Happy birthday to me! I’m joining Google

Google Birthday

Yes friends, I’m turning 29 and I’ve decided to go work for The Man.

;)

In all actuality, I’ve been mulling over such a move for some time, considering a number of compelling opportunities for my next step. After reviewing my options — in light of the progress I’ve made so far and my familiarity and existing relationships with the new team at Google that I’ll be working with — I came to the conclusion that Google offers me the best possible opportunity to continue my work in an environment and culture that is compatible with my outlook, goals, and work habits.

I was trained as a designer, but I’ve been involved with the tech scene since I arrived in Silicon Valley just over five years ago. In some ways, technology has reshaped the way I approach and solve problems — forcing me to think in terms of adoption strategies first, rather than always trying to find the simplest, cleanest design, because of the disadvantaged position I occupied as a non-coder. I can see the consequences of these effects on my approaches first to OAuth, and then to Activity Streams, as well as with OpenID, with positive and negative results. In some ways I’ve had to temper my designer training and put technology first in order to grow an audience. But now I’m ready for new challenges that will expand my ideas and tactics, force me to attack problems from new perspectives, and dip into my design thinking repertoire to operate at a whole new level.

Though I consistently aim high, I want more success in turning my ideas into tangible outcomes, and in doing so, prove the power that I see in open, interoperable standards that can make the web a richer and more intricately spun space.

In some ways, I’m still just getting started with my work.  In joining Google, I see the chance to have a greater impact than I might otherwise on my own. That said, I won’t lose track of what intrinsically motivates me — that I’ve always been about spreading the benefits of the web by creating technology that  fosters innovation and choice. And there’s where I see alignment with what I’ve been doing, and what Google needs to succeed. In fact, my new title at Google? The same one I independently gave myself a year ago: “Open Web Advocate”.

In this role, I’ll still be an active community board member of the OpenID and Open Web Foundations; I hope to help push the Activity Streams project forward with a 1.0 release of the spec soon. And I’m still hopeful about the future of my our semi-neglected and half dormant Diso Project! I’ll also soon be publishing the results of my collaboration with Mozilla Labs, which will provide some insight into what social networking in the browser might look like, and how OpenID Connect might play a role in it.

For good measure, I should also point out that my good friend and colleague Joseph Smarr also made a similar decision recently  — unbeknownst to me at the time! —  and announced that he’ll be joining Google later this month as well.

So, net-net, I’m stoked to be joining The Man Google, and very thankful to have had as much support from the many, many people with whom I’ve connected through the synapses of the social web over these past several years. This is of course a very happy birthday present for me, and I’m eagerly anticipating what’s next for the open social web in 2010…! This can all still be made better. Ready? Begin.

Feel free to leave a comment here, or get in touch via email.

Update: here’s the latest theSocialWeb.tv episode where I make my announcement:

OpenID Connect

OpenID Connect

I’ve been thinking about how we make OpenID both easier and sexier for quite a while now. As frustrating as the answer may be to technologists, the problem is not necessarily one that can be solved with more technology. Instead, at some point, you have to move beyond the original constituents of a solution and start to package up the thing in a way that is less alienating, and less “insider baseball”.

“OpenID Connect”, therefore, is what I’m starting to use in casual conversation as my answer to Twitter and Facebook Connect.

It’s really creative, I know. That’s why they pay me the big bucks.

Seriously though, from a marketing perspective — it’s what I want the OpenID Foundation (and our new board) to offer the world in 2010. Essentially I think it’s time we ditched the “Open Stack” concept and put something out there that can stand up in conversation alongside the likes of Facebook Connect, in all its rich and specific expressiveness.

At some point, I want OpenID Connect to be what Facebook and Google and others implement that becomes the interoperable identity interchange protocol for the social web. But we’re not quite there yet, though all the technology is on the verge of being… ready.

Speaking of, from a technical perspective — I’m really just talking about repackaging OpenID as a profile of OAuth WRAP (credit: Recordon). It would provide relying parties with profile data, relationships, access to content, and activity streams — based on Recordon’s anatomy of connect.

Unlike the current incarnation, it would work in real-time, distributed systems, on the desktop as well as in mobile devices. Huzzah!

We’re not even that far away from such a solution. Since OpenID really just bootstraps identity — we need a way to provide relying parties with all the other stuff they’ve come to expect from the Twitter and Facebook Connect APIs… and that’s where the “connect” in “OpenID Connect” comes in.

So, to summarize:

  • for the non-tech, uninitiated audiences: OpenID Connect is a technology that lets you use an account that you already have to sign up, sign in, and bring your profile, contacts, data, and activities with you to any compatible site on the web.
  • for techies: OpenID Connect is OpenID rewritten on top of OAuth WRAP using service discovery to advertise Portable Contacts, Activity Streams, and any other well known API endpoints, and a means to automatically bootstrap consumer registration and token issuance.

2050

The RocketeerIt occurred to me last night — through simple arithmetic, really — that 40 years from now, we’ll be living in the year 2050.

I suppose that realization was just as potent as the high school realization that I’d be entering college one year before 2000, and that a decade after that (i.e. this year), we’d supposedly have made contact with aliens by now.

In any case, it got me thinking that, in all likelihood, I’m going to make it to 2050. I’ll be 69 years old, and imagine by then, will have much more perspective, knowledge, and wisdom than I have now.

Still though, life never ceases to amaze (as the expression goes) and so I’m curious what you think: picture yourself waking up 40 years from now and saying to yourself, “Y’know, in 2050, I never would have imagined…” and then complete the sentence.

You can either leave your response here, or tweet it with the tag #in2050.

Clarifying a few things about Twitter typographics like hashtags and slashtags

Prompted by a post by Karl Long and Aral Balkan’s new Twitterformats initiative, I wanted to clarify a few about hashtags and slashtags — at least as I see them.

First: Stowe Boyd deserves credit for Microsyntax. I just pitched in in the beginning and use the wiki to document some ideas I’ve had. I didn’t start the project, though I do think it’s a useful convening spot.

As well, Stowe and I have different ideas about microsyntax, and it’s worth taking the time to grok his perspective.

Second: when I wrote my post on what are now called slashtags, I was just documenting what I was doing… not necessarily intending to tell other people what to do. Hey, if people copied me, I figured, they might as well “get” what I was up to. Hence my blog post.

As with hashtags, I just started using them and didn’t wait for anyone to agree with me! Now, I did look at what people were doing, or what conventions already existed, which is a point that Karl made:

My suggestion to anyone looking to build tools that tease out meaning from the conversation that is happening on twitter should look carefully at the communication and social norms that are emerging and leverage that.

And that Aral also makes:

There is no centralized authority that approves Twitterformat proposals – Twitterformats are contributed and implemented by the community and they live or die based on whether Twitter client developers adopt them or not.

When I originally proposed hashtags, they imitated IRC, Jaiku, Delicious, and Flickr. In that way, they were derived and codified rather than invented — though I suppose they were somewhat novel, as no one had really been thinking about “Twitter Typography” in 2007.

As with slashtags, the whole point is to make a tweet more readable — or, as I like to say, to “separate the meta from the meat“. Each slashtag, thus, doesn’t need its own slash, and you can daisy-chain them together:

[tweet content] /cc @username1 via @username2

The slash, therefore, is a way of saying: “hey, here’s some meta data for this post — you can ignore it if you want — the good stuff is to the left!”.

So, even though it may not seem like it at first, all these formats that I’ve proposed and use are really intended for people first, and machines second (something I learned from microformats). I don’t think that people will use them if they’re not fairly easy to use, remember, and aren’t more convenient than what they’re doing already. And by “convenient”, I mean that they make it easy to communicate over a constrained channel clearer and more effectively than not using them.

Just as typographic markup (i.e. punctuation like periods, exclamation points, commas, semi-colons) makes prose more readable, slashtags and hashtags are designed to make communicating over Twitter better and more efficiently reflect the intentional message of the author. If the format succeeds at enhancing expression, then they will be adopted; if not, they will likely wither on the vine.

Perhaps it’s useful to remember that my background is in communication design and typography, rather than format or data design. If you think about from that perspective, hashtags and slashtags will probably make a lot more sense!

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.

A status update from 1940

Brynn and I went poking around Alemeda this weekend and stumbled into Pauline’s Antiques, the kind of place where you can find thick-walled whiskey glasses that were once sipped from by people who wore yellow sweaters unironically. Of course, you can find such yellow sweaters too, but what caught our attention were the unremarkable postcards scattered around the store reminiscent of a simpler time.

But one must ask himself: was it really so different then?

Superficially of course it certainly seems to like things are quite different from back then: faster, bigger, and more connected for starters.

The hallmark of this change, it would seem, is the simple status update. As more people have taken to publishing online, we the group formerly known as the audience has invariably gravitated to consuming smaller and smaller bits of content, leading to a culture of snack-sized sociality. For many of us, the status update seems distinctly modern — a sign of the times, cut from the networked medium of the age:

Status Update from 1940

But hold on. Take a closer look there.

That tweet above? It’s a fake. It’s photoshopped. I took that content from one of those postcards I found in Pauline’s shop. It was post stamped in 1940:

Postcard Back

Postcard Front

Just goes to show that the more things appear to change, the more we prove what habitual creatures we are.

…Though I don’t doubt Miss Phyllis Epstein’s reply was terse, I reckon she was ever able to reply quite so immediately:

@reply

So maybe the drive to communicate, coordinate, and group hasn’t changed much, but perhaps our ability to do so quickly, cheaply, and at an unprecedented scale has? It’s surely no surprise, but only time will tell.

The death of the URL

The red pill, or blue pill

Prelude

You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember — all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

In the Matrix, Morpheus presents Neo with a choice: he can take the blue pill and continue his somnambulatory existence within the Matrix, or he can take the red pill and become free from the virtual reality that the machines created to enslave humanity.

As you can see from the clip above, Neo chooses the red pill, severing his connection to the Matrix and regaining his free will.

Everyday, when you fire up your browser and type in some arbitrary URL in the browser’s address bar, you are taking the red pill.

Address Bar

Increasingly though, I see signs that the essential freedoms of the web are being undermined by a cadre of companies through the introduction of new technologies and interfaces that, combined, may spell the death of the URL.

Call me crazy, but it seems obvious enough when you put on the right colored paranoia goggles.

Exhibit A: Web TV

Web TV

There’s an article in Friday’s USA Today suggesting that we’re finally at a point where web TV has a chance. But there’s an insidious underbelly to this story. Specifically: Consumers may balk if TV sets become too computerlike and complicated.

From the article:

Manufacturers say they learned an important lesson from earlier convergence failures: Viewers want to relate to sets as televisions, not computers.

That’s why the new Web TV models don’t come with browsers that would give people the freedom to surf the full Internet, even though the TVs connect to the Web via an ethernet cable or home wireless network. The companies want to promote consumer acceptance of Web TV by making the technology simple to use: That means no keyboard or mouse.

It’s just Step 1: Engineers are talking about changes that would make it easy to navigate the Internet. One thought is to program smartphones so they can change channels, send text messages to the set and move a cursor around the screen with the motion-sensitive technology that Nintendo uses with its Wii game system.

For now, though, people just need the TV remote control to select and launch prepackaged applications.

Emphasis mine.

In a twist of McLuhanesque determinism, it would appear that the apparatus and determinism of the television experience will overrule the freedom and flexibility of the web — because, well, frankly — all that choice…! It’s so… unseemly and unmonetizable.

Instead, Web TV will be made easier to use by removing the best parts of the web and augmenting the straightjacket features of the television.

Exhibit B: Litl, ChromeOS, JoliCloud, and Apple Tablet

Litl

I somewhat serendipitously stumbled upon Litl — a little design project of famous design firm Pentagram.

The thing is cool, I admit. The netbook/webbook market needs some design thinking. And heck, I’m as eager as anyone to see what Apple is going to do in this space, so I’m watching it closely… but something tells me that the next generation “PC” devices are going to revolve around slicker, streamlined interfaces that come pre-packaged with fewer choices drawn from a set of likely suspects (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo et al.).

Taking a look at the JoliCloud homescreen… you can start to see how this will be the next Firefox search box in terms of monetization:

JoliCloud

Though I imagine you’ll be able to set custom options here, it’s the defaults that matter.

…and these homescreens become yet another funnel to drive users to a predetermined (and paid for) set of options.

Exhibit C: Top Sites

Top Sites

Similar to the netbook homescreens, both Safari and Chrome provide home pages that show you thumbnails of the sites that you visit most often (coincidence? I think not!).

Seems an innocuous feature. I mean, isn’t it easier to just click a picture of where you want to go rather than typing in some awkward string that starts with HTTP into the address bar?

AH HA! So, you’d take the blue pill eh?

See the problem?

Just as browsers currently come with a set of default bookmarks today, there’s no reason why the next generation browsers won’t come with their own predefined set of “Top Sites”, that, not unlikely, will come from the same list of predetermined companies that populate the home screens of the next gen Net/Web Books.

The more that the browser address bar can be made obsolete, the more it becomes just like TV, right?

Exhibit D: Warning interstitials and short URL frames

Facebook | Leaving Facebook...

If you use Facebook, you’ve probably seen the above warning before — usually after clicking a link that a friend sent you. Now, I recognize why they do this. It’s true: on the internet, thar be dragons!

Now, nevermind the dragons on Facebook proper — this innocuous little screen was designed, one assumes, to keep you safe from things outside the Facebook universe. However, the net effect of seeing this page every time you click an outbound link is fatigue. You get worn down by having to click through this page until finally, after a while, you just give up and stop clicking links from your friends altogether. It just could be that a momentary delay like this is enough to change your behavior completely.

Even when you do decide to leave, Facebook comes with you — inserting 45 pixels of itself into your experience as a top frame:

Facebook | External link frame

This make it easier to get back to Facebook, and never skip a beat. But it also removes the need to visit the address bar and think about where you want to go next (let alone type it out). Of course Facebook isn’t the only service doing this — Digg and countless other short URL generators intrude on your web experience and put yet more distance between you and the address bar.

All these little hindrances add up — and if you’ve done any usability work — you know that the smallest changes can lead to huge impacts over time if the changes are so slight as to be essentially unnoticeable.

Exhibit E: The NASCAR

bragster sign in form

Now, this one hits close to home, y’know, since this is what I’ve been working on for the past year or so… but the reality is that more and more, companies are moving to accept this logo-splattered approach to user sign in forms — “the NASCAR” — which dispatches the uncomfortable “URL-based” metaphor of OpenID altogether.

Why?

Because it’s too “complicated“. People don’t get “URLs” for sign in.

Now, we’ve made progress moving forward with “email-style identifiers” for use in OpenID transactions, but we’re not there yet, and we’re not moving fast enough either.

The specter of the Facebook Connect button is ever-present, and, from a UI perspective, it’s hard to argue with one button to rule them all (even if it destroys individual autonomy in the process — hey! freedom is messy! Let’s scrap it!).

The NASCAR, then, is just one more way to put off teaching users to recognize that URLs can represent people too, chaining us to the silos and locking us into brand-mediated identities for yet another generation.

Exhibit F: App Stores

Apps for iPhone

Finally, there’s been plenty written about this already, but what is the App Store except a cleaved out and sanitized portion of the web? In fact, people accustomed to the freedom and “flow” of the web go into anaphylactic shock when they realize that they must submit to the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune of Steve Jobs when they want their iPhone app to show up in the Apple app store.

And it’s only going to get worse, because now everyone wants a goddamn app store.

Thanks a lot, Steve.

The rise of the “app store mentality” is a direct attack on the web, and on the very nature of free discovery and choice built upon URL-based hyperlinks. By depriving us the ability to pick and choose which “stores” we shop from on these devices — we’re empowering a new breed of middle men and ceding to them monopoly control over our digital experience. The architecture of the web was intended to withstand such threats — but that all changes when the hardware makers get into the content business! Even though developers are beginning to see the dark side of this faustian bargain, the momentum is huge — and big business smells money.

By removing our ability to navigate, choose, and share freely — these app stores are exchanging our freedom for a promise that they’ll keep us safe, give us everything we need, and do all the choosing of what’s “good enough” for us — all starting at ninety-nine cents a hit.

No doubt this model will be emulated and copied — across all platforms — until the last vestige of the URL is patched over and removed… the last reminder of an uncomfortable and much messier era of history.

Epilogue

I don’t know about you, but a future without URLs and without the infinite organicity of the web frightens me. It’s not that I know what we’ll lose by removing this artifact of one of the most generative periods in history — and that’s exactly the point! The URL and the ability for anyone to mint a new one and then propagate it is what makes the web so resilient, so empowering, and so interesting! That I don’t need to ask anyone permission to create a new website or webpage is a kind of ideological freedom that few generations in history have known!

Now, granted, there is still much work to be done to spread the power and privilege of the web, but what I don’t want to see happen in the meantime is the next generation of kids grow up with an “easier” laptop, Web Top, Net Book, Nook, or whatever the hell they’re going to call it — that lacks an address bar. I don’t want the next generation to grow up with TV-stupid controls and a set of predefined widgets that determine the totality and richness of their experience on a mere subset of the web! That future cannot be permitted!

Maybe I’m wrong or just paranoid, and maybe the web has won, forever. But I’m not willing to rest on my laurels. No way.

We all know that the internet has won as the transport medium for all data — but the universal interface for interacting with the web? — well, that battle is just now getting underway.

As a user experience designer, it’s on my discipline and peers to provide the right kind of ideas and leadership. If we get the design right, we can empower while clarifying; we can reduce complexity while enhancing functionality; we can expand freedom while not overwhelming with choice. Surely these are the things that good, thoughtful user experience design can achieve!

Well, friends, I’ve said my piece. Whether this threat is real or imagined, it’s one that I believe bears inspection.

Like Neo, if I were forced to choose between all the messiness of free will over the “comfortability” of a contrived existence, I’d choose the red pill, time and time again. And I hope you would too.