Alex Steer

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Permanent brokenness: stray thoughts on wikis and leaks

572 words | ~3 min

Quick one this, late at night.

Fast Company Design has a nice overview of some of the best representations of the leaked US embassy cables from Wikileaks.

Each of these is a neat summary of why the internet changes culture.

These tools are made possible because digitally stored text is greppable. You can search it, rearrange it, perform queries on it and get the results back. Various scripting languages and tools provide a huge range of ways to muck about with text in a way that only used to be possible if you had a pair of scissors and didn't mind being banned from your local library.

In a greppable world, nothing that is made public can be buried in detail. Form and arrangement of texts can be remade on the fly. Tasks like concordancing, which used to take years, can be done in seconds using a script. And, of course, huge stacks of documents can be skimmed for salient details just as fast.

In other words: search doesn't just let you find things in the world. It lets you remake them.

If you know the first thing about computers, what I'm writing is the most obvious thing in the world; and I've talked about it here before, in the context of illusions of online privacy; and I'm not a computer scientist, so I'm hardly well-placed to talk.

If you work in marketing or media, you can talk all you like about how the internet/web/social media/Facebook/Foursquare/whatever changes everything. But if you don't understand this, you don't really understand why the web matters, and you won't be able to roll with its punches.

The web matters to culture because it's the mainstreaming of a large set of information-mucking-about-with tools and techniques that used to be the preserve of programmers, linguists and various kinds of mathematicians whose jobs I don't understand. Those tools, and the things we make with them, have become such a part of our lives that they have brought with them new expectations about culture. Expectations like the idea that we should be able to take things, mash them up, patch them, fix them, make them better and pass them on when they don't do exactly the job we want them to do.

This doesn't mean participation or user-generated content or even customization tweaks. It means the idea that everything is basically permanently broken - that problems need to be solved (and can be solved) on a case-by-case basis, quickly. If you make ads, that's a challenge (and if you make products or services, even more so). Mainly, it feels like it's a matter of approach. Too much fanfare and ta-daa, and you'll look pretty bad when your big idea, big campaign, big product (etc.) is met by a kind of grumpy it'll-do-for-now-ness.

How do you get attention and make yourself useful in a hacking, grepping popular culture?

Can 'release early, release often' work for ads or brands? Can you find room for a big idea in culture by executing it in a series of permanent-beta ways? Can that thinking work in media other than digital without seeming like twee engagement-i-ness? Would it be appropriate to end this post with a bunch of not-quite-answered questions? Or is that too meta?

# Alex Steer (30/11/2010)