The social agent

Mozilla Labs Official ConceptLate last fall, from late November through December, I worked with Mozilla Labs to envision what the future of a more social browser might look like. Working with the team, I produced a series of mockups and written pieces that were designed to first layout a future scenario for what I call “pop computing” — an era when computing is cheap, abundant, and a part of the everyday environment.

Thus, this is the first of a five part series that re-imagines the browser as a “social agent” — and defines how it can do more to facilitate various social behaviors by supporting three verbs that can “socialize” the browsing experience: Connect, Follow, and Share.

Weave Identity

To put the ideas presented here into some context, I will begin with a vignette that describes a future computing scenario, motivated by three emerging conditions:

  • online account and data portability
  • ubiquitous networked access
  • decreasing cost of advanced computing devices

This scenario is intended to provoke us to peek around the corner of today’s browser paradigm. Little that is presented here is entirely novel. Instead, this sketch presupposes that the browser has learned new capabilities that take it from the document-centric era of the web into the age of people-centric web services. This “social agent” knows who you are and facilitates common tasks like connecting to sites, interacting with following people and information, and providing intuitive tools for sharing for than just links.

. . .

We begin at a conference, somewhere far from home that required air travel, sometime in the near-future. It doesn’t really matter what the subject of the conference is, where it’s happening specifically, or why you’re going. However, a big draw of this event is getting to meet fellow professionals and exchanging tips and experiences, with the outcome of the event some kind of shared digital artifacts that capture the top highlights. There will be ample WiFi at the event and something else: everyone attending the event is given a slate computer to use for the duration of the event.

In fact, this kind of access to computing has become quite common; and with data access and portability vastly improved, the need to carry around personal electronics of any kind has all but gone away. In fact, the very thought of bringing a personal laptop — even a netbook — to the conference — now seems obtuse, as though you were bringing your own rotary phone and Yellow Pages to the conference.

It is also not possible to “install” applications on the device; instead, any application or service you need is available on-demand, available as a zero-footprint web service.

This device is the definition of a web native device; it serves dual purposes: to make computing extremely convenient, and abundant. It omits all the distractions and bells and whistles in favor of a lean, clean user experience, and is designed to augment — rather than replace — human interaction, as a whiteboard or pad of paper might.

The “browser” on this device has been modified to accommodate a new mode of online interaction. While it has retained a number of browser conventions, it introduces new capabilities that enhance personalization, sharing, and collaboration by carving out specific interfaces dedicated to interacting with people and web services.

When you turn on the device for the first time, you’re asked to activate the machine by signing in to your preferred identity service provider. You can either choose from a list of well known providers or supply an OpenID Connect-enabled account address.

Activate

Once activated, the device becomes an “extension” of your existing digital identity and any activity that you perform on the device will be attached to that identity. You may activate additional identities in order to assume discreet roles, but most people get by with as few as one or two active digital identities at any given time.

To that point, passwords are a thing of the past. With the advances in data portability and service interoperability, all modern sites and web services accept users from other networks (just as we take for granted the ability to email people from different domains today), making it possible to connect with, follow, and share with people on other networks without needing to create a new account. For most people, you only need one account for all your computing activities.

Connect

To better illustrate activation, I’ll draw an analogy to selecting your active gamer profile on an Xbox: once you’ve logged in with your gamertag, all your high scores, achievements, customizations, and social connections get attached to your profile. You don’t create a new gamertag for every game you play, nor for every social network (Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, etc) that you add to your profile. Instead, your gamertag is like a meta-identity to which you attach services, preferences, and attributes. This gamertag becomes a convenient, reusable identity.

Furthermore, if you visit a friend’s house and sign in to her Xbox with your gamertag, you’ll be able to bring all those preferences, connections, and achievements with you. You would set up and use the account system of this web-based device in the same way. In our future scenario, you would likely activate the same account that you use in your typical computing tasks while at the conference — picking up from where you left off — bringing access to all the resources and services you use, without the hassle of having to bring your own device, or remember more than one password.

During the course of the event, you would be able to make use of the built-in sharing capabilities to trade notes, photos, and videos with attendees co-located and remote. You could also follow those speakers and presenters who you find interesting, again, using the built-in features of the social agent.

Share

On the expo floor, you could use the device to wirelessly connect your account to any of the exhibitors, taking photos, making notes, and swapping contact information or gathering information to read later — which would all be seamlessly and securely synced to your cloud provider.

Follow

Best of all, because these activities would be performed under a primary account, it would be easy for you to revisit this experience later — filtering the connections and contacts you made by time, location, or contextual activity (for example, did you meet this person because they were a speaker, or were you introduced to this person through a mutual friend?). You would also have digital receipts of the information that you shared with people, and be able to recall the products and organizations you started following while at the event. In other words, rather than having to perform these different types of common tasks across a number of separate networks after the fact, your social agent would mediate these tasks for you — ultimately freeing you up to focus on the event itself — and the interactions with your fellow attendees.

. . .

Our opportunity, then, is to define how the browser could serve us better if it were recast as a social agent. To begin with, we need to make two assumptions:

  • First, there’s no reason why the browser should remain a passive bystander in our online experience. With increasing information abundance, we require smart and sophisticated tools that bring us the information that we need to know, when we need to know it, and that brings back our focus, productivity, and accelerates our understanding of the world around us.
  • Second, the social agent serves as an extension of the self into the web. Just as the mouse and keyboard facilitate the interaction between man and machine, the social agent facilitates the interaction between people through the medium of the web. We trust the keyboard to “communicate” our keystrokes to the computer just as we typed them, and expect the browser to help us articulate our connections other people directly. As the trust between the browser and man grows, we are extending ourselves into the digital medium — augmenting our access and ability to manipulate information — and enhancing our ability to connect with others. And yet, the browser is cast in the image of an infovore — and not a social being. Thus the potential to retool the browser as a social agent is huge, and remains largely unexplored territory, especially as we are spending more of our computing time in this application.

As the nexus of all of our online activities the browser is uniquely positioned to provide convenient and consistent access to friends, contacts, documents, and media across networks. And as an extension of man, the social agent is a fulcrum of user-centric computing — turning the individual into the point of integration by rejecting the current rash of fragmented service-centric identities. As far as the individual is concerned, it should be a choice whether one decides to fragment his identity into a thousand partial profiles strewn across the web, rather than a mandate.

From Mozilla’s perspective, the social agent offers dignity to the individual and brings balance to a chaotic ecosystem.

Just as Firefox has brought choice and innovation to a once-monopolistic browser market, the next generation browser must bring choice to the rapidly centralizing world of social networks. To achieve this, we need more than just another social network; we need a vision of the social web that is built on upon technological interoperability that fosters agency for the citizen of the web.

As my contribution to the Mozilla Concept Series on Identity, this series will explore the following hypotheses:

  • that people’s experience on the web would be enhanced if the browser offered more compelling, integrated social functionality
  • that the browser can be made social, becoming a personal, social agent
  • that a social agent can minimize the overhead of participating in the social web and maximize the benefits
  • that the architecture of identity in the browser is critical to achieving simplicity and clarifying the experience of social networking
  • that a social agent should simplify and reduce the work necessary of web developers to create secure, compelling social applications
  • that social functionality must be built into the browser in order to spread the benefits of the social web as wide as possible
  • that establishing trust is essential to growing the social web, and that trust can be earned by putting the individual, rather than services, at the center of the personal social web experience

This series of posts will sketch out a vision for the future of social computing, and is intended to provoke discussion, critique, and alternative proposals. In my mockups, I depict three new flows that adding three new verbs (connect, follow, and share) could bring to the browser. Subsequent posts will tackle each of these topics in turn:

  • Connect: acting as your social agent, the browser becomes an extension of yourself, making it easier and more secure to participate in the social web
  • Follow: as a replacement for the antiquated notion of “subscribing”, “following” becomes the general way to track the activities or feeds associated with a people, brands, celebrities, or social objects.
  • Share: as the fundamental activity of the social web, sharing media, content, and information is integrated into the browser and enhanced through making available social connections and publishing services

15 Comments

  1. at 10am on Mar 11th # |

    Wow! Super excited that this work is getting to see the light of day. And a 5-part series! Man, I know where your 20% time is going ;-)

  2. at 11am on Mar 11th # |

    When is the Chrome prototype coming out? ;)

  3. Will Meyer said
    at 3pm on Mar 11th # |

    Good stuff. I’d also be curious as to what your thoughts are on a verb like “communicate” (as in for its own sake, not necessarily in the context of sharing). Plain old messaging is still a big chunk of social-web interactions, do you see that facilitated by the social agent? Nicely done, looking forward to the followups.

  4. Suyog Mody said
    at 7pm on Mar 11th # |

    Very nice post! Curious to know your thoughts on collaboration and conversation too – definitely will be looking out for those and other thoughts in the next 4 parts!

  5. M.K. said
    at 11pm on Mar 11th # |

    Ever checked on Flock??? http://www.flock.com – mozilla based and complete social network attached .. sounds familiar, does’t it?

  6. Ben said
    at 2am on Mar 12th # |

    Really fascinating stuff. I’m looking forward to the next items in this series.

    I’ve just posted a suggested architecture for a social web infrastructure using Activity Streams and OpenID Connect, among other things, and it’s clear that there needs to be better browser support.

    Today’s browsers support common web features; hopefully the social web features you’ve been advocating will become equally common. From there it’s a no-brainer for browsers to adapt accordingly.

  7. at 7am on Mar 12th # |

    I helped start Flock by coming up with the concept, so yes, the ideas are certainly familiar! ;)

  8. Buzz Andersen said
    at 11am on Mar 12th # |

    Not to be pedantic (OK, I’m being pedantic), but “facile” probably isn’t quite the shade of “easy” you’re looking for:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=define%3Afacile

  9. at 2pm on Mar 12th # |

    Ah, tweaked…! Thanks!

  10. at 6pm on Mar 12th # |

    While there are aspects of this future vision I find very compelling, I do not see any of the social network players, and their funders and their marketing people ever willing giving up any grip they have on their users’ social identity. They consider their “ownership” of their slice of their life to be the foundation of their monetization model.

  11. at 6am on Mar 13th # |

    Your setup, while I suppose necessary to put the reader in the mood, could use a little help. I get your trying to build a scenario dependent on the cloud where I don’t have my own hardware, but the rotary phone metaphor is a bit off.

    In fact, the very thought of bringing a personal laptop — even a netbook — to the conference — now seems obtuse, as though you were bringing your own rotary phone and Yellow Pages to the conference.

    Rotary phones an yellow pages feel antiquated, not obtuse, and its only because we replaced them with a series of more personal technologies (first cell phones and now mobile devices like the iPhone).

    What your proposing as ubiquitous here, a device handed out at the conference, sounds much more unpleasant. Its the equivalent of leaving my rotary phone and yellow pages at home because I can use phone booths at the location.

    As much as Greenfield is convinced that ubiquitous computing is ever more present, and perhaps a world of conference provided devices may come to pass, it is distracting that you tie the social agent concept to these anchors.

    I’m on board with openid, data portability and ubiquitous network access, none of these things are dependent on cloud computing or commodity priced devices. The argument for this better future would benefit from staying focused on a near future where the social agent fits in with personal computing rather than a fantastical 2030 where we finally get jet packs.

    All that said, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series and glad to see players like Mozilla and Google increasingly supporting your work.

  12. Pete Barry said
    at 11am on Apr 1st # |

    Chris, I love the broad range of thought that you’ve put into this. I’d love to see the future browser somehow utilize cloud based plug-ins which could be tied to the identity as well. It’s when I try to use someone else’s computer that I realize how much I have customized my browsing experience. I imagine the browser as a bare skeleton. Applying an identity adds muscle and fat to it and creates the personalized experience.

  13. at 5pm on Apr 1st # |

    So many things to come back at you with—the first one obviously being: that’s a weirdly futuristic, flying-car post-mortem for Flock. I a good, but cover with blind spots way.

    The exercise is necessary, but I’m not sure what including the browser brings to the whole thing: people need a storage for social interactions that ought to be connected to their mails, cellphone, SNS/activity streams/feed-reader and… their browser — but apart from you being a graphic designer in need of mock-up, why would Mozilla make it where Flock failed, Chrome hasn’t tried and Facebook (Connect) somewhat made it? F8 will only ask this question harder.

    The biggest problem I see in all that isn’t the service: it’s having people agreeing on what interactions are. Facebook has been very good at making 400M people fall into an acceptable on what are essential expectations from a certain subset of their relations — but Zuckerberg doesn’t care for breastfeeding, curse-words or any Vampire game: he cares that most of his users are happy, together. The newly hard part being “together”.

    Do I want to have advice based on the sex-log of my new girlfriend and her geeky, über-lifeloging ex? Convenient, but creepy, huh? More generally, to work, any solution like the one you discuss should be able to accommodate four contradictory situations:
    * will your boss be happy you use those (and should you bring your personal browser at work, where it could be scanned)?
    * can you job-hunt safely while working elsewhere?
    * can you safely accommodate being unfaithful with that tech?
    * what happens when you dump your boyfriend, and who decides what he should know about the new one?

    Any tech, including public reading, accommodates: “Guys! I found this great book—let me show it to you.” Only some weird, genially dysfunctional Microsoft Exchange can reassure a psyched and lame co-worker that his e-mails have been opened that the only reason no one came to the meeting was a poorly resolved scheduling conflict that no one could have anticipated.

    My guess is that the solution to all those isn’t software, but society’s expectation. Sit on Flock for a while, until people know how to make sense of it. In the meantime, unclear solutions tend to leverage their misunderstandings.

  14. at 8pm on Apr 1st # |

    Chris – Thought provoking series. Thanks for putting this together.

    How do you think about the hierarchy of identity provisioning? One way to describe the range of services a user engages with is to move from general to specific; another way is to move from public to private.

    One example: Does it make sense to visit Paypal for the first time with Google as my provisioner or with BankofAmerica as my provisioner? Both have access to different and perhaps discrete pools of user information.

    Will there be a natural tendency for users to select as providers those services that have the broadest pool of user data? So that when they are asked to delegate permissions they do not have to enter additional security credentials? If that is the case, then does this give those generalist providers an unfair advantage over niche services that are delegated to, instead of delegated from?

  15. David said
    at 8am on May 3rd # |

    Very nice concept! At the same time, I am a bit surprised that suu guys didn’t come up with such a concept sooner.
    As a produch manager for a very small startup (www.inslices.com), I have worked a lot on the way people collect & share things on the web.
    Our service is far from being perfect but symbolizes another way to tackle this problem.

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