The memorable phrase Controlled Serendipity, from the title of Nick Bilton’s recent much-discussed NY Times article, keeps going through my head. That phrase, as well as other catchy language, is attributed by Bilton to Maria Popova (@brainpicker). Surprisingly, Popava has not been mentioned much in the buzz, so I’m excerpting her striking language


Here’s Bilton quoting Popova (with my boldfacing of the Librarianesque, Meta-ish phrases that stick in my mind):
“Another purveyor of fine content is Maria Popova, who calls this curating ‘controlled serendipity,’ explaining that she filters interesting links to thousands of strangers out of her thirst for curiosity. Mrs. Popova uses a meticulously curated feed of Web sites and Twitter followers to find each day’s pot of gold. She says, ‘I scour it all, hence the serendipity. It’s essentially “metacuration” — curating the backbone, but letting its tentacles move freely. That’s the best formula for content discovery, I find.’ ”

Looking at Popova’s Twitter page and blog, more creativity jumps out (again, boldfacing some of my favorite words):
… From her Twitter Bio: “Interestingness curator & semi-secret geek obsessed with design, storytelling & TED” … And the byline for her blog: “Curating eclectic interestingness from culture’s collective brain.” (What a lot packed into that!)

Beyond America: The *Wide World* Web – Maria Popova is apparently a native of Bulgaria (although her Twitter page says she lives in LA) — Which brings up something I’ve noticed for many years — Often some of the most creative, innovative work on the Web comes from countries other than the US. I thought about this again recently, when researching an article on Apple honchos Steve Jobs (whose biological father is Syrian) and Jonathan Ive, who’s from Britain. Leaving aside the question of why this non-US strength in quality web-work happens, I think it’s worth noting that it does. I’ve been thinking about making a tag to describe this (which I can use for several articles already), and I’m thinking about what to call the tag. Surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be a smooth, non-negative phrase for this (offshore, international, non-US don’t feel right). So I’m thinking of using the tag Wide World — Not strictly accurate, of course, since the US is part of the world, but I think it communicates the sense of the idea. I’m open to suggestions, via comment or email.

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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

When I first read the passage below in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories three years ago, it struck me as a remarkable word picture of my experience of the Web. So of course I went right to Google to see if anyone else had made this connection — My searching, surprisingly, has found little since then, so I’ve thought about writing it up, but it didn’t get done. In the last week, I’ve gotten nudges (discussed below) that tell me this is the time. Here’s Rushdie:

Haroun looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Pow! Isn’t this a strikingly clear metaphorical description of the Web Stream that we all swim in every day? My first idea of a title for this article was “Did Salman Rushdie predict the Web?” I decided that was a bit too presumptuous  — But not by much — The passage does indeed verge on prediction. It was written in 1990 — Interestingly, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee “invented” the World Wide Web. It’s tempting to imagine the left-brained engineer (Berners-Lee) and the right-brained artist-seer (Rushdie) both envisioning the future Web in their own ways — Berners-Lee in outlining his Web ideas at CERN, and Rushdie in writing Haroun.

How has this passage and its Webishness gone unnoticed for so many years? Haroun is a story on many levels — Rushdie wrote it for his young son, and it’s often put in the category of “childrens’ literature.” I suspect this is the main reason it hasn’t been read often enough by grown-up Web users for someone to have seen Rushdie’s Stream of the Web metaphor. (Note that Haroun is on a prominent list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time)

How about the library connections in the passage? As a librarian, it certainly occurs to me that it could be viewed as being especially about libraries, maybe even seen as a threat to the traditional print library (“storeroom of yarns”). But I think, to the contrary, that Rushdie’s passage does the library world a great service, ushering us into the “liquid tapestry” of the digital Ocean, in which the Stream of “the library” will be able to “weave in and out” with the “thousand thousand and one different currents” outside of the traditional library world. Recent discussions of Google Book Search and orphan books show that the world is eagerly anticipating the stories in libraries being put into “fluid form.” And, in fact, library leader Peter Brantley, in commentary on GBS written in January 2009, talking about the coming age of digital books, uses language reminiscent of Rushdie: “We stride into a world where books are narratives in long winding rivers … and seas from which all rivers and rain coalesce.”

Speaking of the library world — As mentioned, there has been a notable lack of anyone else seeing a connection between the Rushdie passage and the Web. But the closest I’ve seen is in a paper co-authored by an engineer (JH Lienhard) and two librarians (JE Myers, TC Wilson), that was written in 1992, Surfing the Sea of Stories: Riding the Information Revolution (Mechanical Engineering 1992 Oct; 114(10): 60-65). This does an excellent job of connecting the Rushdie passage to the coming digital revolution, as it was seen in 1992, and contains the perceptively-done graphic in this article (above). But of course the full-blown Web was not born until 1995, so this view is limited. (The paper is summarized in the transcript of a radio program about it.)

Nudges for writing about this in the last week: First, In his blog article, Is The Stream What Comes After the Web?, Nova Spivack suggests that the metaphor of The Stream may soon replace The Web. The article doesn’t mention Rushdie, but it has elicited much discussion on Twitter, and someone would surely make the connection soon. Spivack does mention Twitter, saying that it and other microblogging systems are “the best example of the Stream,” which is related to the other nudge I’ve gotten, a blog article by Joff Redfern, Twitter is becoming the Ocean of the Stream of Stories. This is short , consisting mainly of the Rushdie quote above, but with its title it would likely be connected to Spivack’s Stream and Rushdie’s Streams of Stories sooner or later. Taken together, I think the articles by Spivack and Redfern indicate that Twitter is bringing to peoples’ minds the “stream-like” nature of the Web — The way big streams (e.g. swine flu 2 weeks ago) weave in and out with the day-to-day small streams of peoples’ lives on the Twitter ocean, with the stories constantly rewriting themselves.

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Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumseytemp

Working on Swine Flu this week has been especially interesting because it makes me reflect on how much things have changed in the information landscape since I worked on SARS in 2003 and Bird Flu in 2004-05. In those outbreaks, the main source of information was lists of links found in Google. How much that has changed now, with Twitter! People use Twitter in different ways — For me the most valuable part of it is the links in tweets. In former outbreaks, when Google was the “king of links,” it was especially hard to keep up with current news stories. Now links to breaking news stories appear within minutes in Twitter.

Evgeny Morozov, in his article, Swine flu: Twitter’s power to misinform complains about the chaotic nature of Swine Flu information in Twitter:

There are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter’s role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu. … [Twitter users] armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic. … Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process … The “swine flu” Twitter-scare has … proved the importance of context — The problem with Twitter is that there is very little context you can fit into 140 characters.

Anyone who’s used Twitter knows that there’s much truth here. Especially for a new user, it’s hard to separate the Twitter wheat from the Twitter chaff. But it can be done. To show the shallow, mindless nature of Twitterers, Morozov quotes text from tweets about Swine Flu. And he’s right, they’re pretty valueless. But, clicking to look at the writers’ profile pages shows that most of them are fairly inexperienced, with relatively few updates and followers, so it’s not surprising that their tweets are bad. Which goes to show, just as with online sources in general, in Twitter it’s important to check the source! Find out who’s behind the information.

So, while I agree with Morozov that Twitter has some negatives, I think we need to appreciate the positive value it has added to our ability to exchange information rapidly, that will certainly make us better able to deal with a real pandemic if it occurs. In composing this article, I came across a good conversation in Twitter that speaks to my ideas:

@PhilHarrison: Twitter is relatively new & we’re all learning about its power to inform & misinform as well. (bold added)
@charlesyeo: During SARS, some people in Asia blamed media for not exposing cases earlier so the sick can get help!

Note that the second tweet, by charlesyeo, comes back to the point I made in the first paragraph, that lack of information was a serious problem in the SARS epidemic. Twitter has clearly improved that.

Another valuable of Twitter in the Swine Flu epidemic has been the vibrancy of its international participation — Before Swine Flu, I had learned to value the prolific and multi-lingual tweeting of Jose Afonso Furtado (@jafurtado), a librarian in Portugal who tweets mostly on library/publishing subjects. When the Swine Flu epidemic broke out seriously in Mexico, he tweeted on that, and through his tweets I was able to connect on Twitter with people in Europe and Latin America who were following the situation in Mexico.

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumseytemp