What I like about Facebook’s “openness”

likeLet’s get something straight: in my last post, I didn’t say that Facebook was evil.

Careful readers would understand that I said that funneling all user authentication (and thus the storage of all identities) through a single provider would be evil. I don’t care who that provider might be — but centralizing so much control — the fate of our collective digital existences! — in the hands of a single entity just can not be permitted.

That said, I do want to say some nice things about the open things that Facebook launched at F8, because as an advocate of the open web, there are some important lessons to be had that we’d do well to learn from.

  • Simplicity: I have to admit that Facebook impressed me with how simple they’ve made it to integrate with their platform, and how clear the value proposition is. From launching OAuth 2.0 (rather aggressively, since the standards process hasn’t even completed yet!) to removing the 24-hour caching policy, Facebook made considerable changes to their developer platform to ease adoption, integration, and promote implementation. This sets the bar for how easy (ideally) technologies like OpenID and ActivityStreams need to become.
  • Avoiding NIH (mostly): In particular, Facebook dispensed with their own proprietary authorization protocol and went with the emerging industry standard (OAuth 2.0). I hope that this move reduces complexity and friction for developers implementing secure protocols, increasing the number of available high quality OAuth libraries, and leads to fewer new developers needing to figure out signatures and crypto when sometimes even the experts get these things wrong. By standardizing on OAuth, we’re within range of dispensing with passwords once and for all (…okay, not quite).
  • Giving credit: I also think that Facebook deserves credit for giving credit to projects like Dublin Core, link-rel canonical, Microformats, and RDFa in their design of the Open Graph Protocol. I’ve seen many other efforts that start from scratch when plenty of other initiatives already exist simply because they’re unawares or don’t do their homework (one of which is the OpenLike effort!). I’m not sure I agree with the parts that Facebook extracted from these efforts, but as David Recordon said, we can fight over “where the quotes and angle-brackets should go“, but at the end of the day, they still shipped something that net-net increases the amount of machine-readable data on the web. And if they’re sincere in their efforts, this is just the beginning of what may emerge as a much wider definition of how more parties can both contribute to — and benefit from — the protocol.
  • Open licensing: Now that I’ve been involved in this area for a longer period of time, I’ve learned a simple truth: it’s hard to give things away, especially if you want other people to use them, even moreso when some of those potential users are competitors. But, that’s why the Open Web Foundation was created, and why David and I are board members. After setting up foundations over and over again, we decided that it needed to be easier to do! Now all the hard work of the Open Web Foundation’s legal committee is starting to pay off, and I am quite satisfied that Facebook has validated this effort. We’re still so early in the process that it’s not entirely clear how to make use of the Open Web Foundation’s agreement, but surely this will motivate us to find our own Creative Commons-like approach to proclaiming support for open web licensing on individual projects.

So, while I still have my reservations about Facebook’s master plan, they did do a number of things right — not everything — but I’m tough customer to please. When it comes to the identity stuff, I’m definitely non-plussed, but that’s where my ideology and their business needs collide — and I get it.

What this means is that we all need to show more hustle out on the field and get serious. With Facebook’s Hail Mary at F8, we just got set back a touchdown, and a field goal just ain’t gunna cut it.

Google Buzz and the fabric of the social web

Google Buzz IconWhen I joined the company a month ago, I was baited with the promise that Google was ready to get serious about the social web.

Yesterday’s launch of Google Buzz and the fledgling Google Buzz API is like a downpayment on what I see as Google’s broader social web ambitions, that have been bubbling beneath the surface for some time. Understand that Buzz is not entirely an end unto itself, but a way for Google to get some skin in the game to promote the use and adoption of different open technologies for the social web.

In fact, I’d argue that Buzz is as much about Google creating a new channel for conversation in a familiar place as it is about how we’re going about building its public developer surfaces. Although today’s Buzz API only offers a real-time read-only activity stream, the goal is to move quickly towards implementing a host of other technologies — most of which should be familiar to readers of this blog.

As Kevin Marks observes, in order to address the mess of the social web that Mike Arrington described, we need widespread use [of common standards] so that we can generalize across sites — and thus enable people to interact and engage across the web , rather than being restricted to any particular silo of activity — which may or may not reflect their true social configuration.

In other words, standards — and in particular social web standards — are the lingua franca that make it possible for uninitiated web services to interact in a consistent manner. When web services use standards to commoditize essential and basic features, it forces them to compete not with user lock-in, but by providing better service, better user experience, or with new functionality and utility. I am an advocate of the open web because I believe the open web leads to increased competition, which in turn affords people better options, and more leverage in the world.

Buzz is both a terrific product, and a great example of how the social web is evolving and becoming truly ubiquitous. Buzz is simply one more stitch in the fabric of the social web.

Designing for the gut

This post has been translated to Belorussian by Patricia Clausnitzer.

I want you to watch this video from a recent Sarah Palin rally (hat tip: Marshall Kirkpatrick). It gives us “who” I’m talking about.

While you could chalk up the effect of the video to clever editing, I’ve seen similar videos that suggest that the attitudes expressed are probably a pretty accurate portrayal of how some people think (and, for the purposes of this essay, I’m less interested in what they think).

It seems to me that the people in the video largely think with their guts, and not their brains. I’m not making a judgment about their intelligence, only recognizing that they seem to evaluate the world from a different perspective than I do: with less curiosity and apparent skepticism. This approach would explain George W Bush’s appeal as someone who “lead from the gut“. It’s probably also what Al Gore was talking about in his book, Assault on Reason.

Many in my discipline (design) tend to think of the consumers of their products as being rational, thinking beings — not unlike themselves. This seems worse when it comes to engineers and developers, who spend all of their thinking time being mathematically circumspect in their heads. They exhibit a kind of pattern blindness to the notion that some people act completely from gut instinct alone, rarely invoking their higher faculties.

How, then, does this dichotomy impact the utility or usability of products and services, especially those borne of technological innovation, given that designers and engineers tend to work with “information in the mind” while many of the users of their products operate purely on the visceral plane?

In writing about the death of the URL, I wanted to expose some consequences of this division. While the intellectually adventuresome are happy to embrace or create technology to expand and challenge their minds (the popularity and vastness of the web a testament to that fact), anti-intellectuals seem to encounter technology as though it were a form of mysticism. In contrast to the technocratic class, anti-intellectuals on the whole seem less curious about how the technology works, so long as it does. Moreover, for technology to work “well” (or be perceived to work well) it needs to be responsive, quick, and for the most part, completely invisible. A common sentiment I hear is that the less technology intrudes on their lives, the better and happier they believe themselves to be.

So, back to the death of the URL. As has been argued, the URL is ugly, confusing, and opaque. It feels technical and dangerous. And people just don’t get them. This is a sharp edge of the web that seems to demand being sanded off — because the less the inner workings of a technology are exposed in one’s interactions with it, the easier and more pleasurable it will be to operate, within certain limitations, of course. Thus to naively enjoy the web, one needn’t understand servers, DNS, ports, or hypertext — one should just “connect”, pick from a list of known, popular, “destinations”, and then point, click — point, click.

And what’s so wrong with that?

What I find interesting about the social web is not the technology that enables it, but that it bypasses our “central processor” and engages the gut. The single greatest thing about the social web is how it has forced people to overcome their technophobias in order to connect with other humans. I mean, prior to the rise of AOL, being online was something that only nerds did. Few innovations in the past have spread so quickly and irreversibly, and it’s because the benefits of the social web extend beyond the rational mind, and activate our common ancestors’ legacy brain. This widens the potential number of people who can benefit from the technology because rationality is not a requirement for use.

Insomuch as humans have cultivated a sophisticated sociality over millennia, the act of socializing itself largely takes place in the “gut”. That’s not to say that there aren’t higher order cognitive faculties involved in “being social”, but when you interact with someone, especially for the first time, no matter what your brain says, you still rely a great deal on what your gut “tells you” — and that’s not a bad thing. However, when it comes to socializing on sites like Twitter and Facebook, we’re necessarily engaging more of our prefrontal cortex to interpret our experience because digital environments lack the circumstantial information that our senses use to inform our behavior. To make up for the lack of sensory information, we tend to scan pages all at once, rather than read every word from top to bottom, looking for cues or familiar handholds that will guide us forward. Facebook (by name and design) uses the familiarity of our friends’ faces to help us navigate and cope with what is otherwise typically an information-poor environment that we are ill-equipped to evaluate on our own (hence the success of social engineering schemes and phishing).

As we redesign more of our technologies to provide social functionality, we should not proceed with mistaken assumption that users of social technologies are rational, thinking, deliberative actors. Nor should we be under the illusion that those who use these features will care more about neat tricks that add social functionality than the socialization experience itself. That is, technology that shrinks the perceived distance between one person’s gut and another’s and simply gets out of the way, wins. If critical thinking or evaluation is required in order to take advantage of social functionality, the experience will feel, and thus be perceived, as being frustrating and obtuse, leading to avoidance or disuse.

Given this, no where is the recognition of the gut more important than in the design and execution of identity technologies. And this, ultimately, is why I’m writing this essay.

It might seems strange (or somewhat obsessive), but as I watched the Sarah Palin video above, I thought about how I would talk to these people about OpenID. No doubt we would use very different words to describe the same things — and I bet their mental model of the web, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google would differ greatly from mine — but we would find common goals or use cases that would unite us. For example, I’m sure that they keep in touch with their friends and family online. Or they discover or share information — again, even if they do it differently than me or my friends do. Though we may engage with the world very differently — at root we both begin with some kind of conception of our “self” that we “extend” into the network when we go online and connect with other people.

The foundation of those connections is what I’m interested in, and why I think designing for the gut is something that technocrats must consider carefully. Specifically, when I read posts like Jesse Stay’s concept of a future without a login button, or evaluate the mockups for an “active identity client” based on information cards or consider Aza and Alex’s sketches for what identity in the browser could look like, I try to involve my gut in that “thought” process.

Now, I’m not just talking about intuition (though that’s a part of it). I’m talking about why some people feel “safer” experiencing the web with companies like Google or Facebook or Yahoo! at their side, or how frightening the web must seem when everyone seems to need you to keep a secret with them in order to do business (i.e. create a password).

I think the web must seem incredibly scary if you’re also one of those people that’s had a virus destroy your files, or use a computer that’s still infected and runs really slow. For people with that kind of experience as the norm, computers must seem untrustworthy or suspicious. Rationally you could try to explain to them what happened, or how the social web can be safe, but their “gut has already been made up.” It’s not a rational perception that they have of computers, it’s an instinctual one — and one that is not soon overcome.

Thus, when it comes to designing identity technologies, it’s very important that we involve the gut as a constituent of our work. Overloading the log in or registration experience with choice is an engineer’s solution that I’ve come to accept is bound to fail. Instead, the act of selecting an identity to “perform as” must happen early in one’s online session — at a point in time equivalent to waking up in the morning and deciding whether to wear sweatpants or a suit and tie depending on whatever is planned for the rest of the day.

Such an approach is a closer approximation to how people conduct themselves today — in the real world and from the gut — and must inform the next generation of social technologies.