Consensus Tools and the Search for Meaning

As all legal researchers know, meaning is the compass direction we follow as we divert the flood of data through information and on towards knowledge. At some point we pass any given canalization project on to others — typically lawyers or judges who work ultimately with pipettes and eyedroppers to pursue meaning among the bonzai garden pools and fountains. Staying on top is important — which means at times getting that Google Earth view from above of the grand ocean-to-irrigation project, so that one is prepared when glaciers melt, releasing a gush of data, when dikes fail and meaning is lost.

The internet has baptized us all, willy nilly, and required us to work much much harder to stay afloat, let alone high and dry. Elizabeth Ellis’s observation in a post not long ago is typical, I think, of the experience of all researchers:

Twenty five years ago, I recall spending most of my time “researching” because the finding tools were not that helpful. Once the “research” was finished, there tended to be a manageable amount of material, usually well written, to digest and analyze. Today, I think the “research” time has been shortened – but the analysis time lengthened because there is so much more material to consider and the material is often unorganized and confusing.

At once, legal researchers have it good and bad: good because we work within a discipline that allows us to ignore much data much of the time, bad because law is a social constrcut and in society everything is related to everything else with the result that nothing is clearly hors concours where law is concerned.

The breadth of “law” explains, of course, Slaw’s occasional interest in things like tagging and in the various search engines and tools that get floated from time to time. Lawyers don’t tag yet, though they may in time join the rest of the world in the use of that attempt to bale out their particular boats. But they do use the various services that filter and forward the news, whether Google News, Yahoo News, or some pay-for-use service. Somewhere between the social software world of tagging and the machine-made world of news filters lies a new service that offers you an automatic overview of what URLs people regard as interesting or significant. If this interstice is a space that interests you, there’s a decent little piece on Consensus Web Filters to be found on Cool Tools, of all places.

PopUrls gives you lists of lists. Something like twenty channels (Digg,, Google News, Wired, etc. etc.) of the people’s fooling about with buckets and spades on the shore are laid out for your oversight. Mouse over an item and a small portion of content appears, perhaps enough to let you decide whether to dive in there or not.

This may or may not turn out to be useful, but it marks an attempt to marry the work of human beings, however idiosyncratic, and machines, however algorithmically determined. And it certainly is one of the valiant attempts currently to keep our nostrils above the flood.

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