Friday, June 27, 2008

Social Information Seeking

I'm at University of North Carolina attending a NSF-sponsored workshop on Information Seeking Support Systems with some pretty high-powered researchers like Sue Dumais (Microsoft), Jan Pedersen (Yahoo), Nick Belkin (Rutgers), Dan Russell (Google), Ben Shneiderman (UMaryland), and my own group's Peter Pirolli.

A theme that keeps coming up over and over again at the workshop is how the social web is transforming our ideas about interactive information seeking, including searching and browsing. After dinner and having been lubricated with some drinks, I realized that I had wanted to blog about CellarTracker for a while. This is a website with user-generated content on all things related to wine, with 55,266 users and 9,213,738 bottles, and 600,139 free wine reviews from real users. People not only enter information about wines they own, but also reviews of bottles they have consumed, tasting notes, as well as taking pictures of the wine labels and upload them to the website for easy identification.

A real bottom-up grassroot system, the project was started by a Microsoft program manager Eric Levine as a hobby, who is obviously passionate about wine. NYTimes noticed this web2.0 website back in 2005, Seattle Business Journal in 2004.

The social aspects are really helpful. It takes a page out of Web2.0 site design principles: create a feature that everyone wants to use for themselves, but their inputs are useful to other people in the community as well. "The site's main distinguishing feature is its communal aspect: Users can post reviews of each wine they drink, and sift through the reviews posted by other users." When I'm in a wine store and am thinking about buying a new label that I have never seen before, I check CellarTracker on my iPhone to see if someone else has an opinion. Of course, I seek out the advice of the wine seller in the store too. This site reminds me of passionate users of, keeping track of restaurants they have tried and why they might or might not be good.

The power of the social web is in empowering every user on the web to contribute their voice. The lowering of costs for people to participate and contribute has changed the name of the game for building information seeking support systems. It closes the data generation loop, and allow people who seek information to contribute back into the system.

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