The Google Developer Day 2007 talk with Peter Norvig raised some interesting points. I think there was some very useful information in there, but there was an issue early on with the use of jargon. “Asymptote off” means that as the lines get further away from the starting point they get closer together. Translation for the data: as we go further down the horizontal axis, the starting point matters less and less. And, quick, who got the “more, cat” joke? Me neither. (All translations and explanations are thanks to DH, who laughed out loud at “more, cat”. It’s a joke about UNIX. More and cat are commands in UNIX, so the results were other UNIX commands.) Toward the end of his talk, Norvig put up a slide showing the “Big Picture” – the goal of a happy user. However, speaking with DH, who works for another California-based Internet search company that we’ll call Hooray!, explained the first two rules of an Internet company. Rule #1: it’s all about making money, not the user. Rule #2: ALWAYS say it’s about the user. This, of course, made Norvig’s answers to the questions about user satisfaction far more amusing.
Now on to what I found useful for my purposes. Irritation with jargon and techno-babble aside, the initial description of use of data was important and bears repeating: the more data, the better. I think the point that as the amount of data goes up, and the more effectively it is used, the better information we’ll get, is quite useful in a historical setting. This touches on Leary’s points about “remember the grotto”. Leary also points out that if he had only entered “grotto” he would have gotten too many results, and if he had entered “please to remember the grotto” he probably would not have gotten any results. This relates to what Novig was talking about with the “learning” machine.
Taking these two together, I have decided that more data is not always better. There is such a thing as too much information and information overload. This has implications for my own site, because I want to be able to entice users to look deeper without scaring them with an avalanche of (to them) random information about metallurgy or postal regulations of 1916. I believe that in order to get both the academic rigor and the user-friendliness I want, I will have to put in a few more layers of intervening pages between the initial collections page and the full data on the object. I will have an initial welcome page, explaining the purpose of my portion of the site. The user will then be able to click on a section of the collection, sorted by time period (Mexican War, World War I), by type (headgear, weaponry), or topic (African-Americans, domestic deployments). Most of our collection falls under multiple headings so items will have to be tagged for all groups. For example, a helmet worn by a member of the 93rd Division during World War I would fall under “World War I”, “Headgear”, and “African-Americans”. The user selects the section of collection they’re interested in, say World War I. Now, here’s where I have some conflict – do I sort out the collection further (uniforms, headgear, weaponry) or do I have it all appear? My instinct is to divide it further, but I have been on sites like that and they can get frustrating very quickly. If I have all items tagged as “World War I” appear, how do I sort them? The most logical way on the museum side is to sort them according to accession number, but since items are acquired piecemeal, the resulting display will make no sense – a rifle, next to a homefront window banner, next to Army-issued long underwear. To my mind, displaying them any other way requires more selections from the user. Thoughts?
(And when Novig was talking about learning machines, did anyone else start hearing the “Terminator” music in their head?)