OpenID usability is not an oxymoron

Julie Zhou of Facebook discusses usability findings from Facebook Connect.
Julie Zhou of Facebook discusses usability findings from Facebook Connect. Photo © John McCrea. All rights reserved.

See? We're working on this! Monday last week marked the first ever OpenID UX Summit at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale with over 40 in attendance. Representatives came from MySpace, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Vidoop, Janrain, Six Apart, AOL, Chimp, Magnolia, Microsoft, Plaxo, Netmesh, Internet 2 and Liberty Alliance to debate and discuss how best to make implementations of the protocol easier to use and more familiar.

John McCrea covered the significance of the summit on TechCrunchIT (and recognized Facebook’s welcomed participation) and has a good overall summary on his blog.

While the summit was a long-overdue step towards addressing the clear usability issues directly inhibiting the spread of OpenID, there are four additional areas that I think need more attention. I’ll address each separately. Continue reading “OpenID usability is not an oxymoron”

After 1984

iTunes Genius

iTunes 8 has added a new feature called “Genius” that harnesses the collective behavior of iTunes Music Store shoppers to generate “perfect” playlists.

Had an interesting email exchange with my mom earlier today about Monica Hesse’s story Bytes of Life. The crux of the story is that more and more people are self-monitoring and collecting data about themselves, in many cases, because, well, it’s gotten so much easier, so, why not?

Well, yes, it is easier, but just because it is easier, doesn’t automatically mean that one should do it, so let’s look at this a little more deeply.

First, my mom asked about the amount of effort involved in tracking all this data:

I still have a hard time even considering all that time and effort spent in detailing every moment of one’s life, and then the other side of it which is that it all has to be read and processed in order to “know oneself”. I think I like the Jon Cabot Zinn philosophy better — just BE in the moment, being mindful of each second doesn’t require one to log or blog it, I don’t think. Just BE in it.

Monica didn’t really touch on too many tools that we use to self-monitor. It’s true that, depending on the kind of data we’re collecting, the effort will vary. But so will the benefits.

MyMileMarkerIf you take a look at MyMileMarker’s iPhone interface, you’ll see how quick and painless it is to record this information. Why bother? Well, for one thing, over time you get to see not only how much fuel you’re consuming, but how much it’s going to cost you to keep running your car in the future:

View my Honda Civic - My Mile Marker

Without collecting this data, you might guess at your MPG, or take the manufacturer’s rating as given, but when you record what actually is happening, you can prove to yourself whether filling up your tires really does save you money (or the planet).

On the topic of the environment, recording my trips on Dopplr gives me an actual view of my carbon footprint (pretty damning, indeed):


As my mom pointed out, perhaps having access to this data will encourage me to cut back excess travel — or to consolidate my trips. Ross Mayfield suggests that he could potentially quit smoking if his habit were made more plainly visible to him.

What’s also interesting is how passive monitors, or semi-passive monitoring tools, can also inform, educate or predict — and on this point I’m thinking of where of course my music taste is aggregated, or location-based sites like Brightkite, where my locative behavior is tracked (albeit, manually — though Fire Eagle + Spot changes that).

My mom’s other point about the ability to just BE in the moment is also important — because self-tracking should ideally be non-invasive. In other words, it shouldn’t be the tracking that changes your behavior, but your analysis and reflection after the fact.

One of the stronger points I might make about this is that data, especially when collected regularly and when the right indicators are recorded, you can reduce a great amount of distortion from your self-serving biases. Monica writes:

“We all have the tendency to see our behaviors in a little bit of a halo,” says Jayne Gackenbach, who researches the psychology of the Internet at Grant MacEwan College in Alberta, Canada. It’s why dieters underestimate their food intake, why smokers say they go through fewer cigarettes than they do. “If people can get at some objective criteria, it would be wonderfully informative.” That’s the brilliance, she says, of new technology.

big-brotherSo that’s great and all, but all of this, at least for my mom, raises the spectre of George Orwell’s ubiquitous and all-knowing “Big Brother” from Nineteen Eighty-Four and neo-Taylorism:

I do agree that people lie, or misperceive, and that data is a truer bearer of actualities. I guess I don’t care. Story telling is an art form, too. There’s something sort of 1984ish about all this data collection – – as if the accumulated data could eventually turn us all into robotic creatures too self-programmed to suck the real juice out of life.

I certainly am sympathetic to that view, especially because the characterization of life in 1984 was so compelling and visceral. The problem is that this analogy invariably falls short, especially in other conversations when you’re talking about the likes of Google and other web-based companies.

In 1984, Big Brother symbolized the encroachment of the government on the life of the private citizen. Since the government had the ability to lock you up or take you away based on your behavior, you can imagine that this kind of dystopic vision would resonate in a time when increasingly fewer people probably understand the guts of technology and yet increasingly rely on it, shoveling more and more of their data into online repositories, or having it collected about them as they visit various websites. Never before has the human race had so much data about itself, and yet (likely) so little understanding.

The difference, as I explained to my mom, comes down to access to — and leverage over — the data:

I want to write more about this, but I don’t think 1984 is an apt analogy here. In the book, the government knows everything about the citizenry, and makes decisions using that data, towards maximizing efficiency for some unknown — or spiritually void — end. In this case, we’re flipping 1984 on its head! In this case we’re collecting the data on OURSELVES — empowering ourselves to know more than the credit card companies and banks! It’s certainly a daunting and scary thought to realize how much data OTHER people have about us — but what better way to get a leg up then to start looking at ourselves, and collecting that information for our own benefit?

I used to be pretty skeptical of all this too… but since I’ve seen the tools, and I’ve seen the value of data — I just don’t want other people to profit off of my behaviors… I want to be able to benefit from it as well — in ways that I dictate — on my terms!

In any case, Tim O’Reilly is right: data is the new Intel inside. But shouldn’t we be getting a piece of the action if we’re talking about data about us? Shouldn’t we write the book on what 2014 is going to look like so we can put the tired 1984 analogies to rest for awhile and take advantage of what is unfolding today? I’m certainly weary of large corporate behemoths usurping the role the government played in 1984, but frankly, I think we’ve gone beyond that point.

So open it hurts

So open it hurts

Bernice Yeung’s character piece (“So Open it Hurts“) about my relationship with Tara is now available online (feels somewhat awkward using her full name, as she used mine in her post on the story, so I’ll take liberties and presume some familiarity on the part of you, my dear reader).

On the one hand, I feel a bit embarrassed and reluctant having had the entrails of our relationship splayed out over 15 digital pages or 13 print pages starting on page 57 of this month’s San Francisco Magazine (which I recommend, given modern reading habits).

On the other, it’s quite an honor that someone as talented as Bernice would take an interest in us and our work and spend over eight months gathering information, anecdotes and ideas through the tumult of our two-plus-year relationship. It is worth noting that the story began modestly about the germination of the coworking movement, but after several other media outlets beat her to the scoop, Bernice decided to bring the backstory of our relationship to the forefront. In other words, when Bernice started talking to us, our conversations were about coworking, not our relationship. I can’t even imagine how many times Bernice had to rewrite the piece, especially since, months into her research, as you know, Tara and I broke up. But in the end, that’s what Bernice decided to focus on and write about.

In trying to piece together what to make of this story and how to feel about it, in some ways I’ve been more interested in other people’s varied reactions to it — not quite in the same way that Tara described as “vulnerability” leading to defensiveness (though I recognize that effect in myself occasionally), but more from the perspective of a bystander witnessing other people thinking out loud about other people leading more public lives.

Some people seem to really support the choice (or ability) to live openly. Others question it, or even lambast the choice, calling it “egocentric” or “juvenile” or “self-important navel-gazing“. That’s cool. Some people are apparently able to devote more of their cognitive surplus ogling and critiquing the lives of others. Whatevs.

That our relationship was something of a spectacle is not beyond my grasp. I do see it — even if throughout the relationship I kind of held that idea in the abstract, like, “well, people know this internet concoction that is ‘The Tara & Chris Show’, but I’m still the same regular dude I’ve always been…” I don’t think it was ever the intention — or at least something that I put any conscious effort in to — to become known for being a publicish couple. It just kind of happened. I mean, hell, Tara says as much when she points out that it took her pushing me out a window to get me to show some gumption on the projects that I stoked and then ran away from leading! I guess to put this in perspective, the story is interesting, and it’s interesting to me, because as it is for most people who end up featured in articles, a lot of it is about being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people. No amount of self-aggrandizement can do this for you. It happens to you. Oftentimes in spite of what you might have otherwise preferred.

I also think that we were something of an anomaly, especially in our pathetically male-dominated industry. Ayn Rand talks about it the Fountainhead. And in our case, you had it two-fold: two passionate and dedicated individuals coming together romantically, professionally and productively — even if only for a relatively short amount of time — able to produce results… And that we did it using new and unknown social tools, well, that’s kind of interesting. And says something about the period we’re living in. I mean, it is interesting to think that the design of Flickr and Twitter actually shaped the contours of our relationship: by facilitating openness as the default, our relationship was simply more open and exposed. And long after lonelygirl15 was proven to be a farce, the result was that we ended up with this amazing network of friends and contacts, made up of people who got to know us as individuals and as a couple, and to know that we are just your regular folks, and that we use the same internet as everyone else, and that we stumble humiliatingly and earnestly along just as everyone else, seeking the approval and attention of our peers, while giving away the source code to our ideas and our experiences all along the way.

Really, so what?

Really: so what?

. . .

Tara said to me that we’re at the end of an era. And that, in some ways, this story, now published, serves as a transition point. I was reluctant at first, but now I agree. I told Bernice that I felt like I’d aged six years in six months when she last interviewed me this spring, and that’s true; even though I’m still pretty naive and more ignorant than I care to admit, I’m older now than I was in my relationship with Tara. Tara forced me to grow up a lot and to take a lot more responsibility for my feelings, for my actions and for my thoughts. And so, as we (I) transition from the awkward adolescence of the social web, I take with me lessons about . . . the natural and effective constant exercise of free will.

. . .

. . .

Y’know, I didn’t say very much at all during the months following our breakup. Oftentimes I thought to myself, “you should write something about what’s going on… in case someone else is ever in this situation. Or to defend yourself.” But I always stopped myself.

Sometimes things are too personal to share, and sometimes experiences cannot, or should not, be generalized. Sometimes what’s there to be learned is in the going through, not in the seeing it done. I also think that it’s perfectly valid that each person make up their own mind about how open they want to be about their life, for better or for worse, to whatever extent fits their needs. I typically try to be as open as I’m comfortable with, and then a little more, but it doesn’t always work out that way. While I hope that I can provide one kind of example that might be useful in some cases, I certainly don’t imagine that my example is one that would work for everyone, or even necessarily anyone else.

Yes, we were open about our relationship to an extent that many people would probably prefer not to be; that was a choice we made, and that I think made sense at the time. I’m now in a new relationship, and a very different relationship, and I will treat it according to its own unique nature and internal logic. How “open” we will be, I can’t say. But that I am more open, in a much transformed, deeper, way, is unarguable. That much I know to be true.

Adding richness to activity streams

This is a post I’ve wanted to do for awhile but simply haven’t gotten around to it. Following my panel with Dave Recordon (Six Apart), Dave Morin (Facebook), Adam Nash (LinkedIn), Kevin Chou (Watercooler, Inc) and Sean Ammirati (ReadWriteWeb) on Social Networks and the NEED for FEEDs, it only seems appropriate that I would finally get this out.

The basic premise is this: lifestreams, alternatively known as “activity streams”, are great for discovering and exploring social media, as well as keeping up to date with friends (witness the main feature of Facebook and the rise of FriendFeed). I suggest that, with a little effort on the publishing side, activity streams could become much more valuable by being easier for web services to consume, interpret and to provide better filtering and weighting of shared activities to make it easier for people to get access to relevant information from people that they care about, as it happens.

By marking up social activities and social objects, delivered in standard feeds with microformats, I think we enable anyone to run a FriendFeed-like service that innovates and offers value based on how well it understands what’s going on and what’s relevant, rather than on its compatibility with any and every service.

Contemporary example activities

Here are the kinds of activities that I’m talking about (note that some services expand these with thumbnail previews):

  • Eddie updated his resume at LinkedIn.
  • Chris listened to “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie on Pandora.
  • Brynn favorited a photo on Flickr.
  • Dave posted a message to Twitter via SMS.
  • Gary poked Kastner.
  • Leah bought The Matrix at

Prior art

Both OpenSocial and Facebook provide APIs for creating new activities that will show up in someone’s activity stream or newsfeed.

Movable Type and the DiSo Project both have Action Stream plugins. And there are countless related efforts. Clearly there’s existing behavior out there… but should we go about improving it, where the primary requirement is a title of an action, and little, if any, guidance on how to provide more details on a given activity?

Components of an activity

Not surprisingly, a lot of activities provide what all good news stories provide: the who, what, when, where and sometimes, how.

Let’s take a look at an example, with these components called out:

e.g. Chris started listening to a station on Pandora 3 hours ago.

  • actor/subject (noun/pronoun)
  • action (verb)
  • social object (noun)
  • where (place)
  • when (time)
  • (how the object was created)
  • (expanded view of object)

Now, I’ll grant that not all activities follow this exact format, but the majority seem to.

I should point out one alternative: collective actions.

e.g. Chris and Dave Morin are now friends.

…but these might be better created as a post-processing step once we add the semantic salt to the original updates. Maybe.

Class actions

One of the assumptions I’m making is that there is some regularity and uniformity in activity streams. Moreover, there have emerged some basic classes of actions that appear routinely and that could be easily expressed with additional semantics.

To that end, I’ve started compiling such activities on the DiSo wiki.

Once we have settled on the base set of classes, we can start to develop common classnames and presentation templates. To start, we have: changed status or presence, posted messages or media, rated and favorited, friended/defriended, interacted with someone (i.e. “poking”), bookmarked, and consumed something (attended…, watched…, listened to…).

Combining activities with bundling

The concept of bundling is already present in OpenSocial and works for combining multiple activities of the same kind into a group:

FriendFeed Activity Bundling

This can also be used to bundle different kinds of activities for a single actor:

e.g. Chris watched The Matrix, uploaded five photos, attended an event and became friends with Dave.

From a technical perspective, bundling provides a mechanism for batching service-to-service operations, as defined in PaceBatch.

Bundling is also useful for presenting paged or “continued…” activities, as Facebook and FriendFeed do.

Advanced uses

I’d like to describe two advanced uses that inherit from my initial proposal for Twitter Hashtags: filtering and creating a distributed track-like service.

In the DiSo model, we use (will use) AtomPub (and someday XMPP) to push new activities to people who have decided to follow different people. Because the model is push-based, activities are delivered as they happen, to anyone who has subscribed to receive them. On the receiving end, this means that we can filter based on any number of criteria, such as actor, activity type, content of the activity (as in keywords or tags), age of the action, location or how an activity was created (was this message auto-generated from Brightkite or sent in by SMS?) or any combination therein.

This is useful if you want to follow certain activities of your friends more closely than others, or if you only care about, say, the screenshots I upload to Flickr but not the stuff I tweet about.

Tracking can work two ways: where your own self-hosted service knows how to elevate certain types of received activities which are then passed to your messaging hub and routed appropriately… for example, when Mom checks in using Brightkite at the airport (or within some distance radius).

On the other hand, individuals could choose to publish their activities to some third-party aggregator (like Summize) and do the tracking for individuals, pushing back activities that it discovers that matches criteria that you set, and then forwarding those activities to your messaging hub.

It might not have the legs that a centralized service like Twitter has, especially to start, but if Technorati were looking for a new raison d’etre, this might be it.

This is a 30,000 foot view

I was scant on code in this post, but given how long it was already, I’d rather just start throwing it into the output of the activity streams being generated from the Action Streams plugins and see how live code holds up in the wild.

I also don’t want to confuse too many implementation details with the broader concept and need, which again is to make activity streams richer by standardizing on some specific semantics based on actual trends.

I’d love feedback, more pointers to prior art, or alternative suggestions for how any of the above could be technically achieved using open technologies.

Thoughts on dynamic privacy

A highly touted aspect of Facebook Connect is the notion of “dynamic privacy“:

As a user moves around the open Web, their privacy settings will follow, ensuring that users’ information and privacy rules are always up-to-date. For example, if a user changes their profile picture, or removes a friend connection, this will be automatically updated in the external website.

Over the course of the Graphing Social Patterns East conference here in DC, Dave Morin and others from Facebook’s Developer Platform have made many a reference to this scheme but have provided frustratingly scant detail on how it will actually work.

Friend Connect - Disable by Facebook

In a conversation with Brian Oberkirch and David Recordon, it dawned on me that the pieces for Dynamic Privacy are already in place and that, to some degree, it seems that it’s really just a matter of figuring out how to effectively enforce policy across distributed systems in order to meet user expectations.

MySpace actually has made similar announcements in their Data Availability approach, and if you read carefully, you can spot the fundamental rift between the OpenSocial and Facebook platforms:

Additionally, rather than updating information across the Web (e.g. default photo, favorite movies or music) for each site where a user spends time, now a user can update their profile in one place and dynamically share that information with the other sites they care about. MySpace will be rolling out a centralized location within the site that allows users to manage how their content and data is made available to third party sites they have chosen to engage with.

Indeed, Recordon wrote about this on O’Reilly Radar last month (emphasis original):

He explained that MySpace said that due to their terms of service the participating sites (e.g. Twitter) would not be allowed to cache or store any of the profile information. In my mind this led to the Data Availability API being structured in one of two ways: 1) on each page load Twitter makes a request to MySpace fetching the protected profile information via OAuth to then display on their site or 2) Twitter includes JavaScript which the browser then uses to fill in the corresponding profile information when it renders the page. Either case is not an example of data portability no matter how you define the term!

Embedding vs sharing

So the major difference here is in the mechanism of data delivery and how the information is “leased” or “tethered” to the original source, such that, as Morin said, “when a user deletes an item on Facebook, it gets deleted everywhere else.”

The approach taken by Google Gadgets, and hence OpenSocial, for the most part, has been to tether data back to the source via embedded iframes. This means that if someone deletes or changes a social object, it will be deleted or changed across OpenSocial containers, though they won’t even notice the difference since they never had access to the data to begin with.

The approach that seems likely from Facebook can be intuited by scouring their developer’s terms of service (emphasis added):

You can only cache user information for up to 24 hours to assist with performance.

2.A.4) Except as provided in Section 2.A.6 below, you may not continue to use, and must immediately remove from any Facebook Platform Application and any Data Repository in your possession or under your control, any Facebook Properties not explicitly identified as being storable indefinitely in the Facebook Platform Documentation within 24 hours after the time at which you obtained the data, or such other time as Facebook may specify to you from time to time;

2.A.5) You may store and use indefinitely any Facebook Properties that are explicitly identified as being storable indefinitely in the Facebook Platform Documentation; provided, however, that except as provided in Section 2.A.6 below, you may not continue to use, and must immediately remove from any Facebook Platform Application and any Data Repository in your possession or under your control, any such Facebook Properties: (a) if Facebook ceases to explicitly identify the same as being storable indefinitely in the Facebook Platform Documentation; (b) upon notice from Facebook (including if we notify you that a particular Facebook User has requested that their information be made inaccessible to that Facebook Platform Application); or (c) upon any termination of this Agreement or of your use of or participation in Facebook Platform;

2.A.6) You may retain copies of Exportable Facebook Properties for such period of time (if any) as the Applicable Facebook User for such Exportable Facebook Properties may approve, if (and only if) such Applicable Facebook User expressly approves your doing so pursuant to an affirmative “opt-in” after receiving a prominent disclosure of (a) the uses you intend to make of such Exportable Facebook Properties, (b) the duration for which you will retain copies of such Exportable Facebook Properties and (c) any terms and conditions governing your use of such Exportable Facebook Properties (a “Full Disclosure Opt-In”);

2.B.8) Notwithstanding the provisions of Sections 2.B.1, 2.B.2 and 2.B.5 above, if (and only if) the Applicable Facebook User for any Exportable Facebook Properties expressly approves your doing so pursuant to a Full Disclosure Opt-In, you may additionally display, provide, edit, modify, sell, resell, lease, redistribute, license, sublicense or transfer such Exportable Facebook Properties in such manner as, and only to the extent that, such Applicable Facebook User may approve.

This is further expanded in the platform documentation on Storable Information:

Per the Developer Terms of Service, you may not cache any user data for more than 24 hours, with the exception of information that is explicitly “storable indefinitely.” Only the following parameters are storable indefinitely; all other information must be requested from Facebook each time.

The storable IDs enable you to keep unique identifiers for Facebook elements that correspond to data gathered by your application. For instance, if you collected information about a user’s musical tastes, you could associate that data with a user’s Facebook uid.

However, note that you cannot store any relations between these IDs, such as whether a user is attending an event. The only exception is the user-to-network relation.

I imagine that Facebook Connect will work by “leasing” or “sharing” information to remote sites and require, through agreement and compliance with their terms, to check in periodically (or to receive directives through a push mechanism) for changes to data, and then to flush caches of stored data every 24 hours or less.

In either model there is still a central provider and store of the data, but the question for implementation really comes down to whether a remote site ever has direct access to the data, and if so, how long it is allowed to store it.

Of note is the OpenSocial RESTful API, which provides a web-friendly mechanism for addressing and defining resources. Recordon pointed out to me that this API affords all the mechanisms necessary to implement the “leased” model of data access (rather than the embedded model), but leaves it up to the OpenSocial applications and containers to set and enforce their own data access policies.

…Which is a world of a difference from Facebook’s approach to date, for which there is neither code nor a spec nor an open discussion about how they’re thinking through the tenuous issues imbued in making decisions around data access, data control, “tethering” and “portability“. While folks like Plaxo and Yahoo are actually shipping code, Facebook is still posturing, assuring us to “wait and see”. With something so central and so important, it’s disheartening that Facebook’s “Open” strategy is anything but open, and everything less than transparent.

Inventing contact schemas for fun and profit! (Ugh)

And then there were three.

Today, Yahoo! announced the public availability of their own Address Book API. Though Plaxo and LinkedIn have been using this API behind the scenes for a short while, today marks the first time the API is available for anyone who registers for an App ID to make use of the bi-directional protocol.

The API is shielded behind Yahoo! proprietary BBAuth protocol, which obviates the need to request Yahoo! member credentials at the time of import initiation, as seen in this screenshot from LinkedIn (from April):

LinkedIn: Expand your network

Now, like Joseph, I applaud the release of this API, as it provides one more means for individuals to have utter control and access to their friends, colleagues and contacts using a robust protocol.

However, I have to lament yet more needless reinvention of contact schema. Why is this a problem? Well, as I pointed out about Facebook’s approach to developing their own platform methods and formats, having to write and debug against yet another contact schema makes the “tax” of adding support for contact syncing and export increasingly onerous for sites and web services that want to better serve their customers by letting them host and maintain their address book elsewhere.

This isn’t just a problem that I have with Yahoo!. It’s something that I encountered last November with the SREG and proposed Attribute Exchange profile definition. And yet again when Google announced their Contacts API. And then again when Microsoft released theirs! Over and over again we’re seeing better ways of fighting the password anti-pattern flow of inviting friends to new social services, but having to implement support for countless contact schemas. What we need is one common contacts interchange format and I strongly suggest that it inherit from vcard with allowances or extension points for contemporary trends in social networking profile data.

I’ve gone ahead and whipped up a comparison matrix between the primary contact schemas to demonstrate the mess we’re in.

Below, I have a subset of the complete matrix to give you a sense for where we’re at with OpenSocial (né GData), Yahoo Address Book API and Microsoft’s Windows Live Contacts API, and include vcard (RFC 2426) as the cardinal format towards which subsequent schemas should converge:

vcard OpenSocial 0.8 Windows Live Contacts API Yahoo Address Book API
UID uid url id cid cid
Nickname nickname nickname NickName nickname
Full Name n or fn name NameTitle, FirstName, MiddleName, LastName, Suffix name
First name n (given-name) given_name FirstName name (first)
Last name n (family-name) family_name LastName name (last)
Birthday bday date_of_birth Birthdate birthday (day, month, year)
Anniversary Anniversary anniversary (day, month, year)
Gender gender gender gender
Email email email Email (ID, EmailType, Address, IsIMEnabled, IsDefault) email
Street street-address street-address StreetLine street
Postal Code postal-code postal-code PostalCode zip
City locality locality
State region region PrimaryCity state
Country country-name country CountryRegion country
Latitutude geo (latitude) latitude latitude
Longitude geo (longitude) longitude longitude
Language N/A N/A
Phone tel (type, value) phone (number, type) Phone (ID, PhoneType, Number, IsIMEnabled, IsDefault) phone
Timezone tz time_zone TimeZone N/A
Photo photo thumbnail_url N/A
Company org CompanyName company
Job Title title, role organization.title JobTitle jobtitle
Biography note about_me notes
URL url url URI (ID, URIType, Name, Address) link
Category category, rel-tag tags Tag (ID, Name, ContactIDs)

Facebook, the USSR, communism, and train tracks

Low hills closed in on either side as the train eventually crawled on to high, tabletop grasslands creased with snow. Birds flew at window level. I could see lakes of an unreal cobalt blue to the north. The train pulled into a sprawling rail yard: the Kazakh side of the Kazakhstan-China border.

Workers unhitched the cars, lifted them, one by one, ten feet high with giant jacks, and replaced the wide-gauge Russian undercarriages with narrower ones for the Chinese tracks. Russian gauges, still in use throughout the former Soviet Union, are wider than the world standard. The idea was to the prevent invaders from entering Russia by train. The changeover took hours.

— Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth

I read this passage today while sunning myself at Hope Springs Resort near Palm Springs. Tough life, I know.

The passage above immediately made me think of Facebook, and I had visions of the old Facebook logo with a washed out Stalin face next to the wordmark (I’m a visual person). But the thought came from some specific recent developments, and fit into a broader framework that I talked about loosely to Steve Gillmor about on his podcast. I also wrote about it last week, essentially calling for Facebook and Google to come together to co-develop standards for the social web, but, having been reading up on Chinese, Russian, Turkish and Central Asian history, and being a benefactor of the American enterprise system, I’m coming over to Eran and others‘ point that 1) it’s too early to standardize and 2) it probably isn’t necessary anyway. Go ahead, let a thousand flowers bloom.

If I’ve learned anything from Spread Firefox, BarCamp, coworking and the like, it’s that propaganda needs to be free to be effective. In other words, you’re not going to convince people of your way of thinking if you lock down what you have, especially if what you have is culture, a mindset or some other philosophical approach that helps people narrow down what constitutes right and wrong.

Look, if Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door but had ensconced them in DRM, he would not have been as effective at bringing about the Reformation.

Likewise, the future of the social web will not be built on proprietary, closed-source protocols and standards. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Google wants OpenSocial to be an “open standard” and Facebook wants to be the openemest of them all!

The problem is not about being open here. Everyone gets that there’s little marginal competitive advantage to keeping your code closed anymore. Keeping your IP cards close to your chest makes you a worse card player, not better. The problem is with adoption, gaining and maintaining [developer] interest and in stoking distribution. And, that brings me to the fall of the Communism and the USSR, back where I started.

I wasn’t alive back when the Cold War was in its heyday. Maybe I missed something, but let’s just go on the assumption that things are better off now. From what I’m reading in Kaplan’s book, I’d say that the Soviets left not just social, but environmental disaster in their wake. The whole region of Central Asia, at least in the late 90s, was fucked. And while there are many causes, more complex than I can probably comprehend, a lot of it seems to have to do with a lack of cultural identity and a lack of individual agency in the areas affected by, or left behind by, Communist rule.

Now, when we talk about social networks, I mean, c’mon, I realize that these things aren’t exactly nations, nation-states or even tribal groups warring for control of natural resources, food, potable water, and so forth. BUT, the members of social networks number in the millions in some cases, and it would be foolish not to appreciate that the borders — the meticulously crafted hardline boundaries between digital nation-states — are going to be redrawn when the battle for cultural dominance between Google (et al) and Facebook is done. It’s not the same caliber of détente that we saw during the Cold War but it’s certainly a situation where two sides with very different ideological bents are competing to determine the nature of the future of the [world]. On the one hand, we have a nanny state who thinks that it knows best and needs to protect its users from themselves, and on the other, a lassé-faire-trusting band of bros who are looking to the free market to inform the design of the Social Web writ large. On the one hand, there’s uncertainty about how to build a “national identity”-slash-business on top of lots of user data (that, oh yeah, I thought was supposed to be “owned” by the creators), and on the other, a model of the web, that embraces all its failings, nuances and spaghetti code, but that, more than likely, will stand the test of time as a durable provider of the kind of liberty and agency and free choice that wins out time and again throughout history.

That Facebook is attempting to open source its platform, to me, sounds like offering the world a different rail gauge specification for building train tracks. It may be better, it may be slicker, but the flip side is that the Russians used the same tactic to try to keep people from having any kind of competitive advantage over their people or influence over how they did business. You can do the math, but look where it got’em.

S’all I’m sayin’.

The battle for the future of the social web

When I was younger, I used to bring over my Super Nintendo games to my friends’ houses and we’d play for hours… that is, if they had an SNES console. If, for some reason, my friend had a Sega system, my games were useless and we had to play something like Sewer Shark. Inevitably less fun was had.

What us kids didn’t know at the time was that we were suffering from a platform war, that manifested, more or less, in the form of a standards war for the domination of the post-Atari video game market. We certainly didn’t get why Nintendo games didn’t work on Sega systems, they just didn’t, and so we coped, mostly by not going over to the kid’s house who had Sega. No doubt, friendships were made — and destroyed — on the basis of which console you had, and on how many games you had for the preferred platform. Indeed, the kids with the richest parents got a pass, since they simply had every known system and could play anyone’s games, making them by default, super popular (in other words, it was good to be able to afford to ignore the standards war altogether).

Fast-forward 10 years and we’re on the cusp of a new standards war, where the players and stakes have changed considerably but the nature of warfare has remained much the same as Hal R. Varian and Carl Shapiro described in Information Rules in 1999. But the casualties, as before, will likely be the consumers, customers and patrons of the technologies in question. So, while we can learn much from history about how to fight the war, I think that, for the sake of the web and for web citizens generally, this coming war can be avoided, and that, perhaps, it should be.

Continue reading “The battle for the future of the social web”

When location is everywhere

What if you could take location as a given in the design of web applications and services? By that I mean, what if — when someone who has never used your service before shows up, signs up (ideally with an OpenID!) — and it’s both trivial and desirable for her to provide you with access to some aspect of her physical location in the world… and she does? What would you do? How would you change the architecture of your service to leverage this new “layer” of information?

Would you use it to help her connect to and find others in her proximity (or maybe avoid them)? Would you use it to better target ads at her (as Facebook does)? Would you use it to accelerate serendipity, colliding random people who, for some reason, have strikingly similar habits but don’t yet know each other — or would you only reveal the information in aggregate, to better give members a sense for where people on the service come from, spend their time and hang out? If you could, would you automatically geocode everything that new members upload or post to your service or would you require that metadata to be added or exposed explicitly?

Put still another way, how would a universal “location layer for the social web” change the design and implementation of existing applications? Would it give rise to a class of applications that take advantage of and thrive on knowing where their members live, work and play, and tailor their services accordingly? Or would all services eventually make use of location information? Or will it depend on each service’s unique offering and membership, and why people signed up in the first place? Just because you can integrate with Twitter or Facebook, must you? If the “location layer” were made available, must you take advantage of it? What criteria or metrics would you use to decide?

I would contend that these are all questions that anyone with a modern web service is going to need to start dealing with sooner than later. It’s not really a matter of whether or not members will ever show up with some digital footprint of where they are, where they’ve been or where they’re going; it’s really only a matter of time. When they do, will you be ready to respond to this information or will you carry on like Friendster in the prime of Facebook and pretend like the first bubble never popped?

If you imagine for a minute that the ubiquity of wireless-enabled laptops gave rise to the desire-slash-ability for more productive mobile work, and consequently created the opportunity for the coworking community to blossom; if you consider that the ubiquity of digital cameras and camera phones created the opening for a service like Flickr (et al) to take off; if you consider that the affordability of camcorders, accessibility of video on digital cameras, cell phones and built-in in laptops and iMacs, coupled with simpler tools like iMovie, lead to people being able and wanting to post videos to a service like YouTube (et al); if you look at how the ubiquity of some kind of device technology with [media] output lead to the rise of services/communities that were optimized for that same media, you might start to realize that a huge opportunity is coming for locative devices that make it easy to publish where you are, discover where your friends are, and to generally receive benefits from being able to inform third parties, in a facile way, where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Especially with the opening of the iPhone with its simple and elegant implementation of the “Locate Me” feature in Google Maps (which has already made its way into Twinkle, a native Twitter app for the iPhone that uses your location to introduce you to nearby Twitterers who are also using the app) I think we’re on the brink of seeing the kind of the ubiquity (in the consumer space) that we need in order to start taking the availability of location information for granted, and, that, like standards-compliant browsers, it could (or should) really inform the way that we build out the social fabric of web applications from thence forward.

The real difference coming that I want to point out here is that 1) location information, like digital photos and videos before it, will become increasingly available and accessible to regular people, in many forms; that 2) people will become increasingly aware that they can use this information to their advantage should they choose to and may, if given the chance, provide this information to third-party services; 3) that when this information is applied to social applications (i.e. where location is exposed at varying levels of publicity), interesting, and perhaps compelling, results may emerge; and that 4) in general, investing in location as an “information layer” or filter within new or existing applications makes increasingly more sense, as more location information is coming available, is being made available by choice, and is appearing in increasing numbers of applications that previously may not have taken physical location into consideration.

Geogeeks can claim credit for presaging this day for some time, but only now does it seems like the reality is nearly upon us. Will the ubiquity of location data, like the adoption of web standards before, catalyze entirely new breeds of applications and web services? It’s anyone’s guess when exactly this reality will come to pass, but I believe that now, increasingly, it’s really only a short matter of time before location is indeed everywhere, a new building block on which new and exciting services and functionality can be stacked.

(Bonus: Everyware by Adam Greenfield is good reading on this general topic, though not necessarily as it relates to web services and applications.)

Relationships are complicated

Facebook | Confirm Requests

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 and 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.