The Existential DiSo Interview

The Existential DiSo Interview from Chris Messina on Vimeo.

Here’s what I asked myself:

how are you?

we’re going to talk about diso today? is that right?

what is diso?

you say it’s a social network, so how would it work with wordpress?

how is this different from myspace or facebook?

so who’s involved in this project?

so what comes next?

how is this different than opensocial?

what’s going to be the big win for diso?

so do you see this model applying in any other domain on the web?

what kind of support do you need?

are you talking to any of the bigger social networks? like facebook or myspace?

so who cares?

how will you draw customers away from myspace or facebook?

any last thoughts?

Kicking off 2008 with a themeword

#themewordAt Lifecamp on Monday, (incidentally held at Tantek’s Port Zero) we had a session where the small group of us brainstormed what Erica Douglass called “theme words” that might help us focus our goals for 2008.

Erica’s theme word for 2008 is “connect”. Mine is “” (in all its meanings). Alex Hillman’s is “growth”.

Now, this is a pretty simple exercise and a good way to kick off the New Year. What’s most interesting about this, however, is that we were able to extend participation by constructing a hashtag-based meme on Twitter. It started simply enough:

Twitter / Mr Messina: My thematic word for 2008: ...

The response that has followed has been pretty incredible, and demonstrates the value of using community-driven hashtags to both generate and (using hashtags.org).

Now, you obviously don’t have to use Twitter to participate; you can simply blog your own themeword and tag it with “themeword” or you could just write it down for yourself, and check back in at the end of the year and reflect on whether you stuck to your theme.

Either way, I’m already starting to see how “conduct” is a good word for me in 2008! What’s yours?

Ruminating on DiSo and the public domain

There’s been some great pickup of the DiSo Project since Anne blogged about it on GigaOM.

I’m not really a fan of early over-hype, but fortunately the reaction so far has been polarized, which is a good thing. It tells me that people care about this idea enough to sign up, and it also means that people are threatened enough by it to defensively write it off without giving it a shot. That’s pretty much exactly where I’d hope to be.

There are also a number of folks pointing out that this idea has been done before, or is already being worked on, which, if you’re familiar with the microformats process, understand the wisdom in paving well-worn cow paths. In fact, in most cases, as Tom Conrad from Pandora has said, it’s not about giving his listeners 100% of what they want (that’s ridiculous), it’s about moving from the number of good songs from six to seven out of a set of eight. In other words, most people really don’t need a revolution, they just want a little more of what they already have, but with slight, yet appreciable, improvements.

Anyway, that’s all neither here nor there. I have a bunch of thoughts and not much time to put them down.

. . .

I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot lately, stemming from Marc Orchant’s recent tragic death and Dave Winer’s follow up post, capped off with thinking about open data formats, permanence and general digital longevity (when I die, what happens to my digital legacy? my OpenID?, etc).

Tesla Jane MullerMeanwhile, and on a happier note, I had the fortunate occasion to partake in the arrival of new life, something that, as an uncle of ~17 various nieces and nephews, I have some experience with.

In any case, these two dichotomies have been pinging around my brain like marbles in a jar for the past couple days, perhaps bringing some things into perspective.

. . .

Meanwhile, back in the Bubble, I’ve been watching “open” become the new bastard child of industry, its meaning stripped, its bite muzzled. The old corporate allergy to all things open has found a vaccine. And it’s frustrating.

Muddled up in between these thoughts on openness, permanence, and on putting my life to some good use, I started thinking about the work that I do, and the work that we, as technologists do. And I think that term shallow now, especially in indicating my humanist tendencies. I don’t want to just be someone who is technologically literate and whose job it is to advise people about how to be more successful in applying its appropriate use. I want to create culture; I want to build civilization!

And so, to that end, I’ve been mulling over imposing a mandate on the DiSo Project that forces all contributions to be released into the public domain.

Now, there are two possible routes to this end. The first is to use a license compatible with Andrius KulikauskasEthical Public Domain project. The second is to follow the microformats approach, and use the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

While I need to do more research into this topic, I’ve so far been told (by one source) that the public domain exists in murky legal territory and that perhaps using the Apache license might make more sense. But I’m not sure.

In pursuing clarity on this matter, my goals are fairly simple, and somewhat defiant.

For one thing, and speaking from experience, I think that the IPR process for both OpenID and for OAuth were wasteful efforts and demeaning to those involved. Admittedly, the IPR process is a practical reality that can’t be avoided, given the litigious way business is conducted today. Nor do I disparage those who were involved in the process, who were on the whole reasonable and quite rational; I only lament that we had to take valuable time to work out these agreements at all (I’m still waiting on Yahoo to sign the IPR agreement for OAuth, by the way). As such, by denying the creation of any potential IP that could be attached to the DiSo Project, I am effectively avoiding the need to later make promises that assert that no one will sue anyone else for actually using the technology that we co-create.

So that’s one.

Second, Facebook’s “open” platform and Google’s “open” OpenSocial systems diminish the usefulness of calling something “open”.

As far as I’m concerned, this calls for the nuclear option: from this point forward, I can’t see how anyone can call something truly open without resorting to placing the work firmly in the public domain. Otherwise, you can’t be sure and you can’t trust it to be without subsequent encumbrances.

I’m hopeful about projects like Shindig that call themselves “open source” and are able to be sponsored by stringent organizations like the Apache foundation. But these projects are few and far between, and, should they grow to any size or achieve material success, inevitably they end up having to centralize, and the “System” (yes, the one with the big es) ends up channeling them down a path of crystallization, typically leading to the establishment of archaic legal institutions or foundations, predicated on being “host” for the project’s auto-created intellectual property, like trademarks or copyrights.

In my naive view of the public domain, it seems to me that this situation can be avoided.

We did it (and continue to prove out the model) with BarCamp — even if the Community Mark designation still seems onerous to me.

And beyond the legal context of this project, I simply don’t want to have to answer to anyone questioning why I or anyone else might be involved in this project.

Certainly there’s money to be had here and there, and it’s unavoidable and not altogether a bad thing; there’s also more than enough of it to go around in the world (it’s the lack of re-circulation that should be the concern, not what people are working on or why). In terms of my interests, I never start a project with aspirations for control or domination; instead I want to work with intelligent and passionate people — and, insomuch as I am able, enable other people to pursue their passions, demonstrating, perhaps, what Craig Newmark calls nerd values. So if no one (and everyone) can own the work that we’re creating, then the only reason to be involved in this particular instance of the project is because of the experience, and because of the people involved, and because there’s something rewarding or interesting about the problems being tackled, and that their resolution holds some meaning or secondary value for the participants involved.

I can’t say that this work (or anything else that I do) will have any widespread consequences or effects. That’s hardly the point. Instead, I want to devote myself to working with good people, who care about what they do, who hold out some hope and see validity in the existence of their peers, who crave challenge, and who feel accomplished when others share in the glory of achievement.

I guess when you get older and join the “adult world” you have to justify a lot more to yourself and to others. It’s a lot harder to peel off the posture of defensiveness and disbelief that come with age than to allow yourself to respond with excitement, with hope, with incredulity and wonder. But I guess I’m not so much interested in that kind of “adult world” and I guess, too, that I’d rather give all my work away than risk getting caught up in the pettiness that pervades so much of the good that is being done, and that still needs to be done, in all the many myriad opportunities that surround us.

The inside-out social network

DISO-PROJECTAnne Zelenka of Web Worker Daily and GigaOM fame wrote me to ask what I meant by “building a social network with its skin inside out” when I was describing DiSo, the project that Steve Ivy and I (and now Will Norris) are working on.

Since understanding this change that I envision is crucial to the potential wider success of DiSo, I thought I’d take a moment and quote my reply about what I see are the benefits of social network built inside-out:

The analogy might sound a little gruesome I suppose, but I’m basically making the case for more open systems in an ecosystem, rather than investing or producing more closed off or siloed systems.

There are a number of reasons for this, many of which I’ve been blogging about lately.

For starters, “citizen centric web services” will arguably be better for people over the long term. We’re in the toddler days of that situation now, but think about passports and credit cards:

  • your passport provides proof of provenance and allows you to leave home without permanently give up your port of origin (equivalent: logging in to Facebook with your MySpace account to “poke” a friend — why do you need a full Facebook account for that if you’re only “visiting”?);
  • your credit/ATM cards are stored value instruments, making it possible for you to make transactions without cash, and with great convenience. In addition, while you should choose your bank wisely, you’re always able to withdraw your funds and move to a new bank if you want. This portability creates choice and competition in the marketplace and benefits consumers.

It’s my contention that, over a long enough time horizon, a similar situation in social networks will be better for the users of those networks, and that as reputation becomes portable and discoverable, who you choose to be your identity provider will matter. This is a significant change from the kind of temporariness ascribed by some social network users to their accounts today (see danah boyd).

Anyway, I’m starting with WordPress because it already has some of the building blocks in place. I also recognize that, as a white male with privilege, I can be less concerned about my privacy in the short term to prove out this model, and then, if it works, build in strong cross-silo privacy controls later on. (Why do I make this point? Well, because the network that might work for me isn’t one that will necessarily work for everyone, and so identifying this fact right now will hopefully help to reveal and prevent embedding any assumptions being built into the privacy and relationships model early on.)

Again, we’re in the beginning of all this now and there’ll be plenty of ill-informed people crying wolf about not wanting to join their accounts, or have unified reputation and so on, but that’s normal during the course of an inversion of norms. For some time to come, it’ll be optional whether you want to play along of course, but once people witness and come to realize the benefits and power of portable social capital, their tune might change.

But, as Tara pointed out to me today, the arguments for data portability thus far seem predicated on the wrong value statement. Data portability in and of itself is simply not interesting; keeping track of stuff in one place is hard enough as it is, let alone trying to pass it between services or manage it all ourselves, on our own meager hard drives. We need instead to frame the discussion in terms of real-world benefits for regular people over the situation that we have today and in terms of economics that people in companies who might invest in these technologies can understand, and can translate into benefits for both their customers and for their bottom lines.

I hate to put it in such bleak terms, but I’ve learned a bit since I embarked on a larger personal campaign to build technology that is firmly in the service of people (it’s a long process, believe me). What developers and technologists seem to want at this point in time is the ability to own and extract their data from web services to the end of achieving ultimate libertarian nirvana. While I am sympathetic to these goals and see them as the way to arriving at a better future, I also think that we must account for those folks for whom Facebook represents a clean and orderly experience worth the exchange of their personal data for an experience that isn’t confounding or alienating and gives them (at least the perception) of strong privacy controls. And so whatever solutions we develop, I think the objective should not be to obviate Facebook or MySpace, but to build systems and to craft technologies that will benefit and make such sites more sustainable and profitable, but only if they adopt the best practices and ideals of openness, individual choice and freedom of mobility.

As we architect this technology — keeping in mind that we are writing in code what believe should be the rights of autonomous citizens of the web — we must also keep in mind the wide diversity of the constituents of the web, that much of this has been debated and discussed by generations before us, and that our opportunity and ability to impose our desires and aspirations on the future only grows with our successes in freeing from the restraints that bind them, the current generation of wayward web citizens who have yet to be convinced that the vision we share will actually be an improvement over the way they experience “social networking” today.

Twitter hashtags for emergency coordination and disaster relief

I know I’ve been beating the drum about hashtags for a while. People are either lukewarm to them or are annoyed and hate them. I get it. I do. But for some stupid reason I just can’t leave them alone.

Anyway, today I think I saw a glimmer of the promise of the hashtag concept revealed.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, consider this status update:

Twitter / nate ritter: #sandiegofire 300,000 peopl...

You’ll notice that the update starts out with “#sandiegofire”. That’s a hashtag. The hash is the # symbol and the tag is sandiegofire. Pretty simple.

Why use them? Well, it’s like adding metadata to your updates in a simple and consistent way. They’re not the most beautiful things ever, but they’re pretty easy to use. They also follow Jaiku’s channel convention to some extent, but break it in that you can embed hashtags into your actual post, like so:

Twitter / Mr Messina: @nateritter thanks for keep...

Following the , this simple design means that you can get more mileage out of your 140 characters than you might otherwise if you had to specify your tags separately or in addition to your content.

Anyway, you get the idea.

Hashtags become all the more useful now that Twitter supports the “track” feature. By simply sending ‘track [keyword]‘ to Twitter by IM or SMS, you’ll get real-time updates from across the Twitterverse. It’s actually super useful and highly informative.

Hashtags become even more useful in a time of crisis or emergency as groups can rally around a common term to facilitate tracking, as demonstrated today with the San Diego fires (in fact, it was similar situations around Bay Area earthquakes that lead me to propose hashtags in the first place, as I’d seen people Twittering about earthquakes and felt that we needed a better way to coordinate via Twitter).

Earlier today, my friend Nate Ritter started twittering about the San Diego fires, starting slowly and without any kind of uniformity to his posts. He eventually began prefixing his posts with “San Diego Fires”. Concerned that it would be challenging for folks to track “san diego fires” on Twitter because of inconsistency in using those words together, I wanted to apply hashtags as a mechanism for bringing people together around a common term (that Stowe Boyd incidently calls groupings).

I first checked Flickr’s Hot Tags to see what tag(s) people were already using to describe the fires:

Popular Tags on Flickr Photo Sharing

I picked “” — the tag that I thought had the best chance to be widely adopted, and that would also be recognizable in a stream of updates. I pinged Nate and around 4pm with my suggestion, and he started using it. Meanwhile, Dan Tentler (a co-organizer who I met at ETECH last year) was also twittering, blogging and shooting his experience, occasionally using #sandiegofire as his tag. Sometime later Adora (aka Lisa Brewster, another BarCamp San Diego co-organizer) posted a status using the #sandiegofire hashtag.

Had we had a method to disperse the information, we could have let people on Twitter know to track #sandiegofire and to append that hashtag to their updates in order to join in on the tracking stream (for example, KBPS News would have been easier to find had they been using the tag) (I should point out that the Twitter track feature actually ignores the hashmark; it’s useful primarily to denote the tag as metadata in addition to the update itself) .

Fortunately, Michael Calore from Wired picked up the story, but it might have come a little late for the audience that might have benefitted the most (that is, folks with Twitter SMS in or around affected areas).

In any case, hashtags are far from perfect. I have no illusions about this.

But they do represent what I think is a solid convention for coordinating ad-hoc groupings and giving people a way to organize their communications in a way that the tool (Twitter) does not currently afford. They also leave open the possibility for external application development and aggregation, since a Twitter user’s track terms are currently not made public (i.e. there is no way for me to know what other people are tracking across Twitter in the same way that I can see which tags have the most velocity across Flickr). So sure, they need work, but the example of #sandiegofire now should provide a very clear example of the problem I’d like to see solved. Hashtags are my best effort at working on this problem to date; I wonder what better ideas are out there waiting to be proposed?

Data capital, or: data as common tender

Legal TenderWikipedia states that … is payment that, by law, cannot be refused in settlement of a debt denominated in the same currency. , in turn, is a unit of exchange, facilitating the transfer of goods and/or services.

I was asked a question earlier today about the relative value of open services against open data served in open, non-proprietary data formats. It got me thinking whether — in the pursuit of utter openness in web services and portability in stored data — that’s the right question. Are we providing the right incentives for people and companies to go open? Is it self-fulfilling or manifest destiny to arrive at a state of universal identity and service portability leading to unfettered consumer choice? Is this how we achieve VRM nirvana, or is there something missing in our assumptions and current analysis?

Mary Jo Foley touched on this topic today in a post called Are all ‘open’ Web platforms created equal? She asks the question whether Microsoft’s PC-driven worldview can be modernized to compete in the network-centric world of Web 2.0 where no single player dominates but rather is made up of Best of Breed APIs/services from across the Web. The question she alludes to is a poignant one: even if you go open (and Microsoft has, by any estimation), will anyone care? Even if you dress up your data and jump through hoops to please developers, will they actually take advantage of what you have to offer? Or is there something else to the equation that we’re missing? Some underlying truism that is simply refracting falsely in light of the newfound sexiness of “going open”?

We often tell our clients that one of the first things you can do to “open up” is build out an API, support microformats, adopt OpenID and OAuth. But that’s just the start. That’s just good data hygiene. That’s brushing your teeth once a day. That’s making sure your teeth don’t fall out of your head.

There’s a broader method to this madness, but unfortunately, it’s a rare opportunity when we actually get beyond just brushing our teeth to really getting to sink them in, going beyond remedial steps like adding microformats to web pages to crafting just-in-time, distributed open-data-driven web applications that actually do stuff and make things better. But as I said, it’s a rare occasion for us because we’ve all been asking the wrong questions, providing the wrong incentives and designing solutions from the perspective of the silos instead of from the perspective of the people.

Let me make a point here: if your data were legal tender, you could take it anywhere with you and it couldn’t be refused if you offered to pay with it.

Last.fm top track chartsLet me break that down a bit. The way things are today, we give away our data freely and frequently, in exchange for the use of certain services. Now, in some cases, like Pandora or Last.fm, the use of the service itself is compelling and worthwhile, providing an equal or greater exchange rate for our behavior or taste data. In many other cases, we sign up for a service and provide basic demographic data without any sense of what we’re going to get in return, often leaving scraps of ourselves to fester all across the internet. Why do we value this data so little? Why do we give it away so freely?

I learned of an interesting concept today while researching legal tender called “Gresham’s Law” and commonly stated as: When there is a legal tender currency, bad money drives good money out of circulation.

Don’t worry, it took me a while to get it too. Nicolas Nelson offered the following clarification: if high quality and low quality are forced to be treated equally, then folks will keep good quality things to themselves and use low quality things to exchange for more good stuff.

Think about this in terms of data: if people are forced (or tricked) into thinking that the data that they enter into web applications is not being valued (or protected) by the sites that collect the data, well, eventually they’ll either stop entering the data (heard of social network fatigue?) or they’ll start filling them with bogus information, leading to “bad data” driving out the “good data” from the system, ultimately leading to a kind of data inflation, where suddenly the problem is no longer getting people to just sign up for your service, but to also provide good data of some value. And this is where data portability — or data as legal tender — starts to become interesting and allows us to start seeing around through the distortion of the refraction.

Think: Data as currency. Data to unlock services. Data owned, controlled, exchanged and traded by the creator of said data, instead of by the networks he has joined. For the current glut of web applications to maintain and be sustained, we must move to a system where people are in charge of their data, where they garden and maintain it, and where they are free to deposit and withdraw it from web services like people do money from banks.

If you want to think about what comes next — what the proverbial “Web 3.0” is all about — it’s not just about a bunch of web applications hooked up with protocols like OAuth that speak in microformats and other open data tongue back and forth to each other. That’s the obvious part. The change comes when a person is in control of her data, and when the services that she uses firmly believe that she not only has a right to do as she pleases with her data, but that it is in their best interest to spit her data out in whatever myriad format she demands and to whichever myriad services she wishes.

The “data web” is still a number of years off, but it is rapidly approaching. It does require that the silos popular today open up and transition from repositories to transactional enterprises. Once data becomes a kind of common tender, you no longer need to lock it; in fact, the value comes from its reuse and circulation in commerce.

To some degree, Mint and Wesabe are doing this retroactively for your banking records, allowing you to add “data value” to the your monetary transactions. Next up Google and Microsoft will do this for your health records. For a more generic example, Swivel is doing this today for the OECD but has a private edition coming soon. Slife/Slifeshare, i use this and RescueTime do this for your use of desktop apps.

This isn’t just attention data that I’m talking about (though the recent announcements in support of APML are certainly positive). This goes beyond monitoring what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time. I’m talking about access to all the data that it would take to reconstitute your entire digital existence. And then I’m talking about the ability to slice, dice, and splice it however you like, in pursuit of whatever ends you choose. Or choose not to.


I’ll point to a few references that influenced my thinking: Social Capital To Show Its Worth at This Week’s Web 2.0 Summit, What is Web 2.0?, Tangled Up in the Future – Lessig and Lietaer, , Intentional Economics Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.