What’s That Content Doing?

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It’s funny how, once you get an idea in your head, you start seeing things in a different light. I recently got on a tear about repurposing information, whether it’s electronic content, virtual worlds, blogs, or just email discussion lists. I have moved from “just in case” reading of blogs and discussion lists to “just in time” searching of list archives for what I need right now. Sure, I still read and participate in a few lists, and I can’t start my morning without a few of my favorite blogs, but I have given up on trying to stay on top of new developments throughout the infosphere. In a sense, I see discussion lists and blogs as ways to create a living archive of knowledge shared by others. If I am looking for an obscure resource, I search the ResourceShelf.com archive. If I am considering a specific information resource, I scan the archives of some of the info pro discussion lists to see what others have already said about it. Yes, I’m a lurker and proud of it. (OK, to my credit, I do participate in the lists I find most useful for me.)

Along these lines of creating a new resource from our daily activities, I ran into a couple of intriguing articles. One from Lancet Infectious Diseases discussed how the online game World of Warcraft (WoW) is helping epidemiologists study human behavior during an epidemic. Back in 2005, a character was introduced to WoW that transmitted a “corrupted blood” virus to certain characters. However, the virus eventually spread beyond its targeted hosts and infected almost every area of the virtual world. The scientists monitored how the humans behind the online characters reacted to quarantine measures, how immune characters passed the virus on to others, and how information about the disease was disseminated and acted upon by the virtual characters. The conclusion was that behavior within WoW may help epidemiologists predict people’s reactions during a real-world epidemic.

Another news item I ran across was about a creative use of the CAPTCHA utility—those boxes on some websites that require you to retype hard-to-read characters to confirm that you are, in fact, human and not a spambot. Luis von Ahn, a computer scientist from Carnegie Mellon University, looked at the way CAPTCHA boxes work and thought that this ability in humans to recognize characters that machines can’t read might be applicable in other situations. Just as the SETI@Home project harnesses computers’ unused CPU cycles to search for signs of extraterrestrial life, von Ahn came up with the idea of using CAPTCHA boxes to get web users to help decipher scanned text that an optical character reader was unable to read. If you are interested in contributing to this effort to digitize open collections for the Internet Archive project, head over to www.recaptcha.net and add the CAPTCHA box to your site.

What I found fascinating about both the epidemiologists observing World of Warcraft denizens and the Internet Archive using anti-spam boxes for digitizing content was that the virtual world, including electronic content, has applications in the real world but not necessarily in the ways intended by its creators. In a sense, tagging of content is another way of mining the collective intelligence; in this instance, to discover the “about-ness” of a blog posting, book, or other econtent. I can, for example, explore Amazon.com’s bookstore by category (reference, religion, romance, and so on), by subject, and by user-generated tags. Of course, user-generated indexing is both a feature and a bug. We librarians miss the consistency of a controlled vocabulary, but we see what people who actually read the book consider its key points, and these often differ from what a cataloguer would identify.

I wonder what other crossovers exist between the virtual world of electronic content and the real world as we know it. One that comes to mind is Second Life and the real-world entities that have a presence there. Now that we have retailers, news bureaus, and libraries in Second Life, we can expect to see a closer relationship between the world of bytes and the world of atoms. Will SL libraries start providing access to real-world econtent? Will we see Dialog selling articles with Linden dollars, the virtual currency of Second Life? My avatar is pulling up her lawn chair—glass of iced tea in hand—ready to watch the next developments in both worlds.