Designing story (4): Women

When they write about you do they talk about your thighs? Or your girlfriend? They validate me through having a boyfriend, someone wants me – Abby Whelan, Scandal.

[ Part 4 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

Scandal is extraordinary, precisely because the women in it, like Abby Whelan above, articulate exactly how society views them in 2016 and depressingly enough, she is spot on. Women are still viewed by the way they look and the men with whom they are associated.

It is said that Jesus had a whole entourage of women who travelled with him. But if the women were there, we don’t know anything about them when we read the stories in the Bible. If they held his hand, uttered words of wisdom, or stood in the light receiving the same appreciative words of confirmation that God uttered over him, no one cared to write it down.

Prostitutes and saints

The one time they had to, was when Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’s grave on Easter morning to find him resurrected. The men had fled, so she was the only one there to meet him. History has rewarded her by calling her a prostitute and even though historians have said that wasn’t the case at all, the label has stuck. All the men got sainthoods, btw.

It reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Women only appear in it as temptresses or goddesses, and they only have support roles. We don’t hear their stories or their trials and tribulations. Instead they are silent.

In his book, Christopher Vogler tries to demonstrate how the hero’s quest could apply equally well to women, like this:

The masculine need to overcome obstacles to achieve, conquer and possess may be replaced in the woman’s journey by the drive to preserve the family and the species, make a home, grapple with emotions, come to an accord or cultivate beauty.

Cheers, thanks for that Chris!

Busy women

Campbell himself said that we only find women in fairytales because women have always been too busy to sit around telling stories. And, when Frank McConnell analysed how hero’s stories make us better in his book Storytelling and Mythmaking, it is men who do the self-actualisation, whilst women are playing prostitutes with hearts of gold, or enduring like Penelope, whilst Odysseus is off chasing glory.

It is the same with the archetypes discussed in the previous blog. We have women playing the shadow or the trickster purely as a plot devices to move the plot along; like the damsel in distress, the old crone jealous of the fair maiden, or the jilted lover. These are all tropes which the hero battles and conquers. The poor women are never the heroine, never the mentor, and they are never allowed to self-actualise. The rare cases in which they do, they become outcasts (don’t be taken in by the sexy pic above of the goddess trinity), shunned and lonely, or punished. Because they are not there to be anything but decoration and to soothe a man’s brow.

Women in the movies

Thankfully, things are changing. In previous blogs I have talked about Rey in Star Wars, and the women’s worlds of Spy and Suffragette. And, to this I want to add Ghostbusters (2016) .

I watched it last night for the first time, and thought it was brilliant. I have never watched the original Ghostbusters, because I never wanted to. The first time I was aware of it on TV, I was a teenager and as it started, I thought: Huh blokes and I went upstairs and read a book.

Last night was totally different. I loved every second, it made me laugh out loud, and as someone who has decided not to dye her grey hair anymore, the riff on hair dye was really funny, because that was happening to me a lot. And when Sigorney Weaver turned up at the end to high-five and utter the immortal line: Safety lights are for dudes… well my life felt complete.

A room of one’s own

There was no patronising female quest of creating a home or attracting a man to make a woman feel validated, it was just smart women being themselves and saving the world. They didn’t need recognition, just a nice space to carry on doing what they love. Virginia Woolf would be so proud.

I can’t wait to see more stories like this one. Lot’s more.

Part 5: Possession, the relations between minds

Designing story (3): Archetypes and aesthetics

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel

– Maya Angelou

[ Part 3 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

I used to believe that my time was the most precious commodity that I had to give to someone else. Now, I know it is the energy that I bring with me.

Our energy is what stays with other people long after we have left and vice-versa. You never forget how people made you feel, and even if you never see them again, the very thought of them can enrich or deplete you.

Archetypes can do the same in any given story. They bring energy based on the story patterns we know from when us humans first started telling stories. They are ritualistic and encourage the reader to infuse the narrative with their own emotions. Archetypes can arouse fears and anxieties or yearnings and desires.

The field of archetypal literary criticism looks at how all narratives have intertextual elements. This means that we recognise story patterns and symbolic associations from other texts. For example, we know what a black pointy hat signifies. We know a night time setting is quite different from day time. We have learnt this from all the others stories we have read prior to the one we are reading now. Meaning does not exist independently.

They broke the mould when they made you

In design, archetypes are the first examples of their type, and may be reused to inspire a new design but they are never just copied. And, so it is the same in storytelling. We don’t want the same character but we want the new character to be moulded in a similar way as the original. The Greek word archetupos means first-moulded, which probably inspired the idiomatic, yet delightful, compliment: They broke the mould when they made you.

Archetypes are not just characters but can be settings such as caves, mazes, deserts, mountains, etc. Each one suggests certain ritual experiences such as the discovery of self (cave), spiritual quests (maze or mountain), or spiritual wastelands (desert). Each setting brings a certain energy which primes our expectations and how to respond. Archetypes can also be events: birth, death, first love, leaving home, those rites of passage which define our lives.

Common patterns and ways of living

It was Carl Jung who first suggested that as these common patterns and ways of living have emerged in many cultures, they are hardwired in our brains and they lead to us being predisposed to think a certain way about them, even unconsciously.

Jung worked on his theory of archetypes for many years often without pinning down exactly what he meant. Though finally, he compared the form of the archetype to the lattice of a crystal which dictates the crystal’s shape and matter, even though it has no material existence of its own, rather like the form follows function principle in design where something is pared down, is beautiful, and develops organically.

Today, it is common to refer to a specific number of archetypes like the 12 in the image above. Variations of this image are used in marketing, as marketers like to tap into stories already known in order to make their products seem familiar, which they then wrap up in beautiful aesthetics because research has shown that art rewards us. It lights up our reward centre in our brain.

Archetype + aesthetic = irresistible

A familiar archetype wrapped in lovely packaging – known as the art infusion effect – is irresistible. We want to consume shiny new things, and if they seem a little familiar and they resonate, what could be better?

I like the above diagram because it has echoes of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and we can put the four groups of archetypes alongside the five groups of needs (plus the extra transcendance needs Maslow later added to his pyramid) like so:

  • Physiological and Safety needs =  Provide structure to the world.
  • Social needs = Connect with others.
  • Esteem needs = Leave  a mark on the world.
  • Self-actualization and transcendence needs =  Yearn for paradise.

I first realised that our needs and motivations haven’t changed since the Iron Age when I visited a Crannog one summer. We may look like we are doing things differently, but we still need to feel warm and fed, loved and connected, esteemed and self-actualised, which then begs the question: How much have our stories changed through time when our needs haven’t?

Motifs, symbols and facets

Scriptwriter Christopher Vogel uses seven archetypes because he has based his on the hero’s journey or monomyth which was first identified by mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Inspired by Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp’s 31 story functions  and seven character functions, which are used in the study of semiotics, Vogel says that the  archetypes in a good story function like motifs or symbols, or as a facet of the main character’s personality. Propp himself said that they were like the masks we adopt in life to fit in, to protect ourselves, to not be vulnerable, until finally we become that version of who we think others want us to be, and we forget who we really are.

The seven archetypes are often used in psychotherapy. The theory is that if we know what archetypes we have adopted  and how they make up our thought patterns and beliefs in our mind, then we can work with them to stop limiting beliefs and engage in personal growth.

Seven archetypes for storytelling

  1. The hero is the one with whom the audience identifies, and includes growth, action, and sacrifice. The hero represents Freud’s ego and our search for identity and wholeness.
  2. The mentor stands for our highest aspirations or higher self, a teacher or a gift giver. The mentor is our conscience and a plot device which plants information. There are also dark mentors who mislead us.
  3. The shapeshifter is the one who brings doubt and suspense into a story. It may be a lover who is close and loving but turns out to betray us.
  4. The threshold guardian represents our barriers or neuroses, they test us and a successful hero learns that threshold guardians are useful allies.
  5. The trickster is the one who cuts us down to size, teaches us humility, and bring about healthy change and transformation. The trickster also provides comic relief, thus releasing tension and making us laugh at ourselves in order to create change.
  6. The shadow can represent suppressed emotions such as a hero damaged by doubt. The shadow may be external who challenges the hero and gives them a worthy opponent. They may even be a love interest – someone who is bad for us, who doesn’t have our best interests at heart. Sometimes, the shadow represents feelings such as anger, which is a healthy emotion until it is suppressed, turned inward, and can lead to depression.
  7. The herald brings words of challenges, to signal change to move the plot on whenever they are needed.

How do we feel when we meet these archetypes in the characters, in our familiar story-structures, in the spaces that writers create? Do we feel the energy they have to impart? Does it suppress or empower us? Delight or dismay us? We enter into that shared heart space and we come out the other end a little different to when we went in, carrying a new energy that we got to keep. Storytelling, the most powerful way to communicate ever.

 Part 4: Women

Designing story (2) : Structure



Some plots are moved forward by external events and crises. Others are moved forward by the characters themselves. If I go through that door, the plot continues. The story of me through the door.  If I stay here……the plot can’t move forward, the story ends. Also if I stay here, I’m late. – Prof Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

[ Part 2 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

In life, stories are the way we communicate, so much so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to a story pattern are the most likely to be believed as truth.

In these uncertain times, thankfully we are questioning the news shown on TV and in the newspapers, because media companies have long used the old adage first uttered by Mark Twain: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But, what is truth? Semiotics, the study of how meaning is created, is the only measure of truth human kind has been able to devise encapsulated in the question: Does it feels right? When the answer is yes, this is because the new data often fits with standard or known truths that we refer to already. It feels true, it is familiar, it adds to our understanding of meaning.

Meaning comes from contrast. The greek god Agon (agony) represents the struggle and wrestling we do in order to create meaning, from light and dark, good and bad, love and hate. We use polarity to organise our thinking.

It works the same way in fiction only in a tidier, yet larger than life, fashion. We have our goodies and baddies. We have our agony and ecstasy. And we, the readers, figure it out because we interpret the polarities and the story structure to derive meaning.

Narrative or story structure

The story of any individual in any narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator.

Normally we have a protagonist (our goodie) and an antagonist (our baddie) in polarity. As the goodie’s situation improves, the baddie’s will deteriorate. The narrator can invert this relationship and create a tragedy. When we are looking at the baddie as our main protagonist from that point of view, we are sympathetic to their plight, they become our goodie. If they do something morally questionable we go on an exploration with them. Often this a cathartic one. Their story helps us negotiate our own conflicts unconsciously or otherwise. Some of our most sympathetic characters are baddies, like Macbeth, nothing he does is admirable, yet we are there feeling for him until the end.

Sometimes the main protagonist gets improved by something coming in from outside the narrative. If this is near the end of a story then we can feel unsatisfied, because it does not feel true, like the Greek deux ex machina  (literally machine of the gods), the equivalent of then we all went home for tea. This rarely happens in life so it doesn’t feel true, unless it happens in comedy like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In that story though it doesn’t really matter how our ‘hero’ gets saved as we know he would be much better off anywhere else than where he is. It is ok. Comedy aside, if we don’t get to live through the full range of emotions, we don’t get closure and we feel dissatisfied with the ending.

Closure is a psychological term first suggested in Gestalt which explains how incomplete shapes are interpreted by the brain as whole. From the 1990s the term has been used with respect to relationships. So, when a relationship is over, sometimes we need closure to find an answer especially if it ended ambiguously, so we can learn from it and manage our world or people next time, or so we like to think.

Managing expectations

This is because according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we need certainty. We need to feel certain that our physiological and safety needs are met, this in itself feels like a reward. Consequently, in a story we are rewarded by the plot unfolding in a particular way.

But, we are complicated and only want certainty up to a point. Social media shows us that the information we share most often is surprise. For more than anything once we have a low level of certainty we need to be lifted up and inspired. So, in any given story we want it to follow a specific path (certainty) but have surprise twists in the tale. This enables us to transcend ourselves.

It doesn’t matter what story is being told, it matters if it is being told in the right way. As Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: We don’t need a why, we just need a how. The medium is the message or form follows function, the actual content is to a certain extent, irrelevant, as long as it hits the main beats and has the right scenes with enough surprises in them to follow the story pattern we are expecting but with a freshness that transcends both the story pattern and our thoughts.

We have models to explain the world around us, ourselves and our behaviour. It is the same when we are being entertained. We construct the pattern and the meaning as we go along so that even if a certain narrative merely infers something off screen/scene, we still know how to automatically assimilate it into the rest of the narrative to make it into the complete story. So, when something inexplicable happens either in fiction or in real life, it leaves us baffled and without a way of incorporating it into our explanations.

Ups and downs

The general pattern of life is that we work up to something, we have a beginning, a middle, a climax and an end. The momentum gets going, we have highs and lows – those moments of great joy and those moments when we think we can’t stand it a minute longer, in all of our activities from sex and childbirth to prolonged hospital treatment, shopping in IKEA, and even meditation. Our emotions follow this pattern too. Think of laughter, of crying, or a wave of grief. It is the same so it seems logical that our stories would follow a similar pattern.

Thriller editor Shawn Coyne in his book Story Grid refers to Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief as a useful tool to model change, as all stories are about change and says: Even those wonderful literary novels in which nothing happens… the characters’ moods and ideas are constantly changing.

Patterns and genres

Depending on our reading tastes, we know the stories, we know which pattern to follow and it doesn’t matter where it sits on the often debated scale of entertainment: genre or literary, all action or internal, we feel when something is emotionally true because it is meaningful to us.

Here are some random patterns to think about:

  • Hero’s quest: The hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, has trials and tribulations, allies and foes, nearly falls at the end, returns home to great reward.
  • Chick lit:  The girl has problem in life, there is a cute guy, the problem becomes much bigger, everything looks bleak, she pulls it together as she is smart, solves her problem and gets the guy.
  • Thriller: Personal stakes life/ family/career are high enough to make the reader sweaty, often internationally the protagonist is chased about, has a show down with the antagonist, and wins.
  • Murder mystery:  There is a closed setting, a murder weapon, a body, detectives, we then find out the motive, the villain, and tie it up. We can even model it in  a computer (model-based machine learning).
  • Bildungsroman: A sensitive soul suffers a loss or tragedy, journeys to fill that vacuum with experiences,  gains maturity gradually, struggles then accepts values of society.
  • Love story: Two people meet, hit it off, something gets in their way, they are separated, and get back together at the end. Or don’t (tragedy).

There are many others: rags to riches, revenge, forbidden love, unrequited love, sacrifice, rivalry, disaster, recovery from grief, transformation, and so on.

Sometimes these patterns are combined into bigger patterns and in a different world created on another planet or fantasy land, or supernatural events occur. However, even if the landscape and events seems totally alien or paranormal, the emotions and behaviour of the characters are always human, always meaningful, and can always resonate.

If they don’t, we stop reading.

Formula or familiarity

It may seem formulaic but Christopher Vogler says in his book The Writer’s Journey: Unconventional art does not intersect with commonly held patterns of experience.

Rather like design, a certain amount of form is necessary to reach a wider audience who will expect to enjoy it so long as it has something fresh going on within the constraints of the formula. Vogler says that film studios use story design principles to evaluate scripts because they do so many, and the stories which capture us as an audience, capture our shared experiences:

We are all looking for ourselves in a dark wood, in the mirror of others, in the stories of life...

Which is why when we pick up a book or watch a film, we want to connect to a story which has meaning for us or at least for the characters in it, and that meaning is found in structure.

Part 3: Archetypes

Web design (5): Structure

A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 5 of 7 : 0) intro, 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

Many designers have adopted a grid structure to design web pages because a) it lends itself well to responsive design and b) it allows a design which is easy for users to understand. Designers literally have about five seconds before a user will click away to find a different service/page/content provider if the page is laid out in a way which is difficult to understand.

In a great talk for An Event Apart, Designer and Developer Advocate at Mozilla, Jen Simmons looks offline at magazines for inspiration and remembers how there was much experimentation and creativity online until everyone adopted grids and fell into a rut of grids.

But, it is easy to understand why everyone adopted grids, because users create their own understanding of a webpage from its structure. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains. This is a fundamental principle of semiotics, the study of meaning.

Managing expectations

When a webpage is judged to be useless, it is often because it does not behave in the way the user is expecting, particularly if it is not very attractive.

Designers either need to manage a user’s expectations by giving them what they are expecting in terms of the service they are looking for, or they need to make it super attractive.  Attractive things don’t necessarily work better but we humans perceive them as doing so  because they light up the brain’s reward centre and make us feel better when we are around them. We are attracted to attractive things which is given by certain Gestalt principles such as unity, symmetry, and the golden ratio.

Gestalt: similarity, promixity

Good design is one thing, but we also have specific expectations about  any given webpage. We scan for headings and white space and interpret a page in those terms.  This is because according to Gestalt theory we will interpret items according to their proximity: items which are close together, we will group together; or similarity, items which are similar we interpret as together.

And also, because we have been to others sites and we transfer our experiences from one site to another and anticipate where certain functions should be.

Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?

Main menus are usually at the top of the page, grouped together and are used for navigation through the site.  Secondary navigation may take place in drop down menus, or in  left or right hand columns. Specific house keeping information can be found in the footer, or the common links bar if there is one.

If users are completely lost they will use the breadcrumbs, which Google now uses instead of the URL of sites as part of the results their search engine serves up. Therefore, it is in a designer’s interest to put breadcrumbs on the top of page.

Users will stay longer and feel better if they can answer the three questions of navigation as articulated by usability consultant Steve Krug:

  1. Where am I?
  2. Where have I been?
  3. Where am I going?

Often this answered by changing links to visited, not visited and enforcing the consistency of the design by adopting a sensible approach to colour. There is a theory of colour in terms of adding and subtracting colour to create colour either digitally, or on a palette, but there is alas, no theory about how to use colour to influence branding and marketing, as personal preferences are impossible to standardise.

HTML 5 & CSS 3

As discussed earlier in part 1 of this series, we separate out our content from our presentation which is styled using CSS 3. Then, once we know what we want to say we use HTML 5 to structure our text to give it meaning to the reader. This may be a screen reader or it may be a human being.

HTML 5 breaks a page into its header and body, and then the body is broken down further into specific instructions. Headings from <h1> to <h6>, paragraphs, lists, sections and paragraphs, etc., so that we can structure a nice layout.  There are thousands of tutorials online which teach HTML 5.

The nice thing about sections is that we can use them to source linked data from elsewhere and fill our pages that way, but still keep a consistent appearance.

Theoretically one page is great, or a couple of pages fine, but once we get into hundreds of pages, we need to think about how we present everything consistently and evenly across a site and still provide users the information for which they came.

Information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is the way to organise the structure of a whole website. It asks: How you categorise and structure information? How do you label it so that users can navigate or search through it in order to find what they need?

The first step is to perform some knowledge elicitation of the  business or context and what everyone (owners, customers) known as stakeholders expect from the proposed system. This may include reading all the official documentation a business has (yawn!).

If there is a lot of existing information the best way to organise it is to perform a card sort. A card sort is when a consultant calls in some users, gives them a stack of index cards with content subjects written on them, along with a list of headings from the client’s site—“Business and News,” “Lifestyle,” “Society and Culture”— then users decide where to put “How to floss your teeth”.

This can take a few days each time and a few goes, until a pattern is found, us humans love to impose order on chaos, we love to find a pattern to shape and understand our world.

Once we have a structure from the card sort, it becomes easier to start designing the structure across the site and we begin with the site map.

The site map reflects the hierarchy of a system (even though Tim Berners-Lee was quite emphatic that the web should not have a hierarchical structure).

Then, once a site map is in place, each page layout can be addressed and the way users will navigate. Thus, we get main menus (global navigation), local navigation, content types to put in sections and paragraphs, etc., along with the functional elements needs to interact with users.

Other tools created at this time to facilitate the structure are wireframes, or annotated page layouts, because if is is a big site lots of people may be working on it and clear tools for communication are needed so that the site structure remains consistent.

Mock up screen shots and paper prototypes may be created and sometimes in the case of talented visual designers, storyboards are created. Storyboards are sketches showing how a user could interact with a system, sometimes they take a task-base approach, so that users could complete a common task.

Depending on the size of a project, information architects will work with content strategists who will have asked all the questions in the last section (part 4) on content and/or usability consultants who will have spoken to lots of users (part 3) to get an understanding of their experiences, above and beyond their understanding of the labelling of information in order to answer questions such as:

  • Does the website have great usability which is measured by being: effective and efficient; easy to learn and remember; useful and safe?
  • How do we guide users to our key themes, messages, and recommended topics?
  • Is the content working hard enough for our users?

Sometimes, it may just be one person who does all of these roles and is responsible for answering all of these questions.

It takes time to create great structure, often it takes several iterations of these these steps, until it is time to go on to the next stage (part 6) to start sharing this beautiful content on social media.

[Part 6]

Stories, Semantics and the Web of Data

My most used words on facebook in 2016
My most used words on Facebook in 2016

As a computer scientist I have spent hours talking to designers, architects and engineers to capture their domain knowledge to model in a computer, with the end goal of helping them do their jobs better. It isn’t always straight forward to perform knowledge elicitation with people who have been doing complex tasks, very well, for a long time. Often, they can no longer articulate why or how they do things. They behave intuitively, or so it seems. So, I listen to them as they tell me their stories. Everyone has a story. Everyone! It is how we communicate. We tell stories to make sense of ourselves and the world around us.

As Brené Brown says in her extraordinary TED talk on vulnerability:

…Stories are just data with a soul…

Up until now, stories have been the most effective way of transferring information but once we involve a computer,  we become very aware of how clever and complex we humans are. With semiotics, we study how humans construct meaning from stories;  with semantics, we are looking at what the meaning actually is. That is to say,  when we link words and phrases together, we are creating relationships between them. What do they stand for? What do they mean?


English Professor Marshall McLuhan who termed the phrase the medium is the messagedescribed reading as rapid guessing. I see a lot of rapid guessing when my daughter reads aloud to me. Sometimes, she says sentences which are semantically correct and representative of what happens in the story, but they are not necessarily the sentences which are written down. She is basically giving me the gist. And, that is what our semantic memory does – it preserves the gist or the meaning of whatever it is we want to remember.

Understanding the gist, or constructing meaning, relies on the context of a given sentence, and causality – one thing leads to another – something humans, even young ones like my daughter, can infer easily. But this is incredibly difficult for a computer even a clever one steeped in artificial intelligence and linguistics. The classic example of ambiguity in a sentence is Fruit flies like a banana, which is quite funny until you extend this to a whole model such as our legal system, expressed as it is in natural language, and then it is easy to see how all types of misunderstandings are created, as our law courts, which debate loopholes and interpretations, demonstrate daily.

Added to the complexities of natural language, humans are reasoning in a constantly changing open world, in which new facts and rules are added all the time. The closed-world limited-memory capacity of the computer can’t really keep up. One of the reasons I moved out of the field of artificial intelligence and into human-computer interaction was because I was interested in opening up the computer to human input. The human is the expert not the computer. Ultimately, we don’t want our computers to behave like experts, we want them to behave like computers and calculate the things we cannot. We want to choose the outcome, and we want transparency to see how the computer arrived at that solution, so that we trust it to be correct. We want to be augmented by computers, not dictated to by them.

Modelling: Scripts and Frames

We can model context and causality,  as Marvin Minsky’s frames first suggested. We frame everything in terms of what we have done and our experiences as sociologist Lucy Suchman proposed with her plans and situated actions.

For example, when we go to the supermarket, we follow a script at the checkout with the checkout operator (or self-service machine):

a) the goods are scanned, b) the final price is calculated, c) we pay, d) our clubcard is scanned, and e) we might buy a carrier bag.

Unless we know the person on the cash desk, or we run into difficulties with the self-service checkout and need help in the form of human intervention, the script is unlikely to deviate from the a) to e) steps above.

This modelling approach recognises the cognitive processes needed to construct semantic models (or ontologies) to communicate, explain, and make predictions in a given situation which differs from a formal models which uses mathematical proofs. However, in these human centred situations a formal proof model can be inappropriate.

However, either approach was always done inside one computer until Tim Berners-Lee found a way of linking many computers together with the World Wide Web (WWW). Berners-Lee realised that having access to potentially endless amounts of information in a collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write was much more empowering than us working alone each with a separate model.

And, then once online, it is interesting to have social models, like informal community tagging improves Flickr and Popular tags get used and unpopular ones don’t, rather like evolution. In contrast formal models use proofs to make predictions so we lose human input and the interesting social dynamic.

Confabulation and conspiracy

But it is data we are interested in. Without enough data points in a data set on which we apply a model, we make links and jumps from point to point until we create a different story which might or might not be accurate. This is how a conspiracy theory gets started. And, then if we don’t have enough data at all, we speculate and may end up telling a lie as if it is a truth which is known as confabulation. Ultimately having lots of data and the correct links gives us knowledge and power and the WWW gives us that.

Freeing the data

Throughout history we often have confused the medium with the message. We have taken our most precious stories and built institutions to protect the containers – the scrolls and books – which hold stories whilst limiting who can access them, in order to preserve them for posterity.

Now, we have freed the data and it is potentially available to everyone. The WWW has changed publishing and journalism, and the music industry forever.  We have never lived in a more exciting time.

At first we weren’t too bothered how we were sharing data, pictures, pdfs, because humans could understand them. But, since computers are much better at dealing with large data sets, it makes sense for them to interpret data and help us find everything we need. And so, the idea of the semantic web was born.

Semantic Web

The term semantic web was suggested by Berners-Lee in 1999 to allow computers to interpret data and its relationships, and even create relationships between data on the WWW in a way in which only humans can do currently.

For example, if we are doing a search about a person, humans can easily make links between the data they find: Where the person lives, with whom, their job, their past work experience, ex-colleagues. A computer might have difficulty making the connections. However, by adding data descriptions and declaring relationships between the data to allow reasoning and inference capabilities, then the computer might be able to pull together all that data in a useful coherent manner for a human to read.

Originally the semantic web idea included software agents, like virtual personal assistants, which would help us with our searches, and link together to share data with other agents in order to perform functions for us such as organising our day, getting more milk in the fridge, and paying our taxes. But due to the limitations of intelligent agents, it just wasn’t as easy to do. So, the emphasis shifted from computers doing the work, to the semantic web becoming a dynamic system through which data flows, with human intervention, especially when the originator of the data could say: Here machine interpret this data this way by adding machine friendly markup.

Cooperation without coordination

It seems strange to contemplate now, but originally no one believed that people would voluntarily spend time putting data online, in the style of distributed authorship, but we have Wikipedia, DBPedia, GeoNames to name but a few places where data is trustworthy. And, we have W3C which recommends the best way to share online.

The BBC uses websites like the ones above and curates the information there to ensure the integrity of the data. That is to say, the BBC works with these sites, to fact check the data, rather than trying to collect the data by itself. So, it cooperates with other sites but does not coordinate the output. It just goes along and gets what it needs, and so the BBC now has a content management system which is potentially the whole of the WWW. This approach of cooperation without coordination is part of what has become known as linked data, and the WWW is becoming the Web of Data.

Linked Data and the Web of Data

Linked data is a set of techniques for the publication of data on the web using standard formats and interfaces so that we can gather any data we need in a single step on the fly and combine it to form new knowledge. This can be done online or behind enterprise firewalls on private networks, or both.

We can then link our data to other data that is relevant and related, whilst declaring meaningful relationships between otherwise arbitrary data elements (which as we have seen a computer couldn’t figure out by itself).

Google rich snippets and  Facebook likes use the same approach of declaring relationships between data in order to share more effectively.

Trust: Data in the wild, dirty data, data mashups

It all sounds brilliant. However, it is impossible to figure out how to get your data mashup right from different sources when they all have different formats. This conundrum is known as data in the wild. For example, there is lots of raw data on, which is not yet in the recommended format.

Then, there is the problem of dirty data. How can we trust the data we are getting if anyone can put it online? We can go to the sites we trust, but what if they are not collecting the data we need? What if we don’t trust data? What if we use the data anyway? What will happen? These are things we will find out.

How can we ensure that we are all using the same vocabularies? What if they are not? Again, we will find a way.

Modelling practice: extendable, reusable, discoverable

The main thing to do when putting up your data and developing models is to name things as meaningfully as you can. And, whilst thinking about reuse, design for yourself, do not include everything and the kitchen sink. Like all good design, if it is well designed for you, even if you leave specific instructions, someone will find a new way to extend and use your model, this is guaranteed. It is the no function in structure principle. Someone will always discover something new in anything you design.

So what’s next?

Up until now search engines have worked on matching words and phrases, not what terms actually mean. But, with our ability to link data together, already Google is using the knowledge graph to help uncover the next generation search engine. Facebook is building on its open graph protocol  whilst harvesting and analysing its data to help advertisers find their target audience.

Potentially we have the whole world at our fingertips,  we have freed the data, and we are sharing our stories. It may be written in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, but it is also written in the same place: Everything is meaningless. I think it is wrong on both counts,  with this amount of data mashup and collaboration, I like to believe instead: Everything is new under the sun and nothing is meaningless. We live in the most interesting of times.