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.

This can all be made… awesome.

FactoryCity — This can all be made better. Ready? Begin.

If you only read me on RSS, you may never have seen the smirk of a catch phrase I use on this blog. If you haven’t, it’s been “This can all be made better. Ready? Begin.” for some time. I don’t know how I came up with it, but since blogs have this weird tradition of having a catch phrase, I grabbed that one and it stuck.

Anyway, I dunno, “better” sounds kind of assumptively pejorative, as though achieving satisfaction is off limits. That you always have to be improving things; never enjoying.

Whatever, it’s not a big deal. So, taking a line from Threadless, my catch phrase will now be: This can all be made awesome. Ready? Begin.

Raw Materials

I thought I’d start a new category on my blog (not that they’re exposed in my current theme, but whatever) called “Raw Materials”.

I oftentimes have thought fragments or observations that seem to be part of bigger trends or ideas that I don’t tend to blog about because they’re not substantial or clear enough to warrant a full post. But then later on, I realize that it would have been helpful to be able to cite earlier pieces of my thinking that lead to the current revelation.

Rather than simply collecting Asides (), I want to record, primarily for my own sake, where my head’s at and what’s filtering in to it. I mean, I could use Twitter for this, but sometimes, well, I have a little more to say than fits in 140 characters.

And you wonder why people in America are afraid of the Internet

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present to you two exhibits.

Here is Exhibit A from today’s International Herald Tribune:

Will Google take the mobile world of Jaiku onto the Web? - International Herald Tribune

In contrast (Exhibit B) we have the same exact article, but with a completely different headline:

Google’s Purchase of Jaiku Raises New Privacy Issues - New York Times

Now, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how the latter is a more accurate or more appropriate title for the article, which is ostensibly about Google’ acquisition of Jaiku.

But, for some reason, the editor of the NY Times piece decided that it would — what? — sell more papers? — to use a more incendiary and moreover misleading headline for the story.

Here’s why I take issue: I’m quoted in the article. And here’s where the difference is made. This is how the how the article ends:

“To date, many people still maintain their illusion of privacy,” he said in an e-mail message.

Adapting will take time.

“For iPhone users who use the Google Maps application, it’s already a pain to have to type in your current location,” he said. “‘Why doesn’t my phone just tell Google where I am?’ you invariably ask.”

When the time is right and frustrations like this are unpalatable enough, Mr. Messina said, “Google will have a ready answer to the problem.”

Consider the effect of reading that passage after being lead with a headline like “Google’s Purchase of Jaiku Raises New Privacy Issues” versus “Will Google take the mobile world of Jaiku onto the Web?” The latter clearly raises the specter of Google-as-Big-Brother while ignoring the fallacy that privacy, as people seem to understand it, continues to exist. Let’s face it: if you’re using a cell phone, the cell phone company knows where you are. It’s just a matter of time before you get an interface to that data and the illusion that somehow you gave Google (or any other third party) access to your whereabouts.

I for one do not understand how this kind of headline elevates or adds to the discourse, or how it helps people to better understand and come to gripes with the changing role and utility of their presence online. While I do like the notion that any well-engineered system can preserve one’s privacy while still being effective, I contend that it’s going to take a radical reinterpretation of what we think is and isn’t private to feel secure in who can and can’t see data about us.

So, to put it simply, there are no “new” privacy issues raised by Google’s acquisition of Jaiku; it’s simply the same old ones over and over again that we seem unable to deal with in any kind of open dialogue in the mainstream press.

Leaving TechMeme


It may seem obvious to some wiser than me, but every now and then I realize that I need to disrupt my habits, force-inject some new behaviors and shift-reload the inputs into my thinking.

Above you can see what the top left corner of WebKit looks like to me everyday. In a nutshell, it depicts the places I visit the most. You’ll notice that TechMeme comes second after the Ma.gnolia bookmarklet. That’s a pretty prime spot to occupy in terms of shaping (or warping) my perspective.

Don’t get me wrong: TechMeme is a very well executed news service; above all else, its presentation and hierarchy of information is excellent and serves my goal of consuming a lot of information in aggregate in a very short amount of time. It’s as good a zeitgeist as any when it comes to what certain people are thinking about.

And therein lies the rub.

TechMeme provides an interesting and compelling overview of what’s hot in conventional tech news. It is, however, overly self-referential, and, insomuch as it gives greater weight to certain “types” of people and posts, it ends up becoming necessarily more often than not. And on top of that, the pundits who are featured prominently on its pages (and who like to argue amongst each other who’s popular and who’s not (n.b. I avoided reading any of those posts during that maelstrom; I provide the link merely for context)) have certain priorities that, well, just don’t overlap so well with mine.

I mean, it’s good to know what’s up with Google and Yahoo and Microsoft, and what the latest startups are up to and so on. It’s also fun to see what the latest controversies are over net discrimination and the what arcane nonsense is being attempted to fasten down the semantic web… But I think I’ve had my fill of that for now. Frankly, It’s time to turn off the firehose.

Maybe it’s because I’m leaving for a week Oaxaca and I need a reset; or maybe it’s realizing that I’ve so much to do and I have to stop measuring myself by what everyone else is doing (or has already done). Or maybe it’s because I can feel the sentiment and motivations of the tech community changing ever-so-gradually and becoming increasingly corrupt. Or who knows, maybe nothing has changed except that I need to rearrange some furniture just for the sake of change.

Whatever the case, it’s time to bid adieu to the link that’s been occupying second position on my browser’s bookmark bar for the last umpteen months. I’m going to have to go back to piecing things together one by one on my own; digging up my own dirt, assembling my own theories instead of the ones advanced by crowd economics, leaving the punditry to be consumed by other more capable pundits. Maybe I’ll come back someday — in fact, I probably will. But, as a sheer exercise of will (or perhaps as a mere act of intention), as of today, I’m leaving TechMeme.

Deleting Techmeme

Stop building social networks

I started writing this post August 8th. Now that Dave Recordon is at Six Apart and blogging about these things and Brad Fitzpatrick has moved on to Google, I thought I should finally finish this post.

I fortuitously ran into Tim O’Reilly, Brad Fitzpatrick and Dave Recordon in Philz yesterday as I was grabbing a cup of coffee. They were talking about some pretty heady ideas and strategies towards wrenching free one’s friends networks from the multiple social networks out there — and recombining them in such a way that it’d be very hard to launch a closed down social network again.

The idea isn’t new. It’s certainly been attempted numerous times, with few successful efforts to show for it to date. I think that Brad and Dave might be on to something with their approach, though, but it begs an important question: once you’ve got a portable social network, what do you do with it?

Fortunately, Brian Oberkirch has been doing a lot of thinking on this subject lately with his series on , starting with a post on designing portable social networks lead up to his most recent post offering some great tips on how to prepare your site for the day when your users come knocking for a list of their friends to populate their new favor hang.

In his kick-off post, Brian laid the problem of social network fatigue as stemming from the:

  • Creation of yet another login/password to manage
  • Need to re-enter profile information for new services
  • Need to search and re-add network contacts at each new service
  • Need to reset notification and privacy preferences for each new service
  • Inability to manage and add value to these networks from a central app/work flow

I think these are the fundamental drivers behind the current surge of progress in user-centric identity services, as opposed to the aging trend of network-centric web services. If Eric Schmidt thinks that Web 3.0 will be made up of small pieces loosely joined and “in the cloud”, my belief, going back to my time with Flock, is that having consistent identifiers for the same person across multiple networks, services or applications is going to be fundamental to getting the next evolution of the web right.

Tim made the point during our discussion that at one point in computing history, SQL databases embedded access permissions in the database itself. In modern times, access controls have been decoupled from the data and are managed, maintained and federated without regard to the data itself, affording a host of new functionality and stability simply by adjusting the architecture of the system.

If we decouple people and their identifiers from the networks that currently define them, we start moving towards greater granularity of privacy control through mechanisms like global social whitelists and buddy list blocklists. It also means that individuals can solicit services to be built that serve their unique social graph across any sites and domains (kind of like a fingerprint of your relationship connections), rather than being restrained to the limited freedom in locked down networks like Facebook. And ultimately, it enables cross-sharing content and media with anyone whom you choose, regardless of the network that they’re on (just like email today, where you can send someone on email from or even, and so on, but with finer contact controls). The result is that the crosscut of one’s social network could be as complete (or discreet) as one chose, and that rather than managing it in a social network-centric way, you’d manage it centrally, just as you do your IM buddy list, and it would follow you around on any site that you visit.

So it’s become something of a refrain in the advice that we’ve been giving out lately to our clients that they should think very critically about what social functionality they should (and shouldn’t) build directly into their sites. Rather than assuming that they should “build what Flickr has” or think about which features of Facebook they should absorb, the better question, I think, is to assume that in the next 6-8 months (for the early adopters at least) there’s going to be a shift to these portable networks. Where the basics will mostly be better covered by existing solutions and will not need to be rebuilt. Where each new site — especially those with specific functionality like TripIt (disclosure: we’ve consulted TripIt) — will need to focus less on building out its own social network and more on how social functionality can support their core competency.

We’re still in the early stages of recognizing and identifying the components of this problem. Thus far, the Microformats wiki says:

Why is it that every single social network community site makes you:

  • re-enter all your personal profile info (name, email, birthday, URL etc.)?
  • re-add all your friends?

In addition, why do you have to:

  • re-turn off notifications?
  • re-specify privacy preferences?
  • re-block negative people?

AKA “social network fatigue problem” and “social network update/maintenance problem”.

I’ve yet to be convinced that this is a problem that the “rest of the world” beyond social geeks is suffering, but I do think that the situation can be greatly improved, even for folks who are used to abandoning their profiles when they forget their passwords. For one thing, the world today is too network-centric, and not person-centric. While I do think people should be able to take on multiple personas online (professional, casual, hobby, family, and so on), I don’t think that that means that they should have those boundaries set for them by the networks they join. Instead, they should maintain their multiple personas as separate identifiers: email addresses, IM addresses and/or profile URLs (i.e. OpenIDs). This allows for handy separation based on the way people already materialize themselves online. Projects like NoseRub and even the smaller additions of offsite-identifiers on sites like Digg, Twitter and Pownce also acknowledge that members think of themselves as being more faceted than a single URL indicates.

This is a good thing. And this is where social computing needs to go.

We need to stop building independent spider webs of sticky siloed social activity. We need to stop fighting the nature of the web and embrace the design of uniform resource identifiers for people. We need to have a user agent that actually understands what it means to be a person online. A person with friends, with contacts, with enemies, with multiple personas and surfaces and ambitions and these user agents of the social web need to understand that, though we live in many distinct places on the web and interact with many different services, that we as people still have one unified viewport through which we understand the world.

Until social networks understand this reality and start to adapt to it, the problem that Dave is describing is only going to continue to get worse for more and more people until truly, the problem of social network fatigue will spread beyond social geeks and start cutting into the bottom lines of companies that rely on the regularity of “sticky eyeballs” showing up.

While I will always and continue to bet on the open web, we’re reaching an inflection point where some fundamental conceptions of the web (and social networks) need to change. Fortunately, if us geeks have our way, it’ll probably be for the general betterment of the whole thing.

On exporting the culture of Silicon Valley

It’s often said that America’s biggest export is its culture. And, for better or worse, this seems to be true. China and India certainly seem to envy aspects of our way of life and of doing business (or we’re just really good at making movies that suggest that we’re all happy and drive SUVs and live above the poverty line, so why wouldn’t you want to be like us?). But in the last couple years, I’ve noticed a microcosm of this phenomena around Silicon Valley — specifically that people elsewhere want to be like us or do things like us or make money like us. But there’s rarely been a case, at least that I’ve seen, where that envy has lead people to want to think like us. And, as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have the our culture unless you start to think about your everyday experiences and interactions like us.

Now, let me quickly point out that 1) I’m a New England boy and didn’t grow up in California (Live Free or Die, baby!) 2) I went to school in the midwest in an old steel town called Pittsburgh 3) I migrated out to San Francisco just over three and half years ago 4) and I’m not about to try to convince you to make over your local township in a rough effigy of Silicon Valley or the Bay Area.

…because the way that we “think” transcends geography; it just so happens that there’s a lot of folks out here who happen think alike. And, the weather doesn’t hurt much either.

Coworking - Working Alone SucksSo Tara and I traveled to the East coast this past week for two coworking openings. Proof, first of all, that not everything happens in Silicon Valley and second, that this kind of thinking and acting is not something that has to be — or is — unique to this area.

In fact, if you know where to look, you’ll realize that there’s probably a lot more going on right in your backyard than you think or are willing to admit. Ask just about anyone who’s thrown in a BarCamp in the last three years what kind of community they thought might exist after the fact, and I can guarantee you the majority will be shocked at just how many people in their own neighborhoods were into social media or, more importantly, wanted to connect to people like them locally but just didn’t know where or how to go about unearthing them.

And, now that so many of these nascent communities are beginning to emerge — and there’s an awareness — that people don’t have to be alone in their progressive thinking, the question seems to quickly become: “So what happens next? How do we create our own Silicon Valley here?”

Well, I’m here to tell you that the next thought should be, “Oh wait, what we want isn’t to become another Silicon Valley with all their disfunctions and navel-gazing — what we really want is a community that is self-sustaining and a culture of sharing, opportunity and hope…!” Of course, that’s a harder proposition and reality to accept and to create, but if you really want a slice of the Bay, you might as well take the one that’s not just covered with whipped cream.

Where I’ve seen this work, people are collaborating, are open, are sharing, are working together and building something that is defined from within, rather than from without. It’s not about imitating what you think we have out here; it’s about creating and instituting an attitude and mentality that shares the same philosophical underpinnings that allow us to define success for ourselves and then go about achieving it, however we best can. It’s really about coopetition rather than competition; it’s really about helping each other other out than tearing one another down; it’s really about “yes and…” instead of “but but but…!” It’s wanting to give everything away and expecting nothing in return. It’s pushing through and discovering unseen opportunities where others saw only boundaries, risks or costs. It’s about a willingness to fail, but to fail quickly and get it out of the way so that the constant learning that keeps you sharp can get underway. It’s about constantly feeling overwhelmed and yet always doing more. And then a little more. And it’s about how our turn of mind keeps us on top of it all and inventing the future and determining for ourselves what we want from life and not accepting anything less than what we know, deep down, we’re capable of.

And I can tell you that, just as this kind of thinking has taken root in the culture of Silicon Valley and continues to define it, the seeds of this approach are on the wind and have permeated the network. They are finding new homes in your backyards and in your neighborhoods and starting to grow. If you nurture these ideas and provide them fertile ground, they will grow, and they will spread, and they will change the pH balance of the mentality of your friends, your neighbors and your townsfolk.

I have seen this happen, am witnessing it happen more and more everyday, am doing what I can to produce more culture, to consume more culture, and package it up and make it accessible and implementable and practical and worthwhile.

Just as Gary V and his cabal of wine drinkers are changing and opening up the wine world, we are doing the same for the future of work and the future of event organizing. But it’s not something that happens over night, and it’s not something that happens only in one place. If you look back over just the past three years, you’ll see been over 250 BarCamps and derivatives around the world, in communities that had no sense of what they were capable of and that have now come into blossoming hotbeds of activity. If you look back just one year, you’ll see over 110 local efforts to get coworking spaces set up around the world. This isn’t an accident and this isn’t just the work of Silicon Valley types. This is the work of turned on, smart and destiny-shaping independents.

So wherever you are and whatever you think you need to do to become more “like” Silicon Valley… STOP. You’d be wasting your time.

Instead, follow the lead of your friends in Philadelphia, New York City, , , , and elsewhere. These are the places that are defining their own culture; mashing up what they see from all over the place, embracing both chaos and diversity and taking a chance that maybe a culture that emerges naturally, and from the desires of the local citizens, will be more powerful, more popular and more sustaining than anything else that might come out of the Valley.