The problem with open source design

I’ve probably said it before, and will say it again, and I’m also sure that I’m not the first, or the last to make this point, but I have yet to see an example of an open source design process that has worked.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to wager that “open source design” is an oxymoron. Design is far too personal, and too subjective, to be given over to the whims and outrageous fancies of anyone with eyeballs in their head.

Call me elitist in this one aspect, but with all due respect to code artistes, it’s quite clear whether a function computes or not; the same quantifiable measures simply do not exist for design and that critical lack of objective review means that design is a form of Art, and its execution should be treated as such.
Continue reading “The problem with open source design”

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.

Privacy, publicity and open data

Intelligence deputy to America: Rethink privacy - CNN.com

This one should be a quickie.

A fascinating article came out of CNN today: “Intelligence deputy to America: Rethink privacy“.

This is a topic I’ve had opinions about for some time. My somewhat pessimistic view is that privacy is an illusion, and that more and more historic vestiges of so-called privacy are slipping through our fingers with the advent of increasingly ubiquitous and promiscuous technologies, the results of which are not all necessarily bad (take a look at just how captivating the Facebook Newsfeed is!).

Still, the more reading I’ve been doing lately about international issues and conflict, the more I agree with Danny Weitzner that there needs to be a robust dialogue about what it means to live in a post-privacy era, and what demands we must place on those companies, governments and institutions that store data about us, about the habits to which we’re prone and about the friends we keep. He sums up the conversation space thus:

Privacy is not lost simply because people find these services useful and start sharing location. Privacy could be lost if we don’t start to figure what the rules are for how this sort of location data can be used. We’ve got to make progress in two areas:

  • technical: how can users sharing and usage preferences be easily communicated to and acted upon by others? Suppose I share my location with a friend by don’t want my employer to know it. What happens when my friend, intentionally or accidentally shares a social location map with my employer or with the public at large? How would my friend know that this is contrary to the way I want my location data used? What sorts of technologies and standards are needed to allow location data to be freely shared while respective users usage limitation requirements?
  • legal: what sort of limits ought there to be on the use of location data?
  • can employers require employees to disclose real time location data?
  • is there any difference between real-time and historical location data traces? (I doubt it)
  • under what conditions can the government get location data?

There’s clearly a lot to think about with these new services. I hope that we can approach this from the perspective that lots of location data will being flowing around and realize the the big challenge is to develop social, technical and legal tools to be sure that it is not misused.

I want to bring some attention to his first point about the technical issues surrounding New Privacy. This is the realm where we play, and this is the realm where we have the most to offer. This is also an area that’s the most contentious and in need of aggressive policies and leadership, because the old investment model that treats silos of data as gold mines has to end.

I think Tim O’Reilly is really talking about this when he lambasts Google’s OpenSocial, proclaiming, “It’s the data, stupid!” The problem of course is what open data actually means in the context of user control and ownership, in terms of “licensing” and in terms of proliferation. These are not new problems for technologists as permissioning dates back to the earliest operating systems, but the problem becomes infinitely complex now that it’s been unbounded and non-technologists are starting to realize a) how many groups have been collecting data about them and b) how much collusion is going on to analyze said data. (Yeah, those discounts that that Safeway card gets you make a lot more money for Safeway than they save you, you better believe it!)

With Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, taking an equally pessimistic (or Apocalyptic) attitude about privacy, I think there needs to be a broader, eyes-wide-open look at who has what data about whom and what they’re doing about — and perhaps more importantly — how the people about whom the data is being collected can get in on the game and get access to this data in the same way you’re guaranteed access and the ability to dispute your credit report. The same thing should be true for web services, the government and anyone else who’s been monitoring you, even if you’ve been sharing that information with them willingly. In another post, I talked about the value of this data — calling it “Data Capital“. People need to realize the massive amount of value that their data adds to the bottom line of so many major corporations (not to mention Web 2.0 startups!) and demand ongoing and persistent access to it. Hell, it might even result in better or more accurate data being stored in these mega-databases!

Regardless, when representatives from the government start to say things like:

Those two generations younger than we are have a very different idea of what is essential privacy, what they would wish to protect about their lives and affairs. And so, it’s not for us to inflict one size fits all, said Kerr, 68. Protecting anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won. Anyone that’s typed in their name on Google understands that.

Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety, Kerr said. I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but [also] what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that doesn’t empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.

…you know that it’s time we started framing the debate on our own terms… thinking about what this means to the Citizen Centric Web and about how we want to become the gatekeepers for the data that is both rightfully ours and that should willfully be put into the service of our own needs and priorities.

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.

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.

Modern music economics: a fierce independent streak

CoverSutra - IN RAINBOWS

Steven Hodson posted a response to my IN RAINBOWS entry titled “Being free doesn’t make crap any better“. He makes the simple argument that, just because bands are freeing themselves from their labels and giving their fans the ability to pay what they want for their albums, that this won’t necessarily result in higher quality music being produced. It just means that we won’t have to buy the filler crap that most bands crank out to fill out albums to convince us to shell out $18 a CD.

He reminisces:

When I first started collecting music back in the days of vinyl it was commonly accepted that at least one; two at the most, tracks on the LP would be crap and usually stuffed onto the B-side of the LP. Over the years this ratio has slowly changed to the point that the majority of the time you are lucky if even half the songs are worth listening to. We became nothing but cash cows for the music industry as we lined up obediently with every big release and plunked over our hard earned money because we had no alternatives.

He goes on point out the change:

Then came the Internet and suddenly we had a way to thumb our noses at the industry that had been bleeding us dry and get only the songs we felt were worth listening to. The days of the 45 single had returned albeit in electronic form.

He then attacks what he sees as my warm and fuzzy view of a kinder, gentler “Open Media Web” (my term, borrowed from Songbird’s Rob Lord — (a client of Citizen Agency)).

The comment thread seems particularly interesting, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. I begin:

Hmm, I’m not sure that I have any illusions about the role of commerce in the decisions of these bands. Especially in the cases of Radiohead and NIN, they’ll do fine selling direct to consumers. For many other bands, especially undiscovered ones, or ones who aren’t MySpace et al-savvy, I think it’ll be a long slog before they can go completely independent. Let’s face it, you have to reach a certain amount of volume selling your wares before you can survive off of it.

In any case, I wouldn’t look at this as so much a warm and fuzzy revolution, but rather the kind of circumstance that made the coming of Firefox so exciting… the ground is beginning to shift and the landscape is taking on new forms. If Firefox didn’t come around, who knows when Microsoft would have been forced to update its browser…! The same thing is true for music now with bands advocating for fans to “steal their music” (as Trent Reznor proclaimed, genius marketing if you ask me) or advocating against the use of DRM (since it effectively reduces the number of people who can experience a band’s music, limiting their potential viral spread — which is where bands get their volume from!).

Anyway, I see the commerce side of this. This isn’t just a “Free The Music From the Evil Tyrants” thing. This is changing the way that money is made and how it flows. An Open Media Web is about recirculation, redistribution and greater freedom of choice. Personally I hope this change (more openness and choice) brings about a Darwinian evolution where the crap begins to wane and bands are forced to actually crank out top shelf A-Sides in order to make it.

We’re still a long way off, but I’m not sure, as was the case in the last post we exchanged words on, we really disagree.

Steve follows:

Chris I have to admit I always like it when you join in any of the conversations I try and spark here at WinExtra. Both from the point of view that you as a firm Web 2.0 proponent bring to the table and because you always have some intelligent feedback. Maybe that is one of the reasons why your posts tend to either spark thoughts of my own or figure prominently in my posts.

I do agree that the ground is shifting under us but whether it will make any difference in the larger picture of society is highly debatable. In this bubble we call the early adopterism of all things cool we seem to suffer from a myopic view that people outside of the bubble will see things the same way.

With music as much as folks who look at the current happenings hope that this will indeed foreshadow a larder trend outside of the bubble that will result in more bands being able to get out from under the thumb of music labels and become successful the fact is I think for the larger Internet world it will only see the word FREE.

As for not disagreeing on points in discussions we have had in the past I think my next post today; which again was sparked by one of yours, may see us definitely at opposite ends LOL

Thanks for taking time and being a part of my contributions to the conversation chain

Finally:

I do think there is something to the insider bubbloptics effect that keeps us somewhat sheltered from reality. And as much as I try to empathize or imagine what the rest of the world might think about such things, let’s face it, I’m like Paris Hilton thinking that I can speak for Guantanamo inmates.

That said, I do have a view inside the bubble, and since I’m originally from New England, I have a curmudgeonly distrust of all things large and who think they’re in charge. Usually that means the government or Big Business, and in this case, I’m talking about the collusive record labels.

Will there be some cataclysmic changing of the guard where every band joins up with a new RIAA (Recording Independents Association of Anarchists?) and goes Free Agent Nation on the former RIAA’s ass? Will all bands start giving away their music for free? Or better yet, seeding copies of their albums to the BitTorrent networks themselves? I doubt it.

BUT, what is important here is that Radiohead, NIN and the others are waking up from their somnambulant stupor and realizing, in Harrison Bergeron fashion, that they do indeed have free will and can take risks (instead of just pot shots) with their own careers if they so choose.

And since the actualization of choice is tantamount to establishing that one has free will, marketing-driven or not, the fact is, their model will become an inspiration for an entire generation who won’t just assume that the only way to make it is through signing away your life and becoming a slave to the economics you decried in your post, but instead that they can consider alternative routes to success and satisfaction and more importantly, more genuine or original ways to create and be involved with music, less as a Business, and more as an Art.

So Mozilla wants to go mobile, eh?

As with baseball, on the web we have our home teams and our underdogs and our all-stars; we have our upsets, our defeats, and our glorious wins in the bottom of the ninth. And though I’m actually not much of a baseball fan anymore (though growing up in New England, I was exposed to plenty of Red Sox fever), I do relate my feelings for Mozilla to the way a lot of folks felt about the Red Sox before they finally won the World Series and broke the Curse of the Bambino: that is, I identify with Mozilla as my team, but dammit if they don’t frustrate me on occasion.

Tara wonders why I spend so much time on Mozilla when clearly I’m a perennial critic of the direction they’re headed in and the decisions that they make. But then Tara also didn’t grow up around vocal critics of the Red Sox who expressed their dedication and patronage to the team through their constant criticism and anger. It might not make sense, and it might not seem worth my time, but whatever the case, you really can’t be neutral about Mozilla and still consider yourself a fan. Even if you disagree with everything decision that they make, they’re still the home team of the Open Web and heck, even as you bitch and whine about this or about that, you really just want to see them do well, oftentimes in spite of themselves.

So, with that said, let me give you a superficial summary of what I think about Mozilla’s recent announcement about their mobile strategy:

If you want to stop reading now, you can, but the details and background of my reasoning might be somewhat interesting to you. I make no promises though.

Continue reading “So Mozilla wants to go mobile, eh?”