own Literary Works, about President Sarkozy pledging $1.1 billion for book scanning. The article mentions that there has been animosity on the part of Sarkozy toward Google, but doesn’t dwell on this.

In paragraphs 5 and 6, Bruno Racine, president of the National Library, who was interviewed by phone for the article, says the project might be done in partnership with Google. I’ve followed the GBS-France story enough in the last several months that this struck me as surprising. I came across the story on Dec 17, 3 days after it was published, so that there were many links to it on Twitter –Searching in Twitter by its title I found 103 tweets — But surprisingly, only 8 of these mentioned Google. And most of these 8 tweets that did mention Google used terms like “slap at Google … in response to Google uproar … in competition with Google.” One Tweeter — @platformlead – to her credit! – did say “… with Google?”

What’s going on people! Surely more than one of the 103 people who tweeted this article must have seen the mention of a possible partnership with Google. Makes me think people see what they’re looking for. There’s been so much talk about French negativity toward GBS that maybe people just DON’T NOTICE something that shows another side.

Library Journal, to their credit, in this Dec 15 article reporting on the NYT article, did make prominent note in subtitle : “Google might still be a partner, says head of national library” …


Surely someone will notice this in Twitter, I think. But, no, the same blindness continues — Searching in Twitter for the title of this article, I find that only seven people tweeted it. And only one @bcbiupr, mentioned the possible partnership with Google.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp