Web Tools Employ The Human Factor

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, March 9, 2006

SAN DIEGO There's a push throughout techland these days to start humanizing computers and let people crawl inside to take control. To which I say, "Show me a comfy crawlspace, and I'm there!"

The human-computing chorus hit a fevered pitch here this week at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, where speaker after speaker touted how Web software is becoming more social and adding fresh layers of human intelligence to computer networks.

Officially, the theme of the four-day conference, which ends today, was how computers and the Internet have created an information glut and "attention economy" in which human attention is increasingly scarce and valuable.

But the unofficial theme was social computing; more specifically, how another wave of start-ups is allowing people to mix and match data from different Web sites and forge new social connections online. Social networking sites have been connecting people for some time, but now there's a wave of new social media sites that let people share information and collectively organize what they find on the Web.

Among the Web sites featured were many that attempt to help people filter what they read and pull it into a central viewing area, often with a sharing component or group-editing feature mixed in. Those aggregators include Memeorandum, Netvibes and Digg.

Other start-ups are putting to use the data and software that the major Web players -- Yahoo, Google, Amazon.com, eBay, Microsoft and America Online -- are now making available.

The six heavyweights came courting software developers with new tools and greater access to their information stockpiles. AOL, for example, announced that it was opening its Instant Messenger service for other companies to customize or integrate into their applications.

Yahoo was the most aggressive, announcing that it was granting developers access to four more of its services -- photos, calendar, shopping and bookmarks. Yahoo also rolled out an affiliate marketing program that will pay other sites to drive sales to merchants in Yahoo Shopping.

Over the past year, Yahoo has opened its music, mapping, travel and Web-search services to third-party developers. That spawned all sorts of new services, such as Rollyo, a Web site that lets people create personal Yahoo search engines by restricting queries to a particular group of sites.

With the launch of Yahoo Shopping's Paid Syndication Program, I wouldn't be surprised to see a variety of creative superstores pop up. Someone, for example, could create a musical shoe store by yanking women's boots from Yahoo Shopping and presenting a browsable boot display that invites shoppers to rate each pair and link them to songs in Yahoo Music.

One of the more startling mix-and-match Web sites I saw here was from Root Markets, which launched a trial service on Tuesday called Root. Root ( http://www.root.net/ ) lets you grab your personal Web history from a variety of sites, including Amazon (your entire purchasing history), Google and Yahoo (your search history,) and Del.icio.us (any bookmarks you save there). Root stores and displays all that data, along with every Web site you have visited, in an "electronic dashboard" that provides detailed summaries of your online activity.

Root shows more than just the sites you visited, searches you ran and bookmarks you've saved. It also displays the time and date of all that activity and duration of each Web site visit.

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