Lilac and Lime

Contrasts in colour, contrasts in life – Mary Bruce

Archive for March, 2013

Searching with

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of March 2013]

March 2013

I may recently have been among the last of the terrestrials to Google “moshpit”* (nor did anyone around me have a clue, so I wasn’t the very last to haul the search algorithm out of the empire’s vault) but I am certainly beginning to wonder what we did in the days before “hashtags” which have so much more relevance in my life.

* The search became inevitable when I awoke one weekday morning to “I will hold you like a chopstick, save you from the moshpit” belting out of the radio alarm. I drove all the way to work in a fever of ignorance. Lyrics like that remind me all over again why I love prose.

Back to hashtagging on Twitter, and twittering in general.

On 24 February attorney Emma Sadleir (@EmmaSadleir) posted this comment1 : “To say that twitter has been a game-changer for the way we report the courts is like saying that Mozart wrote a couple of catchy tunes”.

This came after a week in which hardcopy newspapers were almost superfluous in reporting on the death of Reeva Steenkamp and subsequent court appearances by Oscar Pistorius. Journalists apparently packed the court precinct before, during and after the hearings, and tweets proliferated. The hashtags #OscarPistorius and #Oscar were both used extensively but it soon became impossible to keep up with the flow of incoming tweets. The problem of volume was exacerbated by cross-posts relating to the imminent Oscar film awards. I was among those who abandoned these pages in favour of a single reporter2 whose number of followers increased from 17 429 to 122 7433 in the relevant seven-day period. Although the information being passed around by all and sundry included speculation and may in itself be open to examination in due course, the reports coming out of court enabled anyone with an interest in the matter to understand what aspects were being presented to the magistrate and get an idea of the nature of the proceedings. A number of attorneys and legal experts posted related tweets and even wrote blog posts on these events (see 4-8 and most of the Internet published between 14 and 25 February 2013).

The Law Society of South Africa was among those making representations to the Parliamentary Committee on the Legal Practice Bill on 19 and 20 February 2013. Instead of using a hashtag, the LSSA opted to create an independent Twitter profile (@LSSALPB). It’s rather disappointing to see only 51 followers kept up with the comprehensive coverage offered in this forum.

The National Association of Democratically Elected Lawyers (NADEL) created the hashtag #NADELAGM2013 on 23 February 2013 and it is still being used to disseminate information as I write this five days later.

Glynnis Breytenbach’s ongoing disciplinary hearing has its own hashtag #breytenbach which publishes periodically from hearing to hearing.

As far as searching for the meaning of moshpits is concerned, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble as the One formerly known as The Teen knew exactly what they are. Now I just lie awake at night praying that no-one is holding her like a chopstick in one. The imagery is overpowering.
Barry Bateman
3 Barry Bateman and Oscar Pistorius : inside the Twitter explosion. Lauren Granger. Memeburn. 22 February 2013
4 Pierre de Vos’s blog
5 Saber Ahmed Jazbhay’s blog
Oscar case : watch your tongue. East Coast Radio. 20 February 2013–watch-your-tongue&oid=1836511&pid=6028&sn=Detail&buffer_share=d6665&utm_source=buffer
7 Botha first casualty of the Pistorius media circus. Michael Trapido. Thought Leader. 21 February 2013
8 Sub judice rule, Oscar and media. Dario Milo and Avani Singh. Independent Online. 24 February 2013

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.


Law firms take a novel approach, and other joyful tidings

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of November 2012]

The main reason Facebook still lives in my phone is the link it provides between the past and the present. Most of my FB contacts date back to teenage friendships and if it wasn’t for FB I would have lost touch with many of them. FB keeps tabs on the globetrotters and provides opportunities for the “if only”s and “thank goodness”es, should I be inclined to indulge in either. My single twisted and unnatural chromosome derives a fair amount of joy from watching some of the previously unfettered and childless become parents and start twitching and squeaking with exposure to the responsibilities that aged their parents. It’s the only form of blatant hypocrisy that causes little flashes of delight to illuminate dark corners of my being. Don’t misunderstand : those areas light up frequently but not for that reason.

Another pleasure I owe to FB has been the forging of new friendships through the old. Quite a few second generation friendships have come to life in this forum. Only last week the recesses glowed in the light of many candles when the son of a good friend posted on his wall a line drawing with the caption “One day things will get better. Until then here is a drawing of a cat”. The post came to mind when I sat down to construct this column and was joined by the ginger feline who is at a loose end while his personal assistant, formerly known as the Teen, is out earning her holiday stash. He is a whole maze of dark corners in stripey pyjamas and knows that I know it. After a number of suggestive glances at the keyboard then my face he gave up trying to get me in a twitter and is now faking deep and peaceful slumber between me and my qwerty.

Talking of Twitter, should you be in need of a short and to-the-point motivation to start tweeting, the article Trending on Twitter : how Twitter can help #lawlibrarians1 fits the bill.

Two legal library initiatives have caught my eye this month :

a) Web developers at the Harvard Law Library are making use of Twitter to showcase an innovative project : the Awesome Box2 aims to create dialogue within the community by encouraging library users to make use of specially marked ‘awesome boxes’ when returning books they feel are outstanding. These are used to compile a database of suggestions that others can access via a website or Twitter, a kind of recommended reading list by peers.

b) A topical development to counter ever-shrinking library budgets has been put into place by the San Diego Law Library Foundation3. The program offers benefits and discounts to law firms for developing or hosting educational law library projects. Individuals are encouraged to contribute to the Speakers and Bloggers Bureaux. These are only three of a number of programs that have been put into effect.

Although it was published last year, I found Christine Sellers’ account of her search for a particular piece of case law4 fascinating. The initial query was whether there was ever a court case in New York between Barnum and Hannum in 1869 or 1870. On investigation, the question was really whether Hannum ever told Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute”. The search lead through online and hardcopy resources and proved to involve two “Cardiff giants”, fake prehistoric men. The case was traced to the New York Supreme Court and the judge and the date of the decision were identified – illustrating perfectly how less authoritative (news) reports can supply details that are not easily found elsewhere. Whether or not this search ended satisfactorily you will find out by reading the article.

On the theme of hoaxes involving the legal community, had you read that both Barack and Michelle Obama had “voluntarily surrendered” their law licenses after allegedly lying on a Bar application and to escape a fraud trial respectively? You may find the story behind the story5 interesting.

I was reminded of how dependent I am on running quick online checks for hoaxes when I was suckered by the Facebook copyright notice ; a wonky Internet connection decided me against checking on this occasion. Lesson learnt. David Pogue, as interesting as ever, explains the reasons this notice is not valid6.

It was sobering to read that the best selling Kindle book for 20127 is one of the Fifty Shades of Grey set. It is likely you have read in the news of a law firm that is offering visitors to their website a (ahem, non-binding) contract based on the novel/s8. Sauce for the goose, so to speak, has brought the gander into the equation and another law firm has also secured business linked to the novels9 by negotiating a deal for clients giving them exclusive world rights to the design, manufacture and sale of “adult pleasure products” inspired by the books. It may not be convincing to say I have read nothing more than the covers of any of the trilogy but my word is my bond. As brief as it was, that literary encounter was deeply satisfying, being precipitated by the antics of a guy a bit further down the bookshop from me as he tried to have a surreptitious sneak peek without leaving fingerprints. I’m currently engaged in rereading many of my favourite books and, besides, at my age one doesn’t take the threat of going blind lightly.

May 2013 be the year that returns with interest the vibes and energy we have been putting into the universe. As tempting as it is to say ‘sunshine and happiness to all’, we do not need any escalation of the former so I’ll end with the wish that your dark corners also frequently have reason to sparkle with delight

1 Trending on Twitter : how Twitter can help #lawlibrarians. George Carter. AALL Spectrum. November 2012
2 Library Lab puts on show. Brianna D MacGregor. The Harvard Crimson. 15 November 2012
3 Law library announces partnership program. San Diego Source. 6 November 2012 – .ULSmsR1JMfU
4  The hoax is on you : a short question about a tall tale. Christine Sellers. In Custodia Legis. 25 August 2011
5 Obama’s law license. David Emery. Urban legends on
6 You can stop spreading that Facebook notice now. David Pogue. New York Times. 26 November 2012
7 Amazon best sellers of 2012
8 Personalised lovers’ contract. McEntegart Legal ;
9 Thrings ties up Fifty Shades of Grey deal for Lovehoney. Insider Media Limited. 2 November 2012

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

Of Further Pinterest

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of August 2012]


Very few facets of our lives can be strictly compartmentalised into work or play. Software that we may have initially used for social or entertainment purposes, like Facebook or YouTube or Twitter, soon found application in the business sector. Even SARS is now utilising YouTube1 as an educational tool to assist taxpayers – not that the forum makes taxation fun, but credit is due. (What a lovely ring that phrase has : I feel a 16pt bold emoticon coming on).

Hype is hollow but any web service that attracts more traffic than LinkedIn, YouTube and Google+ together, and generates more referral traffic than Twitter is not to be sneezed at – especially when this happens within two years of inception. My previous column sniffed around the ankles of Pinterest as the potential for application within the library environment was immediately discernible, even if the details needed fleshing out. (Sniffing and sneezing : what could I have been thinking).

A recent infographic2 highlights trends among Pinterest users3 ; interestingly, the third highest job title was “Education, Training and Library”.

The American Library Association’s ACRL will be hosting a live webcast later this month that focuses on Pinterest4 as a “strong resource in the modern academic library tool box”. The notice elaborates : “Pinterest is important for academic and research libraries because of its implications for information usage, content sharing, service enhancements, and opportunities for collaboration and PR”. Possible applications include “marketing services and collections, leveraging the tool for subject liaison activities, utilizing Pinterest for instruction and orientation, optimizing online resources for use with Pinterest to extend their reach, addressing ethical use of visual information through proper applications and considerations, and for teaching and expanding information literacy skills”.

A recent article on the use of Pinterest for business5 offers many useful pointers. Anyone considering expanding their online presence into this forum will benefit from Donna Moritz’s suggestions but I have focused on those that particularly caught my attention, starting with the use of a company logo, keywords and links in setting up the account. Work with an ‘ideal client’ in mind with a view to meeting their needs. Copyright is a two-way channel : one is reminded to be aware of ethics when identifying sources and to consider using watermarks to protect the integrity of one’s own material. Pins should include a variety of images such as infographics and text images. (Infographics are described as “a graphic, eye-catching visual representation of information, data or knowledge” and are a popular visual tool at present). The article refers to a number of products to assist in the creation of graphics. Keep a balance between one’s own content and information from other sources. Make an events board. These catch phrases should resonate : “become the go-to-source for information” ; “add value and engage”.

For a very nifty example of how Pinterest can be utilised, visit

I still find internal search results a bit disconcerting. Compare the results from “law society” (somewhat haphazard results) with “kwazulu-natal” which lead me to websites ranging from holiday accommodation to the philharmonic orchestra. These are of course entirely dependent on how Pinterest users collate and link their pins but we are sure to see huge improvements as people become familiar with the site.

My seasonal wish is that the potential fires you up as much as it has me.

2 Just Pin It : the Pinterest Lifestyle Infographic / Modea
3  Who’s using Pinterest anyway? Zoe Fox. 15 June 2012
4  Pinterest and academia : [e-Learning webcast to take place on 18 September 2012] / American Library Association. Association of College and Research Libraries
5  The 10 commandments of using Pinterest for business

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

Piqueing your Pinterest

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of May 2012]


One could be forgiven for feeling that social media has peaked and is unlikely to produce anything to further pique our curiosity. Therefore I didn’t take much note when ‘Pinterest’ icons started appearing at the end of news articles and elsewhere on the Internet. In fact, I didn’t even read up about it immediately but it is now obvious that it has indeed brought something new to the drawing board and fills a niche.

Pinterest has been around for a little over two years but by August 2011 Times magazine included it in the best websites of that year and by December it ranked among the top ten social network sites. It’s another story of small makes good which I always find heart-lifting.

The best introduction would be to visit the homepage and look around for yourself. I anticipate a good many happy hours of discovery ahead and there is sure to be plenty to grab the attention of even the most jaded eye as one delves into it.

Pinterest is a collection of ‘pinboards’. Those who have signed up can load their own material or link to other websites (hence the burgeoning number of ‘pinterest’ icons to be seen around). Links can be to video clips or anything else of interest. Individual users create new boards for different themes which has made this a seriously nifty way of sharing one’s own hobbies and finding others with similar interests. Tweets sending readers to Pinterest boards are becoming increasingly frequent and are a good way of drawing attention to less obvious information. Visitors are able to add comments and ‘re-pinning’ of existing pins is accepted, expected and encouraged.

There is a system of etiquette to be followed. Wikipedia provides a useful general background1.

Pinterest did bump its head on copyright issues to begin with but has accepted legal advice and adapted its terms and conditions accordingly.

Getting started is as easy as asking a friend who is already in the network to send an invitation ; in my case I requested an invitation directly from Pinterest. This arrived by email within about twenty-four hours. I am still browsing around acquainting myself with the hows, wheres and whys but suspect it could easily become a consuming hobby in its own right.

It is however so much more. Do read the article Pinterest as a learning tool : do the two compute?2. The potential for sharing information and communicating it to others is immense. Considering the attention the role of mobile phones as tools for educators is currently receiving, it will be more than surprising if Pinterest doesn’t grow exponentially in the next couple of years.

I hope to write a follow-up article later in the year once my pinboard/s are up and running and would love to hear from others in this regard. Shall we make it a challenge to create our own interest groups and share our experiences in a few months?

In the meantime, do visit Pinterest ; you are sure to love it. Here’s a link to start you off : It’s already lead me to which has inspired some home-improvement ideas and then I need to show Lydia and . . .

1 Wikipedia. Pinterest
 Pinterest as a learning tool : do the two computer? / Charlie Osborne. 24 April 2012

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

Weighing the options : and being found wanting, very wanting

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of December 2011]

For those of us who are yet to acquire an e-reader, the choice of products seem to get ever wider and the costs ever lower but, as with so many decisions, there is no obvious single winner. Two of the people whose technological decisions I most respect have fallen right up against the same fence, just some distance apart. The first is an early adopter of note and soon owned the first Kindle I had seen in this country. He still swears by it. The second has given the matter some consideration but is not to be rushed ; he is currently awaiting the arrival of the Kindle Fire in South Africa, a choice influenced largely by the extended applications he will have access to from a multi-functional tablet rather than a dedicated e-reader. And then there’s a colleague who is so happy with her Mobi access that she’s not even considering acquiring an e-reader.

When narrowing down which product best suits your needs, there is a mega-list of factors to consider :
e Do you only want to read books, or do your interests extend to newspapers, blogs, magazines, and so on? Do you want to be able to surf too? Do you want access to sound files and videos?
e Are you going to want to read in sunlight and/or at night or in other environments? How will the display cope? Does it have a backlight?
e Do you feel less eye strain using one option compared to another?
e Do you prefer a qwerty keyboard to touchscreen navigation?
e Does the menu layout suit your style or complicate matters?
e Check the battery life
e Compare portability : dimensions including thickness, weight
e Is connectivity through 3G or Wi-Fi or both?
e Where relevant, compare consistency over upgrades. Once you’ve made a commitment it’s going to be harder to switch to a different system down the line
e You are going to have to choose between Kindle (Amazon)’s relatively limited choice of file formats, or the wider options offered with other e-readers
e What content/choice of titles will be available through your chosen product? What are the cost and other implications? Ask questions, lots of them
e Essentially, make sure the product and services are supported in South Africa
e Price

The article Comparing the Kindle 2, Nook, and Sony Reader3 provides cogent guidelines. It points out that all three options include bookmarking, highlighting text and a dictionary ; however, only two enable one to borrow or share books and there is a vast difference in storage capacity. If consistency in page numbering between the ‘real world’ and what you see on screen worries you, one option is going to drive you insane. A particular reader can actually read to you. A different one claims to be the only e-reader that allows you to browse books prior to purchase.

The aforementioned Kindle Fire was released in the US on 14 November, costs $199 USD and measures 190x120x11.4mm. It is a tablet rather than e-reader and has a colour touch display. The battery will allow up to eight hours of reading. Rather interestingly, it has an email application that allows various webmail accounts to be merged into one inbox. The Wikipedia entry4 includes a host of interesting specs.

Lots to think about as this year winds down to its natural conclusion. Many of us have experienced recent unseasonal weather which is not the brightest of ways to welcome the holiday season. It doesn’t seem too big a figment of the imagination to see us starting the festive close-down with our noses pressed against windows asking “Can you see the rain, dear”?

But, rain or shine, we can console ourselves with the thought that we are valued for more than our battery life, portability and whether our displays sometimes feel more lead than LED.

Best wishes for 2012, dear e-Reader.

With thanks to Wayne, Kerwin and Collette for comments on their experiences

1 Buying guide : how to choose an e-book reader / Priya Ganapati. 22 May 2009
2 Find the perfect e-reader / Melissa J Perenson. 29 November 2011
3 Comparing the Kindle 2, Nook, and Sony Reader – for dummies
4 Kindle Fire
5 E-Readers : reviews of the Kindle, Nook and other e-readers
6 eReader review : what to look for in an eReader comparison

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

“Popcorn, chewing-gum, peanuts and bubble gum” : not on the A list but they may be here

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of August 2011]

Although I generally manage to behave myself, well, quite a lot of the time – or sometimes then, I find it quite possible to while away the boredom of supermarket queues by observing the contents of others’ baskets. Not in a snoopy kind of way but in enjoyment of the seemingly random combinations of items that land up going home together after time on the shelf. Occasionally I find myself looking at my own basket in the same way. That’s pretty much how I feel surveying the articles, products and services that have caught my attention recently and are now about to be bound together for better or worse.

Sausages, peas, blusher

Despite the fate of my groceries, I can think of few worse things than being pushed into a box, constrained by someone else’s concept of what I should be. It was therefore with interest that I read Karen Jeynes’s post1 on how women who have an active online presence are perceived. Do we really wish or deserve to fall into the categories of “maiden, mother, crone”? Like the author and undoubtedly most of us, all three elements are a part of who I am ; but I am also so much more. My choice of avatar/s would certainly not place me in the obviously sexy category. In fact, my followers would probably identify my online wobbly bits as occasional rants on Twitter rather than anything more carnal. The observations are thought-provoking, though I find it inexplicable that there are those who revel in promoting a “bad ass” reputation, or who canvass followers by means of overtly suggestive images and comments. There is so much diversity to cherish and, yes, flaunt. Consider those commentators/columnists/observers you enjoy reading regularly. Isn’t it their quirkiness and ability to see the unexpected that makes them who they are? I finished reading this post with a determination to continue celebrating who I am and who I want to be and not feeling obliged to conform to stereotypes, even one as evocative as “crone”.

Bird seed

My personal Twitter account has enabled me to build a network of publishers, well-known journalists, government officials, politicians, local personalities, existing friends and random profiles that together give me access to a wider variety of information than any other single facility I have come across, particularly in terms of interaction. My input is diverse and periodic, ranging from retweets of facts or comments that beg for further exposure to observations of my own ; silent partners are not valued in social networks, although a surfeit of silliness will make one even more unpopular. There is no reason I can think of to archive my tweets at this stage, apart from as an experiment to assess various online tools that offer this service. The reason for the surge in this type of product is that Twitter Search now only covers messages in the preceding week or two.

Starting with what seems to be the easiest option2, Twinbox integrates Twitter into Outlook, an email package that many of us use constantly. Read the product’s promo for full details but this is one I’m likely to try out. It offers keyword search and tracking, administration of multiple Twitter accounts, sorting of new tweets into per-sender folders, status updates from Outlook, management of replies and DMs, as well as graphs of usage statistics, among other features.

Next is the option I find most intriguing. It involves the use of OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) which the article3 describes as a “simple protocol for dynamic information delivery”. That alone will get it into my basket. One needs to have a Google Reader account and this product. There are directions for the creation of OPML files that will archive the tweets of selected profiles, going back two years. Once the files have been created they are imported into Google Reader. This isn’t being advocated as a way to read tweets but rather as a method to archive, retrieve and search messages from the profiles you choose. With these files one can sort twitter users into files in different folders in Reader which in turn will facilitate searches in particular folders. To borrow from another social network, “It’s complicated”. But oh, it sounds so worthwhile.

For those who are going to go out and experiment, another service I came across is The Archivist4 but I haven’t explored it at this stage.

Salad veg, fruit mix, nuts, vine leaves and vino

If anyone is still wondering about the real value of social networks, here are three special interest online communities that may capture your imagination :

WiserEarth5 is described as “the social network for sustainability. It exists to “connect, collaborate, share knowledge and build alliances” and “help the global movement of people and organizations working towards social justice, indigenous rights and environmental stewardship” ;

Experience Project6 enables individuals to “support a cause or start your own”. Highlighted themes on the day I visited the site included ‘I want to help people’, ‘I have diabetes’, ‘I live in a sexless marriage’, and ‘I have premonitions’. So diverse that I feel like I’m standing in four queues simultaneously, but undoubtedly worth a closer look when I have premonitions, suspect my sugar levels, live in a . . . Oh wait, I digress ;

Couch Surfing7 could be invaluable to those who are planning to visit a particular foreign shore for the first time. Emphasis seems to be on making safe personal connections with reviews and recommendations from within the community.

Notebook, pens, hammock, Harry Potter and The Ceramicist

To wrap up, a selection of social networks catering specifically for book lovers :

Goodreads8 was referred to in the previous column. It describes itself as the “largest social network for readers in the world : we have more than 5 500 000 members who have added more than 170 000 000 books to their shelves” ;

LibraryThing9 also sees itself as “the world’s largest book club”, and has also been mentioned in an earlier column. Once users have created their online catalogues, the choice is theirs to keep them private or make them public ;

weRead10 has “more than 3 million readers and 60 million books . . . easily the most popular book site around”. There’s a “never ending book quiz”, discussion boards, etc ;

Shelfari11 includes “authors, aspiring authors, publishers, and readers” in its network and encourages interaction with authors ;

There is also aNobii12 which takes its name from Anobium Punctatum, “the Latin name for the most common bookworm” which I found quite an endearing aspect in a sea of like-minded networks.

The more adventurous might like to take a look at Byliner13, “a publishing company and social network built around great stories” that “typically range between 10 000 and 35 000 words and are available in digital form”.

You can tell this is not one of my genuine shopping-lists from a mile away : (a) no chocolate and (b) the items are not in alphabetical order. The supermarket manager is also taking his time in capitulating and reorganizing his store into a more orderly layout. “Persuasive home executive” leaves him unmoved, as does “end of day office worker” ; does he really want to meet “crone”?

1 Perceptions of women online are stuck in the Dark Ages / Karen Jeynes. 14 September 2011
2 Twinbox : use Twitter directly from Outlook
3How To: Backup And Search All Your Friends’ Tweets In Google Reader
4 The Archivist
5 WiserEarth
6 Experience Project
7 Couch Surfing
8 Goodreads
9 LibraryThing
11 Shelfari
12 aNobii
13 Byliner

PS Having typed this up in the middle of the night on my daughter’s notebook, I love her more than ever : she too does not use Spell Check. More power to you, Spell Chick Two

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

She Sells Sea Shells to a Fish Called Wander

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of May 2011]

The Internet is a really strange environment in which to find myself not only working but positively revelling when I have time to spare. I say this because, for as long as I can remember, there has been little that makes my heart drop as much as going into a library or shop with no particular mission in mind. So much of my time is spent looking for specific information for either myself or on request for others that the thought of just ‘browsing’ is overwhelming.

As so often happens in life, and an aspect that thoroughly fascinates me, a number of recent threads came together in the last week relating to how and why the wide array of information that bombards us constantly is brought to our attention.

The first of these was a Twitter topic relating to how celebrities and Gareth Cliff in particular may or may not be producing sponsored tweets. While I used to enjoy some of Cliff’s humour, I haven’t followed him for a long time and can safely say I am not influenced if he does make use of this practise. There will be plenty of information available online but, in brief, companies are paying well-known personalities to post anything from a 140-character Tweet to blog posts endorsing a particular brand or product and, needless to say, the amounts they pay are not mean. The ire of many online users was raised because having unsolicited commercial information posted by an apparently unrelated source could be perceived as an abuse of one’s trust.

The second thread came in the form of a brief blog post entitled What comes after keyword search? 1. It drew my attention to the field of recommendation engines. Although most of us will be familiar with the practicalities, I hadn’t given much thought to the variety of predictive mechanisms that are used to try and meet the expectations of visitors and, where commercial interests reign, to tempt potential shoppers into further purchases.

We have become used to the way Google’s Page Rank works, relying on the number and to an extent identity of links to a webpage to display search results in a useful way. Google has also become known for using personal browsing habits to formulate profiles and provide ‘personalised’ results ; if the relevant settings are utilised, one will also get results based on one’s location. More recent approaches to identifying useful links have brought a number of other factors to the table.

While there are a number of ways of classifying how websites try to make sense of the statistics available to them, The art, science and business of recommendation engines2has identified four categories : personalised, social and item recommendations, and a combination of these approaches. The first relies on statistics relating to the individual visitor’s usage of the site ; the second is based on the way other visitors have used the site, and the third relates to individual items.

Every article I read agrees that Amazon leads the way in providing useful suggestions about products that may be of interest. Not surprising considering the resources at their disposal and the potential to attract more sales if they get the algorithms right.

In 2000 genetics was brought into the equation with the development of a service that could offer music based on as little as one’s choice of a single piece3. Of course many man hours have been put into breaking down common features to find ‘similar’ music, not as straightforward as it sounds. ”The natural question is can this genes-based approach be applied to other areas – like books, movies, wines, restaurants or travel destinations? What constitutes genes for each category?”

 “So if the genes are the attributes of the object that make it unique in our mind, we should have no problem coming up with genes for various things. In the past few years we have been doing this a lot online. It’s called tagging!”2

Tagging is of course one of Del.icio.us8’s primary features. The same article2 makes an interesting observation : “the approach holds intriguing possibilities of self-organizing classification and recommendation systems. With enough users and more tweaking, social tagging can result in a system that works equally well for books, wine and music . . . these approaches hold the promise to provide instant gratification, without asking the user to reveal her preferences and past history”.

Visiting sites with the express purpose of identifying how they try to anticipate my requirements and interests is proving to be a fascinating exercise. Examples I’ve referenced below include Huffington Post’s experiment in bringing relevant news articles to the attention of visitors7, Goodreads Book Club3 (infinite browsing potential here based on any number of recent statistics), and Etsy’s Taste Test5. In the case of the latter, the site lists about 8 million items so there has been an urgent need to find ways of catching the interest of visitors by drawing their attention to specific items that seem to be to their taste.

Now the downside.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing recommender systems is that they need a lot of data to effectively make recommendations” 6

This is where we come in. As with anything in life, and technology especially, what comes out is only as good as what goes in. We can all benefit from relevant suggestions by others, so do we take the time to make some input when we visit sites that ask for feedback? If we have enjoyed a book or product, why not say so and allow others to benefit from our experience?

At the end of last year I found myself urgently needing to find a reputable kennel for our old lady for a few days. One of Twitter’s claims to fame is the potential it has for spot surveys. I must admit that those surveys I’ve investigated don’t generally attract a huge number of voters, but they do provide an interesting cross-section of opinions. So I turned to Twitter and asked fellow Pietermaritzburg residents for suggestions. Fortunately Maritzburg is quite well represented on Twitter and we are a fairly vocal bunch. More than one person suggested a particular kennel and cattery just out of town that I hadn’t even heard of. It turned out to offer superlative service at a reasonable rate and I couldn’t have been happier. Neither could our Staffie who was even offered heated premises during a particularly cold spell. Fortunately she didn’t come home with higher expectations but she certainly won’t object if she needs to board there again.

These are exciting times as we watch the melding of Web 2.0 and 3.0. Let’s be a part of it.

1 What comes after keyword search? Legal Talk Network. March 2011
2 The art, science and business of recommendation engines. 16 January 2007
3 The Music Genome Project
4 Good Reads
5 Etsy Taste Test
6 5 problems of recommender systems / Richard MacManus. 28 January 2009
7 Stories you might like : join our beta program to test HuffPost recommendations. 6 January 2011
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Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.