I’ve noticed a few interesting responses to my post on simplifying XFN. While my intended audiences were primarily fellow microformat enthusiasts and “lower case semantic web” types, there seems to be a larger conversation underway that I’d missed — one that both Adam “Everyware” Greenfield and Tim Berners-Lee have commented on.
In a treatise against XFN (and similarly reductive expressions of human relationships) from December of last year, Greenfield said a number of profound things:
…one of my primary concerns has always been that we not accede to the heedless restructuring of everyday human relations on inappropriate and clumsy models derived from technical systems – and yet, that’s a precise definition of social networking as currently instantiated.
All social-networking systems constrain, by design and intention, any expression of the full band of human relationship types to a very few crude options — and those static!
…it’s impossible to use XFN to model anything that even remotely resembles an organic human community. I passionately believe that this reductive stance is not merely wrong, but profoundly wrong, in that it deliberately aims to bleed away all the nuance, complication and complexity that makes any real relationship what it is.
I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.
Whew! Strong stuff, but useful, challenging and insightful.
Meanwhile, TBL defended a semi-autistic perspective in describing the future of the Semantic Web (yes, the uppercase version):
At the moment, people are very excited about all these connections being made between people — for obvious reasons, because people are important — but I think after a while people will realise that there are many other things you can connect to via the web.
While my sympathies actually lie with Greenfield (especially after a weekend getting my mom setup on Facebook so she could send me photos without clogging my inbox with 80MB emails… a deficiency in the design of the technology, not my mother mind you!), I also see the promise of a more self-aware, self-descriptive web. But, realistically, that web is a long way off, and more likely, that web is still going to need human intervention to make it work — at least for humans to benefit from it (oh sure, just get rid of the humans and the network will be just perfect — like planes without passengers, right?).
But in the meantime, there is a social web that needs to be improved, and that can be improved, in fairly simple and straight-forward ways, that will make it easier for regular folks who don’t (and shouldn’t have to) care about “data portability” and “password anti-patterns” and “portable contact lists” to benefit from the fact that the family and friends they care about are increasingly accessible online, and actually want to hear from them!
Even though Justin Smith takes another reductive look at the features Facebook is implementing, claiming that it wants to “own communications with your friends“, the reality is, people actually want to communicate with each other online! Therefore it follows that, if you’re a place where people connect and re-connect with one another, it’s not all that surprising that a site like Facebook would invest in and make improvements to facilitate interaction and communication between their members!
But let’s back up a minute.
If we take for granted that people do want to connect and to communicate on social networks (they seem to do it a lot, so much to that one might could even argue that people enjoy doing it!), what role should so-called “portable contact lists” play in this situation? I buy Greenfield’s assertion that attempts by technologists to reduce human relationships to a predefined schema (based on prior behavior or not) is a failing proposition, but that seems to ignore the opportunity presented by the fact that people are having to maintain many several lists of their friends in many different places, for no other reason than an omission from the design of the social internetwork.
Put another way, it’s not good enough to simply dismiss the trend of social networking because our primitive technological expressions don’t reflect the complexity of real human relationships, or because humans are just one of kind of “object” to be “semantified” in TBL’s “Giant Global Graph“… instead, people are connecting today, and they’re wanting to connect to people outside of their chosen “home” network and frankly the experience sucks and it’s confusing. It’s not good enough to get all prissy about it; the reality is that there are solutions out there today, and there are people working on these things, and we need smart people like Greenfield and Berners-Lee to see that solutions that enable the humanist web (however semantic it needs to be) are being prioritized and built… and that we [need] not accede to the heedless restructuring of everyday human relations on inappropriate and clumsy models derived from technical systems.
I can say that, from what I’ve observed so far, these are things that computers can do for us, to make the social computing experience more humane, should we establish simple and straightforward means to express a basic list of contacts between contexts:
- help us find and connect to people that we’ve already indicated that we know
- introduce us to people who we might know, or based on social proximity, should know (with no obligation to make friends, of course!)
- help us from accidently bumping into people we’d rather not interact with (see block-list portability)
- helping us to segment our friendships in ways that make sense to us (rather than the semi-arbitrary ways that social networks define)
- helping us to confidently share things with just the people with whom we intend to share
There may be others here, but off the top of my head, I think satisfying these basic tasks is a good start for any social network that thinks allowing you to connect and interact with people who you might know, but who may not have already signed up for the service, is useful.
I should make one last point: when thinking about importing contacts from one context to another, I do not think that it should be an unthinking act. That is, just because it’s merely data being copied between servers, the reality is that those bits represent things much more sacred and complicated than any computer might ever be programmed to imagine. Therefore, just because we can facilitate and lower the friction of “bringing your friends with you” from one place to another doesn’t mean that it should be an automatic process and that all your friends in one place should be made to be your friends in the new place.
And regardless of how often good ol’ Mark Zuckerberg claims that the end game is to make communications more efficient, when it comes to relationships, every connection transposed from one context to another should have to be reconsidered (hmm, a great argument for tagging of contacts…)! We can and should not make assumptions about the nature of people’s relationships, no matter what kind of semantics they’ve used to describe them in a given context. Human relationships are simply far too complicated to be left up to assumptions and inferences made by technologists whose affinity oftentimes lies closer to the data than to the makers of the data.