Moving Away from Ad Hoc Directories
Moving Away from Ad Hoc Directories
Moving Away from Ad Hoc Directories

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    A couple of disparate items caught my attention recently, and illustrate an ongoing shift in how we find information. First, there's this Marc Fisher column about the precarious situation of “From the Top,” a classical music radio program on the air in DC. Then (via Slashdot), there's this roundup of Internet rants, raves, and predictions from the end of 1994.

    What caught my eye about the posting on “From the Top” was this anecdote by Christopher O'Reilly, the creator and host of the show:

    “When we started 'From the Top,' the original idea was to cross genres, to include bluegrass and a jazz quintet from New York,” he says. “But when we shipped the pilot shows to classical stations, they said, 'If you have one minute of jazz or bluegrass, you're off, because we're a classical station.'”

    O'Reilly is apparently known for bending genres outside of his radio program–Fisher notes that he's recorded solo piano arrangements of Radiohead songs, and is going to be releasing a similar take on Nick Drake soon. But he was unable to put together anything but a single-genre show because of the segregated nature of radio station programming.

    It's useful, I think, to compare this with how people used the Web a little over a decade ago. For instance, here's one of Susan Calcari's pet peeves in 1994:

    The organization of the World-Wide Web. I love the Web, but finding something specific on it is a nightmare. And because the Web is growing by leaps and bounds, I just don't see things getting easier anytime soon.

    Some of the earlier attempts to organize the content on the Web soon followed. Yahoo, for instance, began by trying to act less as a search engine, and more as a classification service. Here, courtesy of the Internet Archive, is what it looked like in 1996. While the search engine is there, Yahoo's main function was to categorize everything on the Web into a few major categories, with increasingly fine-cut subcategories. So if I were looking for lawyer jokes, I'd click on the “Entertainment” link, then the “Humor” subcategory under that, then “Jokes,” and finally “Lawyer Jokes,” which would lead me to dozens upon dozens of sites. Nor was Yahoo the only company to try and present the Web to people in this way. Yahoo, after all, was said to stand for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.”

    And this system worked well enough for the state of the Web at the time. It “organized” the Web, provided a structure that users could follow to find categories of things they were looking for.

    A similar sort of system is what has evolved on the radio. When driving through an unfamiliar city, we don't know where to go on the dial for what type of music. By and large, the only information we get about a given station from our receiver is the audio coming out of out speakers. So we can only find songs we want to listen to by twiddling the dial and hearing what sort of music each station is carrying, stopping when we hear music similar to what we're looking for.

    This searching-by-categories makes it less worthwhile for radio stations to have eclectic playlists. Even if a large number of people who listen to classic rock also like country music, there will be those who will immediately change stations if the DJ transitions Jimi Hendrix (or even Lynyrd Sknyrd) into Tricia Yearwood. If I like both types of music, then I'll find at least two different stations and flip between them on my presets; my friend who likes rock and hip-hop will flip between those stations. The rock station, by limiting its breadth, can get a greater number of casual listeners, rather than trying to capture all of the listening time of a select market. So the system of radio stations by genre creates an ad hoc directory system. Of course, this leaves less easily-classifiable stuff to fall between the cracks. If something doesn't quite fit into the broad categories of terrestrial radio stations, it will be hard to find.

    Something similar happened on the Web, as people have moved away from directories and towards search for organization. Remember when we used to “surf” the Web, like we surf through radio stations or TV channels? We were flipping through a multiple-choice menu of options, looking for the closest fit. But what if I'm trying to find something that doesn't fit neatly within one of the listed categories? What if it simply doesn't occur to me to categorize something in the same way that the directory has? Text-based searching allows me to find relevant results without having to deal with these problems.

    This also leads to a difference in what sorts of websites come to prominence. Just because a site covers an eclectic mix of topics doesn't mean that it won't rise to the top of a search engine's rankings, if it happens to have the best information on a specific question.

    So can this shift from directories to search be applied to the radio, or other media at risk of homogenization? Surprisingly, the barriers to this probably lie more in the law than in the technology available. It's pretty clear that the technology exists. Television stations, less dependent than radio on a drop-in audience (TV viewers are usually stationary, with access to print or online schedules), have more eclectic content, and TiVo and other DVRs do a great job of picking and choosing from that content for their owners. A similar device could easily listen to track information over the air across multiple channels and perform the same sort of aggregation for a user. The user wouldn't have to surf–she could just express certain genre and artist preferences and let the device record.

    But efforts to do this are hampered by content producers who either fear piracy or want to extract more money from the new technologies. Take, for example, the XM lawsuit. Or even last year's proposed PERFORM Act. One of the oddities of that bill was the fact that it tried to draw a distinction between audio recording and “automated” audio recording. So while the law recognized that a user could surf through various stations and record songs only by a certain artist, it would prevent that same user from having a piece of software that would do the same thing. Drafters of the bill feared that legitimate methods of information organization, made easy, represented a threat to record sales. I have my doubts about that argument–does TiVo cut into DVD sales any more than the VCR does, or does it just provide a better VCR?

    The movement from 1994's Yahoo to today's search engines was less a breakthrough in device engineering than in information organization. Bringing this ability to media like radio is also less a matter of new technology and more a change in how we find things. Laws shouldn't force us to follow one particular organization method over another just because one method makes it easier to find the media we want to consume. And perhaps O'Reilly's hypothetical genre-bending show would find a ready home in such an altered medium.