Accessibility Featured Notes Usability

Information wants to be free. The database as the media of tomorrow

Lev Manovich
Lev Manovich – photo by Ssahn. Make sure to see his collection of one-eyed people. I don’t know why he makes it, but I like it. Especially this one.

Last week Anne Helmond visited a talk by Lev Manovich and I almost forgot how he argues – for a long time – that the database is media as well. He’s completely right, and you can see this slowly emerging to a more prominent place in our digital culture.

If the database as a medium sounds vague to you think about it. You store your personal things in databases all over the web. You don’t see those databases but you know them as Flickr, Twitter, Google, Amazon, This website. The database is an object like an infinite cabinet with information.

The database itself is boring, it labels and stores content. Exciting are the connections you make when querying the database for information.

The interface performs queries on the database to retrieve information. If you type it will show you the last 18 photos I have uploaded to Flickr and set to ‘public’.

This is how we have used the database for years. The owner makes a service and decides what queries a particular interface can do on the database. With the introduction of API’s (programmable interfaces) this changed. With an API the database becomes a semi-public object. With an API everyone can build the connections within the information that he or she wants to make.

The API opens the closed circuit between an interface and the database. With an API the same database with the same information can have unlimited different interfaces with unlimited different functionalities performing different queries.

The database itself has become the object. What you store in a database and the amount of valuable information you can retrieve decides the value of the database.

And since the medium shapes the message, the database as a medium will eventually shape the message and thus its content.

How do we store information?
If we make information ready for an unlimited amount of outlets (interfaces and templates) we have to think about how we build up this information. For example think about text. If you make a story ready to publish on different media without editing it over and over again. How would you set up this story? Does it need a headline, introduction, paragraphs? Do you need tags, relations, quotes? How many words, does it need a summary?

The database will be a serious medium to work with in the future. We can’t continuously adapt our content to every new media (outlet) available. It’s too labour intensive.

Will the database as a more prominent medium change the way we make content? What are your thoughts about this?

5 replies on “Information wants to be free. The database as the media of tomorrow”

It’s already changing it. I saw some sites yesterday with livestreaming: people combining what they do on Flickr, Twitter, YouTube,, Plazes, their own weblog, etc etc and combine it into a separate website that just features what they are doing throughout the day. All made possible by APIs

You just summed up my thesis! Researcher danah boyd argues in “A Blogger’s Blog: Exploring the Definition of a Medium” that instead of seeing blogs as a form of technology or as a form of cultural activity we should see blogs as a medium and a diverse social practice.

The medium of the blog is currently dictated by the database. Even though a database poses no structure on the content all blog themes follow pretty much the same structure. When this structure is changed or defied people raise the question whether that blog is still a blog.

This sentence also caught my eye: “What you store in a database and the amount of valuable information you can retrieve decides the value of the database.” This sums up perfectly why Google’s database is priceless. Google’s “Database of Intentions” is a goldmine.

The database of intentions is a goldmine, I totally agree. Funny you mention it. I had it in this blogpost first but then removed it, because I thought the post would end up even more abstract to people unknown with the subject. But I’m glad you bring it up.

John Battelle really emphasized this in The Search.

The success of Google is the best proof that we are moving from push to pull. And pull means a different way of organizing your information as a provider. With every pull – you the provider – get new information about what your visitors want. I think we underestimate the value of this when designing new interfaces or interactive applications. We design from a push culture, how do we present all our information in this really small interface.

A database doesn’t push information it just sits there waiting for someone to pull something out of it. We disconnected the user from the database by building interfaces that connect to the database with certain rules and push the information back to you. We think from old media while using new media.

For example this website pulls this comment out of the database and pushes it in the place where you are reading it right now. This comment is also bound to the context of this particular entry and your comments above. Is this comment an object in itself or is it part of a narrative?

Do we need interfaces for narratives? Or can we just group large amounts of information in clusters that have connections but no preformed narratives? A bit like the internet, you jump from object to object and from interface to interface.

The weblog interface didn’t become this popular for no reason. The weblog interface is a timeline and narrative. It shows you the last messages ordered by time. And by reading more you get to know the author.

The weblog interface is ahead of other interfaces it is less structured, it is ordered by time, author or topic. It’s not completely free, but it’s more enhanced compared to the ‘traditional’ website. And you see how this works. The interface used for blogs is getting copied by ‘traditional’ companies to reform there ‘traditional’ website.

Right now bloggers are already struggling with ways to solve the problem that their content is in different formats in different databases, by building aggregators, feeds and widgets.

What do you think are elements that the next generation of web interfaces should have?

It seems like we are constantly thinking along the same lines. I am currently writing about ‘Rethinking the blog as database’ (expect a link dump soon!).

What’s so interesting is that the database logic (on the web) is replacing the narrative logic (in movies). However, the narrative logic is still embedded in blogs in their reverse chronological order.

I think we are finally seeing a break from this narrative logic in WordPress themes with the advent and popularity of Magazine-like and Photothemes that not necessarily put the most frequent topic on top.

Still thinking about your final question.

It’s a difficult discussion. Narratives are in our culture we are storytellers, this is one of the methods we use to transfer knowledge and emotions. On the other hand we learn more if we are in control. This suits perfectly to the logic of the database, we control the story.

I’m believe in narratives, although I think in the future information will be more published in fragments. A good example for this is Twitter. A tweet by itself is often worthless information. Your personal narrative (al the tweets from a certain person you have read before) make the individual tweet valuable. This is personal (public) and fragmented storytelling.

Scoble is doing some public research into the future of blogs. He talks about problems that are very real to bloggers right now. How to implement widgets and other stuff into your weblog interface without creating information chaos. In other words how to build a personal aggregator.

Can’t wait for the linkdump :)

Comments are closed.