A new Net visioned he – Interview with John Breslin

John Breslin recently won the Net Visionary award for social contribution, he was kind enough to answer a few questions about it and a whole lot more. This is a long interview. Stick on the kettle and make a cuppa before reading.

So, what was it like winning the Net Visionary?

It was really a big surprise. To be honest, even though I knew I had a certain advantage in terms of people voting for me (it’s that bit easier to get votes with a community like boards.ie behind you), I didn’t expect to win as I thought that the jury would look at last year’s winner (Tom Murphy) and decide to ‘spread the awards around’. But I am absolutely delighted, and even though boards.ie is my main community project, I also see this award as an incentive to develop the other community sites I work on: Planet of the Blogs and Wiki Ireland (more later).

You won it for work with boards.ie, would like to give a brief history of your involvement with boards.ie?

As part of the IGN’s “quake.ie” website, I installed a Perl-based bulletin board package called “Matt’s WWWBoard” in Feburary 1998 (because I wanted somewhere that people could organise games, talk about Quake in Ireland, etc.). There weren’t all that many free bulletin board packages available back then, and this seemed one of the most useful at the time. The quake.ie WWWBoard really took off, but the software wasn’t written to have so many topics under discussion and it quickly became unusable (with a big long page of threads to kill your 36k connection).

Tom Murphy (of a company called Spin Solutions) was also quite taken with online bulletin boards. He had set up an ASP-based forum to talk about a gaming event called Quakapalooza, and saw a larger future for these discussions than just Quake. There’s a widely-quoted IRC conversation between us from 1999 I think (Tom mooted the idea of having a general purpose bulletin board site for Ireland, and I think I said that boards.ie would be a great name, but difficult to get) where he bet me that he would get the domain name boards.ie (at that time, the IEDR would not issue ‘generic’ domain names) and if he could do so then we would migrate my existing Cloud Boards to this new site.

Sure enough, he got the domain (by changing the name of Spin to Boards for one day), and boards.ie was born in 2000. The company boards.ie Ltd. was established independently, and consists of some former members of Spin and myself. Nearly six years later, and I’m still actively involved with boards.ie, less so in terms of post or user moderation but I still actively create new forum areas and try and classify the forum hierarchy according to what seems right to me. My main role is in feature development – we’re adding new features all the time: blogs, wikis, podcasts – and my next step is to create entry portals for the different bulletin board communities, so I’m happy to say that 15 years after my first electronic bulletin board usage, I’m still fascinated by them!

What are your thoughts on award shows in general?

Even though boards.ie won both a Golden Spider and a Zeddy Award in 2001, and was a runner up for a NIBA in 2000, I wasn’t really that well-up on the various awards ceremonies until more recently (as my previous day job was as a lecturer in electronics, so I wasn’t directly involved in the internet industry). From what I can see, the Golden Spiders awards for 2005 is being widely acknowledged by the web developer community as a pat-your-own-back farce. I just saw the Golden Spiders’ nominations list yesterday, and even though I can’t claim to know all sites in the Irish internet demense, I didn’t see many that I recognised in that list. And the reason is: you have to pay to enter…

I liked the way that the IIA Net Visionaries were freely community nominated and voted on (and it worked out well for me, wah-hey!). Some disagreed with the fact that nominees had to pay to attend, and I guess with a total of around 40 nominees out of an attendance of 400 or so, this could have been factored into the non-nominee tickets, but this is a small matter and I don’t mind that too much. However, the thought of having to pay to apply to be an awards nominee in the first place (á la Golden Spiders) is ridiculous. If you look at some of the categories like “Best Personal Website” or “Best Community Site”, are these non-profit people also supposed to pay to enter the awards? The Zeddy Awards were set up in 2001 in opposition to the Golden Spiders. They didn’t last, but I’m glad that the spirit of this idea is returning in 2006 with the Irish Web Awards.

Also, I think it is good not to pitch the Net Visionaries and the Golden Spiders (or the forthcoming Irish Web Awards) against each other. The Net Visionaries should continue to focus on individual’s achievements, and the others can then still list organisations or companies as nominees.

You do research in the Semantic Web and social software at DERI, NUI Galway. Firstly do you want to describe what the Semantic Web is and what social software is?

Sure. Basically, the idea of the Semantic Web is to add more meaning to the web. I guess most people realise that computers can only do so much with the “natural language” information that is on the web at the moment – they just aren’t evolved enough to understand what pages of text are about. The idea of a Semantic Web was put forward by the inventor of the current web, Tim Berners-Lee, and involves a move from unstructured pages of text to semi-structured information that can not only be understood by people but can be interpreted by computers to present the information to people in new ways.

Searching for information today is based on finding words within web pages and matching them. For example, if a person was searching for information on the former English rugby captain Martin Johnson, they would visit a site such as Google and type “Martin Johnson� into the search box. The search engine will not only return web pages for the rugby player, but primarily those relating to his more famous artist namesake Martin Johnson Heade (and many other Martin Johnsons besides). One way to improve this would be for a web page author to add some extra meaning to their document, for example by marking the words Martin Johnson with tags (Martin Johnson). This is a simple example of annotation, where semantic meaning can be added to the Web. Now a computer can determine that this Martin Johnson is a rugby player, and that he may be the one that you are looking for.

Since it’d be difficult to add annotations to all existing websites, natural language techniques can be employed to try and extract meaning from words on a web page in the same way that a human reader would. The next step is the development of various ontologies. Ontologies, providing a vocabulary of terms in a certain area (for example, there would be separate ontologies for sports or soaps or science) are used to specify the meanings of the annotations added to web pages. For the rugby example, there may be definition in an ontology that a rugby player is a member of a team, or that each team has 15 players. These ontologies are designed to be understandable by computers as part of the Semantic Web.

Social software allows people to connect, communicate or collaborate by use of a computer network – resulting in the creation of shared, interactive spaces. Some examples of social software systems that readers may be familiar with include discussion forums (like boards.ie), blogs, wikis (e.g. the Wikipedia) and online social networks. Like my love for bulletin boards, my interest in social software (of sorts) goes back to my undergraduate days: one of my first programs in 1991 showed a map of the various computer rooms in UCG with details of who was sitting at which terminal – a handy way to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know!

By using Semantic Web technologies in social software systems, I’d hope that we can create new methods for connecting people to other people and also to the information that they have created.

boards.ie to me anyway is a fascinating community. 40,000 members and the site seems to have its own culture and subcultures. There are cliques and gangs and rivalries, friendships are created and sometimes lost on it. When you see the CSO definition of a town as a place with 1500 people, would you think boards.ie is like a city?

boards.ie is quite like a city: it has its must-see areas, its run-down sections, a prison for offending users, celebrities and roving gangs. We should be allowed to have our own mayor, city council, number plates (I want 06-B-01!) and representatives in the Dáil. Seriously though, I’m always amazed when I wander into a forum area that I don’t normally frequent and see these groups of people who ‘live’ there and sometimes have little connection to the rest of the site. But it is where the connections are made that people from these overlapping communities share and learn and often find new interests, thereby evolving their own community areas.

As well as being a useful way of sharing and finding information on whatever topics you’re interested in, It is the friendships and enemyships that often keep people coming back for more – some of our busiest days happen when public fights erupt between boards.ie mini-celebrities! There’s such a diverse range of topics too – Pat Kenny read out a thread from boards.ie this week which was describing an exposé he did on his radio show about Irish Psychics Live, and there are discussion areas about all kinds of stuff ranging from David Hasselhoff and Wanderly Wagon to personal issues and zombie photo makeovers.

I also like to incorporate like-minded communities into boards.ie. One of the first such that I persuaded to join us was the popular Irish Cable and Digital Guide (ICDG) community, who were previously hosted elsewhere. We have an open offer to other existing communities that they can join (and make use of) the existing boards.ie memberbase and we will try and import any previous messages to ensure continuity.

Has it helped you in your research?

Yes, because I came into my research job (in the Semantic Web and social software area) with knowledge of how an online community is formed and works, how it is structured and so on. One of my main projects is called SIOC (the Irish word for frost), which stands for “Semantically-Interlinked Online Communities”. This is basically a system for connecting online communities, for example, let’s say we want connect discussions on the web archive of the Irish Webmaster Network’s Open mailing list to those ongoing in boards.ie’s Webmaster forum. The structure of most online discussions are quite similar, whether they be on blogs, Usenet newsgroups or forums – they consist of discussion starters and replies or comments to the initial post. SIOC can connect all these discussion primitives – through links such as similar topics of interest, social networks, related forums, etc. – we just need people to install the exporters that we are developing for various open source and commercial discussion systems. More information for techies at http://rdfs.org/sioc/ regarding SIOC.

As well as boards.ie you seem to own dozens more websites and have a huge amount of other discussion boards running. Care to list them all out here?

Well, I do run a medium-sized bulletin board site for Japanese culture called “boards.jp“. I also run a number of smaller (not very active) sites for other countries: New Zealand (boards.co.nz), China (boards.com.cn), and the US (boards.us). I’m also planning other sites for Austria, Spain and India – but for all of these, I need to get some momentum going. Like boards.ie, this could initially be formed through a group of 10 or 20 active users interested in a particular topic. Most of these sites can be accessed through boardsgroup.com.

Apart from that, I run the Planet of the Blogs blog aggregator for Irish Blogs, a corresponding one for New Zealand called “Generation Blog”, the irishblogs.org free blog hosting service, Wiki Ireland, the anime.ie site for the Anime and Manga Society of Ireland, a site for Japanese synthesizer musician Isao Tomita at isaotomita.org, and then there’s my own personal pages (Cloud, John Breslin, Ambient Zone).

I’m a real hoarder, so I often buy domain names with the hope of doing something with them eventually – I think I have around 50 or so at the moment (e.g. GalwayCity.com or CorkCity.net – don’t shoot me Damien!). With some of these, I’ve realised that my time is limited and I will never get around to doing anything so in those cases I’ve tried to donate them to relevant communities of interest.

Wiki Ireland is one of your latest ventures. What’s the purpose of it?

Wikis have had great success recently in terms of online collaboration for various purposes: e.g., creating virtual encyclopedias (like the famous Wikipedia), collaborating on research projects or papers, writing books, organising events, and so on. Wiki Ireland was set up as a non-profit project to create a valuable local knowledge store for Ireland’s culture and heritage, and I hope that it will act as a focus for collecting local knowledge and articles that may or may not be deemed noteworthy for a general knowledge encyclopedia.

The first wiki-focussed conference was held in Frankfurt in August, at which I talked with the creator of the first wiki, Ward Cunningham. I also met Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, where we discussed the open inclusion process of Wikipedia as opposed to the more traditional printed encyclopedias. I’d just created my first Wikipedia article, about a 1970s music group with the wonderful name ‘Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’. Jimmy said you’d never get that into one of the other popular (name removed) encyclopedias.

The project aims to use Wiki Ireland as a central site for collecting Irish knowledge such as folklore, history or geographical information from participants. The site welcomes contributors willing to devote any time to creating or maintaining articles on the knowledge store, be they teachers, students, librarians or knowledge enthusiasts! Articles can include local songs, poems or recitations; historical descriptions of towns, buildings or people; recommended walks for visitors to a particular region; fairy or folk tales; etc.

I have a personal interest in putting an archive of recitations online. My grandfather, Jack Casey, has been transcribing recitations from memory and elsewhere that he has been interested in since he was in school. My aunt typed up his first volume of handwritten pages, amounting to over 500 songs and poems, and I have just started to input these into the Wiki Ireland site.

How do you see the web changing in the next few years?

Ah, a question worthy of a Net Visionary (eek!). I think it has already changed from a set of static pages to living pages (through blogs and wikis). I think this will continue, and that many commercial websites will think about adopting the wiki model (with some access control limitations) thereby allowing teams to maintain their site’s content (rather than just one person as in the past). And associated with this, there will be this move towards supplementing or replacing the content of pages with semi-structured data for the future Semantic Web.

I was at a nice talk last year by Zack Rosen (of CivicSpace Labs), where he said they are very interested in Asterisk (free Linux PABX) and the idea that conversations could be recorded and used on community sites – this could replace traditional discussions. Podcasting is going this way; you can not only have text comments as replies to podcasts postings but also add audio ones. I can see some mailing lists being linked to phone numbers that you can ring up to leave audio comments for members of the list.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who was recently in Galway, has his own vision of the future of the web, do you think it will be achieved?

Since a lot of Tim’s vision is towards the aim of the Semantic Web, I certainly hope so as my job depends on it! I think that through initiatives such as DERI at NUI Galway (funded by the Irish Government’s Science Foundation Ireland), we are fulfilling our slogan of “making the Semantic Web real”. Some of our systems such as the Jerome Digital Library or the YARS metadata repository are actually already in use and making it easier to do things on the web, as well as making it possible to do things that you couldn’t do before (e.g., on JeromeDL, you can pose some nice questions like, “show me all the recent documents written by people in my social network or friends of my friends that correspond to my topics of interest”).

You have a deep involvement with blogs with Planet of the Blogs and IrishBlogs.org. There are in the region of 700 blogs in the PotB aggregator now and there seems to be a good community attitude between the bloggers and a high level of mutual respect. Do you think the model of boards.ie could be applied here?

I’m happy to say that sites like IrishBlogs.ie (from Browse the World) and Planet of the Blogs (from myself and Martin Feeney) have seemed to create a momentum behind the establishing of an Irish blogging community. The same is happening in the Irish podcasting domain, through the efforts of Brian H. Greene amongst others.

If there was a lot of cross-interaction between the blogs, I think something similar to boards.ie could exist. That’s why systems like Drupal are so powerful (as I use on irishblogs.org), because you can have your own blog area but you can use your same account to comment on other people’s blogs, and you can also share authentication across Drupal sites.

Could you forsee 10,000 bloggers in Ireland?

I think that we could quite easily see 10,000 bloggers in Ireland. Actually, I think the quickest way to make this happen at the moment would be to offer all of our boards.ie members the option to have a blog. Like survival of the fittest, the inactive ones will quickly die out. We currently allow our paid subscribers to have WordPress [Multiuser, by Donncha O Caoimh] blogs, but it is not feasible to open up this system to everyone due to some MySQL limitations. However, we have been testing a new blogging system based on Drupal (with less features than WPMU) that could potentially be opened up to all boards.ie members through a shared user database.

Do you think there’ll be a large percentage of people blogging in the future?

Yes, but again more for the reason that people will continue to have websites about their favourite hobbies, bands, communities, etc., and blogs are a way to maintain a living site that can be syndicated and commented on that is not easily done with free hosting sites such as Geocities.

What are some of your favourite blogs at the moment? Do you subscribe to a lot of them?

I don’t subscribe to as many as I could, since Planet of the Blogs can show me a lot through a single syndicated feed. But some of the main ones I read include Danah Boyd and the Many 2 Many group blog which are both about social software, my colleagues blogs here in DERI, An tImeall, Eugene Eric Kim, Emmet Connolly, Bernie Goldbach, Marc Canter, and your good self.

So, we mentioned the semantic web and where that’s going, what about other technologies? What do you see as the main tech trends in the next 12 months and in the next 3-5 years? Ireland specific, what do you think will be the main Irish trends?

Annotated media is an interesting one for the near future – skip your DVD to the scene with the red shirt flapping in the wind, or ask your Sky+ box for shows that feature actors from Scotland. Podcasts can also be annotated, more so through automatic speech recognition, but people could also add annotations (e.g. URL references) or tags to parts of a recording as they listen to it.

There’s still a convergence going on between computing and traditional broadcast reception devices. My satellite receiver can record TV shows onto a harddisk, play MP3s, display pictures, be used to browse web pages, operate as an RSS reader, stream radio, play Lemmings, and so on. Some of us have DVD players and Sky boxes, but as of yet, not many that do absolutely everything.

I hope that in terms of Ireland there’ll be a trend towards more pervasive broadband, and cheaper too (but actually being able to get it is most important). As a non-mobile phone owner, I’m not sure what is going to happen there exactly (iMode?), but maybe it’d be cool if they could be used to run useful computations for SETI@home or cancer research when they are not busy.

For someone into technology and playing with all things web, you don’t even own a mobile phone which nowadays is a rarity, why no mobile? Do you own any gadgets?

Yes, I am one of the remaining 6% of people (including babies and seniors) that don’t own a mobile phone. I dislike their intrusive nature, but must admit that I don’t like phones (landlines) in general. Apart from that, I do like useful gadgets. I have a basic digital camera, a MiniDisc recorder, an iPod Nano that I won at a competition two weeks ago, and at home I have a Dreambox (a Linux-based satellite receiver), DVD recorder and a modified Xbox.

How do you juggle work, research, websites and play?

I’m fortunate now in that my work is quite closely related to what I would call my hobbies (like boards.ie), and therefore I find it really interesting. However, the problem is that it is difficult to switch off from computer stuff as it can take up all hours. I try not to work on my PC past 8 PM, but at the lastest 10 PM – otherwise I won’t sleep (soundly). Then it is a matter of making time for family, films, radio shows, walks (rare!), sci-fi and TV (common!) and travel.

You have a load of other interests such as anime and manga and you host a radio show in Galway. How did you get into anime and manga?

I got into anime unknowingly when I was a kid, through the TV show Battle of the Planets – a US sanitised version of the Japanese show Science Ninja Team Gatchaman – I loved it. It was only years later that I realised that what I was watching was actually anime. Then I was exposed to Akira from a friend in college, and it kind of went from there. I set up a site called Manga to Anime (now boards.jp), and could indulge my new obsession by conversing with like-minded fans there. Recently I bought an original ‘cel’ (animation still) from Gatchaman.

There seems to be quite a following in Ireland for this, ever wondered why and how it became popular here?

Anime and manga has just become popular everywhere really, and Ireland has recently caught on. The British Isles have been a bit behind in terms of this, as in the mid-nineties there were only a handful of companies releasing a limited set of anime here. But the world of P2P sharing and torrents has forced a more global view of the demand for anime, and now we’re reaping the benefits of this fandom as it hits the mainstream.

So, what next for John Breslin after being declared an Irish Net Visionary? What do you see yourself getting into?

As regards the immediate future, I am going to continue to work on the SIOC project in DERI, NUI Galway, and with the boards.ie site I’ll be looking at how we can offer free forums / blogs as well as installing an enhanced classifieds system (with Regi / Dan King). Wiki Ireland is also something I want to inject some life into, through outreach to schools or community groups and accessing those individuals literally brimming over with local knowledge.

Long term, vote John Breslin for President. Actually, President Breslin sounds a bit weird so I’d have to change the constitution to make the position that of King or Emperor so that it sounds better. Can I do that legally?

5 Responses to “A new Net visioned he – Interview with John Breslin”

  1. […] Damien Mulley’s Blog » Blog Archive » A new Net visioned he – Interview with John Breslin […]

  2. Good interview. An interesting read.

  3. Dave says:

    Great interview Damien! Cloud is a hero!

  4. Cloud says: