Is FolkMind better than Google?

Published on Sunday, November 13, 2005

I have been discussing the idea behind FolkMind with one of my friend and the conversation went something like this:

Folk: So George, I have heard that you have coined this new term ‘FolkMind’. Tell me more about the idea behind it. I didn’t get time to go through the long blog that you have written on this.

George: It is about a new way of retrieving information from the Internet, using the collective intelligence of…

Folk: Oh, then that’s what it is, another search engine! Haven’t you heard about Google!!

George: Well not exactly. A good search engine will help you find information, but it doesn’t help you in understanding it. But FolkMind will!

Folk: What do you mean by ‘make you understand’?

George: Let’s take an example. Say you are searching for something like ‘Web 2.0’. Google returns you more than 15 million records.

Folk: Exactly you got the information that you wanted. It was that simple.

George: But that is too much information and like I mentioned in another blog, too much information is no information.

Folk: But the links that you got from Google are sorted based on the relevance. You know they use this algorithm called ‘PageRank’ which evaluates what the Internet community has to say about the subject being searched for.

George: To handle as huge an information source as the Internet, you require a totally decentralized community driven approach like PageRank. That’s obvious! But I still have to go through multiple pages to find out and understand what I was looking for.

Folk: Do you expect to find pages that exclusively contain what you are looking for?

George: Well, I don’t expect that! When you ask a question to an Oracle, you expect her to give a single answer instead of 50 different instructions, which you have to club together. Similarly, wouldn’t it be nice if the search engine could return you a page that is generated for me based on my query?

Folk: You mean an auto-generated page? Come on George, you must be kidding. I would prefer to read through 10 man-made pages to get what I want, than to go through all the junk returned by a bot.

George: Well, have you seen a newspaper that is made completely using an algorithm? The newspaper is called Google News!

Folk: Yes. I know about it. But news is different you know..

George: How come? As you would already know, Google News allows you to customize the news based on your preferences. So, in a way, it is also a search that you perform and the algorithm generates a page for you.

Folk: Hey, but Google News also just lists a set of links; you still have to navigate to the source page to make sense out of the information

George: That could be because Google doesn’t own the news and hence expects you to visit the original page. Well, coming back to the discussion on search, the result of a query need not be text that reads like a story; instead it could be a diagram that represents the essence of it. That way any bot that generates the result wouldn’t have to worry too much about structural stuff like grammar and readability. Think of the benefits – a picture is better for easy and quick comprehension as you would be using both halves of the brain when you ‘read’ a picture. Also, if you bookmark the picture instead of the text article, you will be able to recollect the matter by just glancing through it instead of reading the whole stuff again.

Consider the following facts:
 * 60% of what you read are structure words and not content.
 * 80% of the stuff that you read is forgotten within 24 hours.

Folk: What are you trying to say - that I am wasting my time in reading?

George: If your intension is to comprehend as much stuff in the shortest possible time, then reading verbose text is not the way for doing it. Say for example, suppose you were asked to review 50 code files. Would you start by reading from File1, File2 etc. or would you look for a UML diagram and then drill down for more details?

Folk: I would prefer UML diagrams and I agree that pictures are better than normal text for comprehension. But how can you compare structured data like code with text that you find on the Internet: You cannot create ‘UML’ like diagrams out of free text.

George: Yes. You are right. But if you do not want very precise data, why not represent the text as a MindMap. If you need more detail on any specific data you can always look at the original text by clicking on the appropriate section on the MindMap.

Folk: Hmm.. Sounds interesting. So, I do a Search and the result that I get is a MindMap that is generated by combining the related information from different places on the Web. What is returned is knowledge instead of links to thousands of sites where I can find the data.

George: Also the knowledge is presented in an easy to comprehend manner – as a MindMap.

Folk: But I know of a few other sites that do similar stuff, like Grokker and …what is the other name ...yes, Kartoo. How is FolkMind different?

George: Consider this. When you do a Google Search for say “Microsoft”, you get a few hundred million links. Anything beyond the first few pages are not useful for me. The tools that you mentioned above are designed to just solve this very problem. The value addition provided by these tools is that they can better represent the search results graphically. Grokker does a good job of categorizing the results. Kartoo goes one step ahead by also finding out common links between the results. So they are search enhancement tools. But as you see, FolkMind is more focused on retrieving “knowledge”.

Folk: Can you explain this better?

George: Sure. What you expect out of a search is not a list of probable links or their graphical representation. What you need is the “knowledge” based on your context.

Folk: Context? You mean..

George: When I do a Search, I am trying to extend my current knowledge along a particular axis. If a search engine really knows “me”, then it can return more relevant information. This would want the search engine to be aware of my current knowledge set

Folk: Hmm. I agree. This could be the reason behind the current trend of personalized search, search history and so on… so that the search engine knows my interests. So how does FolkMind satisfy this need?

George: To start with, FolkMind is a digitized version of the knowledge that you have. It helps you in extending you current knowledge by utilizing the Internet. The Internet is the biggest source of information and in a way represents the virtual brain of humanity.

Folk: A digitized version of my knowledge – what do you mean?

George: Let me take bookmarks as an example to explain this. When ever you find something interesting on the web you bookmark it. Right?

Folk: Yes – Obviously I won’t be able to recollect every thing that I have ever read and bookmarks help in recollecting stuff later on.

George: Precisely. Now assume that instead of bookmaking stuff, you use FolkMind to create a MindMap and store that instead of the bookmark. So when you have to recollect stuff, you can glance through the MindMap and be done with it instead of going through the whole text. Also assume that when adding new maps, FolkMind helps you in cross-linking it with previously stored maps. Over time this store will become a huge collection of interconnected concepts.

Folk: I can imagine. In a way this would resemble the human brain itself. Just like in the brain, we have neurons connecting to other neurons; FolkMind would have concepts connected to other concepts. Now I get what you mean by ‘digitized version of ones knowledge’!

George: The value of such a store will increase as the amount of data in it increases.

Folk: But George, that would be a lot of effort to create such a store. Do you think people will be willing to put in that extra effort?

George: Think of it like this. On one hand we have the extra effort to populate the MindMap and on the other hand you have the benefit of recollecting stuff easily. So if you reduce the effort in creating the MindMap store, the benefit could be enough motivation to put in that extra effort.

Folk: Well, you never know. Most people could be like me –Very lazy :-)

George: Ha Ha .. I know. That’s where the community can help. Take the example of Wikipedia. Only a fraction of the people takes the effort to update the articles. But many people use it.

Folk: How do you propose to reduce the effort for creating the MindMaps and that too using the community? I thought you just said that FolkMind would be a local application!

George: Think of FolkMind like Google Desktop. Yes, It runs locally but it can connect to the FolkMind server to get more data. Let me take an example. Assume FolkMind runs as a browser plug-in, always accessible to you. When you browse to a page, FolkMind can do some ‘Natural language processing’ on the text and will try to automatically create a MindMap and this is done in the background. Also the resulting MindMap is cached. The similarity with Google Desktop is that the former tries to index what ever you see; FolkMind tries to create a MindMap out of it. You can imagine that this auto generated MindMap would not be perfect. That’s where the user can help. If he is really interested in a particular article, he can invoke the plug-in and brings it to foreground. This will result in the MindMap graphically displayed over the article as an overlay. Also it presents tools for the user to quickly make corrections to the MindMap, like add, delete or modify nodes or connection. When a user bookmark this article, the MindMap thus generated is also linked with it.

Folk: Ok, now I understand how Natural Language Processing done by FolkMind can help reduce the effort put in by the user in creating MindMaps. How can the community help here.

George: This is the most important aspect of FolkMind. Any MindMap that is generated by the user is also saved on the server in his profile. The advantage of this is that wherever you connect, your MindMaps are always available to you. Also, FolkMind server can also share this data with other users. So the content that you helped create is used to increase the accuracy of MindMaps generated when someone else looks at the same page. Also you benefit from what others have contributed. This collective value addition is key to increasing the accuracy and relevance of the MindMaps generated. As more and more people use it the content becomes accurate and relevant. Over time more pages get stored and cross-linked.

Folk: WOW that’s a very powerful idea. FolkMind server can help create a Concept Map for the whole Internet. This will help change the way we look at the Internet. Instead of considering the Internet as a collection of web pages connected together using hyperlinks, using FolkMind we can visualize the Web as a collection of interlinked concepts. So, instead of navigating through hyperlinks, you can navigate through concepts.

George: This will also change the way you search for stuff. Instead of doing keyword searches you can do concept searches. And since FolkMind already knows about your context or knowledge set based on what you have already stored in your profile, it can retrieve you stuff that is very relevant to you or even suggest new stuff. It is like Amazon suggesting things to you based on what you have looked for before.

Folk: So if my knowledge set already contains stuff like Web 2.0 and AJAX, FolkMind can suggest to me things like Atlas as and when they emerge on the Internet.

George: Precisely. It can help you create new useful connections between existing concepts. In essence it can help you create new ideas!

Folk: Now I am really exited about this. How far have you finished this?

George: FolkMind is still in a very early stage of development. I have created a project on SourceForge. If you are interested you can join in. Also you can help spread the word by digging it here.

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