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Why build MemeStreams?


Why did we build MemeStreams?

One of my earliest memories is of the day my father bought a remote control for our television set. Prior to that day *I* had often served as the family's remote control, standing next to the television and turning its clunky plastic dial until my parents had found something to watch. The high-tech electronic device my father had purchased to replace me was a large brown plastic box which sat on the coffee table next to the couch in our living room. It had 17 big plastic buttons, most of which only produced snow, and a cable that ran around the room and into another box on top of the TV. It changed our television watching habits forever. Where previously I would have to plan to sit down in front of the TV in time to watch a show I wanted to see, now I just flopped onto the couch whenever I was bored and mashed buttons until something interesting appeared. Sometimes I mashed buttons for hours.

If you don't think the world has changed much in the last 20 years you haven't been paying attention.

For several decades now the sector of our economy loosely referred to as information technology has been involved in a full frontal assault on the cost of publishing information. Imagine the cost of getting your message out there in the 1950s. Books, magazines, and newspapers required expensive printing presses, music meant phonograph presses and instruments and recording studios, television and radio meant large broadcasting towers. A great deal of money and resources had to be pooled in order to access any of these things, and only content which was likely to make a return on such a large investment could reasonably be produced, that is, presuming you could convince someone with the money to back your publication.

Garage band rock and roll was one of the earliest breaks from this system, as cheap electronic instruments allowed people with little training and less money to make music, and commonplace electromagnetic tape players gave those bands an easy way to record and distribute their songs. Cheap video cameras and VCRs did the same thing for television. Microprocessors gave birth to cheap office photocopiers, which allowed anyone to publish a small zine or niche magazine. Digital instruments and production systems arrived, reducing the cost of making, producing, and distributing music and video further still. And of course, the personal computer and the Internet now put the ability to reach a worldwide audience via web pages and file sharing services well within the reach of most consumers.

The result of all this innovation? A deluge of information.

I'm swamped. I have a satellite television with something on the order of 1000 channels. I have at least three magazines coming in every day, which get thrown onto a growing stack on my bedroom floor. I have an email inbox with several hundred unread messages. I have access over the Internet to literally 4 terabytes of webpages and bulletin boards and the amount of information is growing every day. The store on the corner carries daily newspapers from major cities all over the world, beamed through space to local printers. The bookstore is now several stories tall, with an entire room devoted to magazines of every variety you can imagine. The local record store is also several times larger then it used to be and it carries CDs that are several times smaller then the records one used to buy there. And it is going to keep going! If CDs and Books don't get smaller I imagine that in 100 years half the city will need to be torn up in order to house a reasonable selection.

There is just way too much information. So much information that I have to pull myself away from it in order to *learn* something! Is this making us smarter? Is this making us more efficient? I have no idea. What I do know is that where in the past we have wanted for better access to information, now we want for better information filters.

In the past, when we wanted information, most of us turned to the mass media. The reason was that we didn't have an alternative. The mass media was the only group of people who had the economy of scale needed to get us the information we wanted. Now we are still turning to the mass media, but for a different reason. The mass media filters out the information we don't want. They tell us what to read, and what we should be thinking about.

The problem with this, of course, is that the mass media is still operating on economies of scale. They only publish information that is of interest to the largest number of people. Any specialized interest or perspectives that we might have must be left by the wayside because they don't appeal to everyone. Those of us with specialized interests are still left with the task of having to root through the information deluge in search of what we want to know, and often we are not even sure what we are looking for.

Furthermore, when the mass media does hit the nail on the head, all we get is a journalist's watered down version of the news intended for people with more general interests. Why can't we get the news direct from the source? Most people who are involved in news events that affect us are certainly publishing on the network somewhere. Why can't we get at the raw information that they are producing? Although sometimes we have access to it, often it is left out because it's not interesting to most readers.

Let me take this line of questions one step further. Wouldn't it be interesting if that raw information that I care about that people made available on the Internet got routed to me automatically, without having to grab the attention of the mass media and filter through it first?

In order to understand the answer to this question we have to flip this information access problem upside down. There has been a great deal of discussion about peer to peer file sharing networks such as Napster and their ability to distribute music to people without the need for the recording industry. Pundits have theorized that small garage bands might be able to promote their music on a system like Napster instead of having to sign a record deal.

The problem with this idea is that most people searching for music on Napster are searching for music they have heard of before. How can you search for a band you've never heard of? How do you know what to download when you don't know what you're looking for? The answer is old-fashioned word of mouth. You listen to new music because your friends have recommended it to you.

These networks of word of mouth that we've built in our society are very powerful. Every slang term you've ever picked up, every joke you've ever told, every offbeat publication or cult film you've ever been into, many of the books you've read, albums you've listened to, restaurants you've eaten at, and products you've bought came to you through your own personal network. A recommendation from a trusted friend is usually far more powerful then thousands of dollars worth of advertising material that gets shoved in your face every year. So why is it still so low tech?

That's the problem we are trying to solve with MemeStreams. We want to provide an easy way for anyone who finds an interesting piece of information at its source to put their stamp of approval on it, and an easy way for each of us to manage information about whose recommendations we like and whose recommendations turn out to be bunk.

Using this infrastructure everyone's web surfing benefits everyone else. We all become the information filters we need so badly, and the network presents us with the information we really want, even if we had no idea it existed.

That's the vision.

-- Tom Cross

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