Where data goes when it dies and other musings

I’ve been wanting to write about Ma.gnolia’s catastrophic data loss last week ever since it happened, but wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to approach it. Larry (Ma.gnolia founder and the sole person who maintained the site) is a good friend of mine, and Ma.gnolia was one of Citizen Agency’s first clients. It’s been painful to see him struggle through this, both personally and professionally, and it’s about the worst possible [preventable] thing that can happen to a Web 2.0 service.

Still, kept in context, it’s made me reconsider some things about the nature and value of open, networked data.

I. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

According to Google’s cache of my profile on Ma.gnolia, I had accrued 5758 bookmarks and 6162 tags since I first started using the service August 08, 2004. That’s a lot of data capital to have instantly wiped out. You might think that I’d be angry, or disappointed. But I’m surprising zen about the whole thing. Even if I never got any of my bookmarks back, I don’t think I’d be that upset, and I’m not sure why.

If Flickr went down, I’d be pretty pissed. But Ma.gnolia for me was primarily a tool for publishing — something that I used to broadcast pointers to things that I took a momentary fancy in. There’s a lot of history in my bookmarks, no doubt. In some ways, it’s a record of all the things that I’ve read that I thought might be worth someone else reading (hence why my bookmarks are public), and clearly is a list of things that have affected and informed my thinking on a broad array of topics.

But, the beauty of bookmarks is that they’re secondary references to other things. The payload is elsewhere and distributed. So in some ways, yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of good data there that’s been lost (at least for the moment). But, the reality is that the legacy of my bookmarks are forever imbued in my brain as changes in how my synapses fire. The things that I can’t remember, well, perhaps they weren’t that important to begin with.

II. Start over; the blank slate.

Leopard Blank Slate

With the money I won from the Google/O’Reilly Open Source award last summer, I decided I’d break down and by myself a new MacBook Pro. As I was initially setting it up, I figured I’d transfer my previous system setup over from my Time Machine backup and just pick up from where I left off.

I did this, but once I logged in, the new MacBook lost it’s feeling of newness, and I felt encumbered. What amounted to bit-for-bit data portability left me feeling claustrophobic and restricted. I wanted the freedom of a clean system back; somehow buying a new machine wasn’t just about better performance, but about giving myself license to forget and to start over and to make new mistakes.

I wiped the hard drive and reinstalled OS X with the minimum options. I’ve installed about ten apps so far, and I intend to hold off on anything that I don’t feel an absolute need to install, taking a hint from Ethan Kaplan:

Twitter / Ethan Kaplan: @factoryjoe only install a ...

III. And the band played on

While I love the form-factor of my MacBook Air (now my previous system), the first generation just isn’t fast enough or beefy enough for the way that I use a Mac. It’s great for email and traveling and it really is the machine that I want to be using — just with better performance (though I hear the new models are much better).

Because the hard drive on the thing is pretty miniscule by today’s standards (80GB), I quickly maxed it out with music, videos, photos and screenshots. I was down to about 6GB of space, and OS X crawls when it can’t cache the shit out of everything so I decided to take aggressive action and deleted my entire 30GB iTunes library.

Command-A. Command-Delete. Empty Trash.

And then it was done.

Now, I still need iTunes for iPhone syncing, but now I have no local music store. With the combination of Spotify, SimplifyMedia and Pandora (using PandoraJam or PandoraBoy), I’ve got a good selection of music wherever I’ve got wifi.

The act of deleting my entire music library (okay fine, I do have a complete backup on my Mac Mini media center) was cathartic. All that data… in an instant, gone. All those ratings, all that metadata, all those play counts revealing my accumulated listening habits. Gone (well, except for my Last.fm’s profile).

Of course, it’s not like I had original, irreplaceable copies of these tracks. There are copies upon copies out there. And knowing this, I intentionally destroyed all this data without really worrying about whether I’d ever be able to re-experience or relive my music again. In fact, I didn’t even give it a thought.

But my system sure seems a bit faster now.

IV. Microformats are the vinyl of the web

Vinyl is 4 Ever by Bruce Berrien

The first thing that I thought about when I heard that Ma.gnolia had had “catastrophic data loss” was that Google and Yahoo probably had pretty good caches of the site, especially given its historically high PageRank. The second thing that I thought about was that, since the site was microformatted with XFN, xFolk and other formats, recovering structured data from these caches would likely be most reliable way of externally reconstituting Ma.gnolia, in lieu of other, more conventional data retrieval methods.

Though Larry is still engaged in a full out recovery process, it gave me some sense of pride and optimism that we had had the forethought to mark up Ma.gnolia with microformats. Indeed, this kind of archival purpose was something that Tantek had presaged in 2006:

Microformats from the beginning in my mind are serving two very important purposes.

  1. Microformats provide simple ways of identifying larger chunks of information on the Web for easily and immediately publishing, sharing, moving, aggregating, and republishing.
  2. Microformats are perhaps a step forward in providing building blocks for the longevity of higher fidelity information as well.

In talking with Tantek about this, he pointed out some interesting things about many modern web services, lamenting their apparent lack of concern over longevity. For example, clearly there is a great deal of movement afoot to advance the state of distributed social networking, as evidenced by XML and JSON-based protocols like Portable Contacts and Activity Streams. But these are primarily transaction-based protocols, and archive poorly (another argument for RESTful architectural, certainly).

I would therefore agree with Tantek’s oft-repeated admonishment that services that are serious about their data should always start by marking up their sites with microformats and then add additional APIs to provide functionality (as TripIt did). It’s simply good data hygiene. It’s also about the separation between form and function (or data and interactivity). And with emerging technologies like , people can now build arbitrary mashups from the HTML on your homepage, without even having to know about your custom API.

It also means that, in the event of catastrophe (Ma.gnolia’s case) or dissolution of a service (as in the cases of Pownce, Journalspace or Consumating), there is some hope for data refugees left out in the cold.

When APIs go dark, how do you do a data backup? (Answer: you often can’t.) With public, microformatted content, there will likely be a public archive that can be used to reconstitute at least portions of the service. With dynamic APIs and proprietary data formats, all bets are off.

V. Death and data reincarnation

With both the intentional and unintentional destruction of data recently, it’s given me lots to ponder about in terms of the value, relevance, importance and longevity of data.

I talk about “data capital” like it matters, because I suppose I want it to, and hope that someday it does make a difference just how much of yourself you share with the world, simply because it’s better to share than not to.

And now I’m in this funny situation where, because I did share, and shared openly (specifically on Ma.gnolia), there is the very real possibility of reincarnating my data from the ether of the web. It could just be that all the private data, including messages, private bookmarks and thanks are forever gone, because they were kept private. But those things which were made available to anyone and everyone, through that simple aspect, can be reconstituted by extracting their essence from the caches of the internet’s memory banks.

You think about photographs of people who have died, and of videos and other media. In the past several years we’ve had to start thinking about what happens to social networking profiles on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter of people who are no longer with us. Over time, societies have invented symbols and rituals to commemorate the dead, and often use items imbued with the deceased’s social residue to help them remember and recall and relive.

How do that work when those items are locked away in incompatible and proprietary data stores? How do we cope when technology gets between humans and their humanity?

The web is a fragile place it turns out, in spite of its redundancy and distributed design.

Efforts that threaten to close it up, lock it down or wall it into proprietary gardens are turning the web against us, against history and against civilization and the collective memory. This is perhaps one reason of the primary reasons why the open web is so important to me, and factors in so centrally to my work. As I grow older, perhaps I won’t always have perspective on which things will be the most important to me, but it’s critical that in the future, I don’t inhibit my and my progeny’s ability to access my digital legacy.

Ma.gnolia logoI find it fitting that Ma.gnolia uses an organic symbol as its logo. It has, for all intents and purposes, died.

But there is a silver lining here, and I think Larry intuitively understands: in the Ma.gnolia Open Source (M2) project, he had already sowed the seeds for Ma.gnolia’s rebirth. Though it is lamentable that a such disaster would occur, I believe that creative destruction is absolutely necessary to natural systems, as forest fires are critical to the lifecycle of forests.

I also believe that things happen for a reason and that the soil of this tragedy will lead to a new start and new growth. It’s not accidental that the design of M2 called for a distributed, redundant mesh of independent bookmarking service endpoints. If anything, this situation provides Larry license to start anew, proving the necessity of death, and the wisdom of genetic inheritance and variation.

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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 Amazon.com.

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.

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 organization.name 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)

Machine tagging relationships

I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about how to represent relationships in portable contact lists. Many of my concerns stem from two basic problems:

  1. Relationships in one context don’t necessarily translate directly into new contexts. When we talk about making relationships “portable”, we can’t forget that a friend on one system isn’t necessarily the same kind of friend on another system (if at all) even if the other context uses the same label.
  2. The semantics of a relationship should not form the basis for globally setting permissions. That is, just because someone is marked (perhaps accurately) as a family member does not always mean that that individual should be granted elevated permissions just because they’re “family”. While this approach works for Flickr, where how you classify a relationship (Contact, Friend, Family) determines what that contact can (or can’t) see, semantics alone shouldn’t determine how permissions are assigned.

Now, stepping back, it’s worth pointing out that I’m going on a basic presumption here that moving relationships from one site to another is valuable and beneficial. I also presume that the more convenient it is to find or connect with people who I already know (or have established acquaintance with) on a site will lead me to explore and discover that site’s actual features faster, rather than getting bogged down in finding, inviting and adding friends, which in and of itself has no marginal utility.

Beyond just bringing my friends with me is the opportunity to leverage the categorization I’ve done elsewhere, but that’s where existing formats like and FOAF appear to fall short. On the one hand, we have overlapping terms for relationships that might not mean the same thing in different places, and on the other, we have unique relationship descriptions that might not apply elsewhere (e.g. fellow travelers on Dopplr). This was one of the reasons why I proposed focusing on the “contact” and “me” relationships in XFN (I mean really, what can you actually do if you know that a particular contact is a “muse” or “kin”?). Still, if metadata about a relationship exists, we shouldn’t just discard it, so how then might we express it?

Well, to keep the solution as simple and generalizable as possible, we’d see that the kinds of relationships and the semantics which we use to describe relationships can be reduced to tags. Given a context, it’s fair to infer that other relationships of the same class in the same context are equivalent. So, if I mark two people as “friends” on Flickr, they are equally “Flickr friends”. Likewise on Twitter, all people who I follow are equally “followed”. Now, take the link-rel approach from HTML, and we have a shorthand attribute (“rel”) that we can use to create a that follows the standard namespace:predicate=value format, like so:


flickr:rel=friend
flickr:rel=family
twitter:rel=followed
dopplr:rel=fellow-traveler
xfn:rel=friend
foaf:rel=knows

Imagine being able to pass your relationships between sites as a series of machine tagged URLs, where you can now say “I want to share this content with all my [contacts|friends|family members] from [Flickr]” or “Share all my restaurant reviews from this trip with my [fellow travelers] from [Dopplr|TripIt].” By machine tagging relationships, not only do we maintain the fidelity of the relationship with context, but we inherit a means of querying against this dataset in a way that maps to the origin of the relationship.

Furthermore, this would enable sites to use relationship classification models from other sites. For example, a site like Pownce could use the “Twitter model” of followers and followed; SmugMug could use Flickr’s model of contacts, friends and family; Basecamp could use Plaxo’s model of business, friend and family.

Dumping this data into a JSON-based format like would also be straight-forward:


{
  "uid": "plaxo-12345",
  "fn": "Joseph Smarr",
  "url": [
    { "value": "http://josephsmarr.com", "type": "home" },
    { "value": "http://josephsmarr.com", "type": "blog" },
  ],
  "category": [ 
    { "value": "favorite" },
    { "value": "plaxo employee" }, 
    { "value": "xfn:rel=met" },
    { "value": "xfn:rel=friend" },
    { "value": "xfn:rel=colleague" },
    { "value": "flickr:rel=friend" },
    { "value": "dopplr:rel=fellow-traveler" },
    { "value": "twitter:rel=follower" } 
  ],
  "created": "2008-05-24T12:00:00Z",
  "modified": "2008-05-25T12:34:56Z"
}

I’m curious to know whether this approach would be useful, or what other possibilities might result from having this kind of data. I like it because it’s simple, it uses a prior convention (most widely supported on Flickr and Upcoming), it maintains original context and semantics. It also means that, rather than having to list every account for a contact as a serialized list with associated rel-values, we’re only dealing in highly portable tags.

I’m thinking that this would be very useful for DiSo, and when importing friends from remote sites, we’ll be sure to index this kind of information.

I’m joining Vidoop to work on DiSo full time

Twitter / Scott Kveton: w00t! @factoryjoe and @willnorris joining Vidoop ... :-) http://twurl.cc/18g

Well, Twitter, along with Marshall and his post on ReadWriteWeb, beat me to it, but I’m pretty excited to announce that, yes, I am joining Vidoop, along with Will Norris, to work full time on the DiSo (distributed social) Project.

For quite some time I’ve wanted to get the chance to get back to focusing on the work that I started with Flock — and that I’ve continued, more or less, with my involvement and advocacy of projects like microformats, OpenID and OAuth. These projects don’t accidentally relate to people using technology to behave socially: they exist to make it easier, and better, for people to use the web (and related technologies) to connect with one another safely, confidently, and without the need to to sign up with any particular network just to talk to their friends and people that they care about.

The reality is that people have long been able to connect to one another using technology — what was the first telegraph transmission if not the earliest poke heard round the world? The problem that we have today is that, with the proliferation of fairly large, non-interoperable social networks, it’s not as easy as email or telephones have been to connect to people, and so, the next generation of social networks are invariably going to need to make the process of connecting over the divides easier, safer and with less friction if people really are going to, as expected, continue to increase their use of the web for communication and social interaction.

So what is the DiSo Project?

DISO-PROJECTThe DiSo Project has humble roots. Basically Steve Ivy and I started hacking on a plugin that I’d written that added hcards to your contact list or blogroll. It was really stupidly simple, but when we combined it with Will Norris’ OpenID plugin, we realized that we were on to something — since contact lists were already represented as URLs, we now had a way to verify whether the person who ostensibly owned one of those URLs was leaving a comment, or signing in, and we could thereby add new features, expose private content or any number of other interesting social networking-like thing!

This lead me to start “sketching” ideas for WordPress plugins that would be useful in a distributed social network, and eventually Steve came up with the name, registered the domain, and we were off!

Since then, Stephen Paul Weber has jumped in and released additional plugins for OAuth, XRDS-Simple, actionstreams and profile import, and this was when the project was just a side project.

What’s this mean?

Working full time on this means that Will and I should be able to make much more progress, much more quickly, and to work with other projects and representatives from efforts like Drupal, BuddyPress and MovableType to get interop happening (eventually) between each project’s implementation.

Will and I will eventually be setting up an office in San Francisco, likely a shared office space (hybrid coworking), so if you’re a small company looking for a space in the city, let’s talk.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about DiSo in particular, you should probably just check out the interview I did with myself about DiSo to get caught up to speed.

. . .

I’ll probably post more details later on, but for now I’m stoked to have the opportunity to work with a really talented and energized group of folks to work on the social layer of the open web.

Thoughts on DataPortability

Introduction

Over the last several days I’ve started and abandoned four drafts of this post. Usually it doesn’t take me this long to write out my thoughts, or to go through so many different approaches, but I wanted to express myself as clearly as I could given the amount and overlapping texture of what I wanted to say. I ended up gutting a lot, and tried to focus on some basics, making as few assumptions about the reader (you) as possible.

The reality is that I’m eyeballs-deep in this stuff, and realized that in earlier drafts, I had included a lot of subtext that just wasn’t helping me get my message across and that really only made sense to other folks similarly in the thick of it.

So I got rid of the subterfuge and divided this up into four sections, inspired by a conversation I had with Brynn.

I encourage and invite feedback, but I would prefer to discuss the substance of what I’m arguing, rather than focusing on tit-for-tat squabbly disagreements.

  1. What is data portability?
  2. How does DataPortability (DP) relate to OpenID?
  3. Are there risks associated with DataPortability?
  4. What’s good about DataPortability?

What is data portability?

Contrary to what some folks have argued, I think that the semantics and meaning of the phrase “data portability” are important. To me data portability denotes the act of moving data from one place to another, and that the data should, therefore, be thought of like a physical thing, with physical properties.

Let me draw an analogy here to illustrate the problem with this model.

Take an iPod. With an iPod, you literally copy files from one device to another — for example, from your laptop to your iPod. This is, on the one hand, a limitation imposed by a lack of connectivity and restrictions in copyright law, but on the other, is actually by design. This scenario is not altogether unmanageable unless you have dozens of iPods that you want to sync up with your music, especially if you don’t typically think to connect your iPod every time you add new music, create new playlists or otherwise change your music library.

Now take an always-connected player, like Pandora Mobile, where the model works by federating continuous access from a central source — to consuming devices that play back music. Ignoring the restrictions that make it impossible for Pandora to let you listen to what you want on demand, the point is that, rather than making numerous copies across many unaffiliated and disconnected devices, Pandora affords a consistent experience and uniform access by streaming live data to any device that is authorized (and is online).

The former model (the iPod) is what you might call the “desktop model of data portability”. Certainly you can copy your data and take it with you, but it doesn’t reflect a model where always-on connectivity is assumed, which is the situation with online social networks. The offline model works well for physical devices that don’t require an internet connection to function — but it is a model that fails for services like Pandora, that requires connectivity, and whose value derives from ready access to up-to-date and current information, streamed and accessible from anywhere (well, except in Canada).

It’s nuance, but it’s critical to conceptualizing the value and import of this shift, and it’s nuance which I think is often left out of the explanation of “DataPortability” (whose official definition is the option to share or move your personal data between trusted applications and vendors (emphasis added)). In my mind, when the arena of application is the open, always-on, hyper-connected web, constructing best practices using an offline model of data is fraught with fundamental problems and distractions and is ultimately destined to fail, since the phrase is immediately obsolete, unable to capture in its essence contemporary developments in the cloud concept of computing (which consists of follow-your-nose URIs and URLs rather than discreet harddrives), and in the move towards push-based subscription models that are real-time and addressable.

So if you ask me what is “data portability”, I’ll concede that it’s a symbol for starting a conversation about what’s wrong with the state of social networks. Beyond that, I think there’s a great danger that, as a result of framing the current opportunity around “data portability”, the story that will get picked up and retold will be the about copying data between social networks, rather than the more compelling, more future-facing, and frankly more likely situation of data streaming from trusted brokered sources to downstream authorized consumers. But, I guess “copying” and “moving” data is easier to grasp conceptually, and so that’s what I think a lot of people will think when they hear the phrase. In any case, it gets the conversation started, and from there, where it goes, is anyone’s guess.

How does DataPortability (DP) relate to OpenID?

OpenID, along with OAuth, microformats, RSS, OPML, RDF, APML and XMPP are all open and non-proprietary technologies — formats and protocols — that grace the DataPortability homepage. How they ended up on the homepage, or what selection criteria is used to pick them, is beyond me (for example, I would have added ATOM to the list). So the best way that I can describe the relationship between any of these technologies and DataPortability is that, at some point, the powers that be within the group decided to throw a logo on their homepage and add it to their “social software stack”.

To reiterate (and I won’t speak for the OpenID Foundation since I’m unfamiliar with any conversations that they might have had with DP), no one necessarily asked if it would be okay to put the OAuth or microformats logos on the homepage of DP, or to include those technologies in the DP stack. They just did it. It wasn’t like DP had been around for awhile with a mandate to develop best practices for the future of social networks, and groups like the microformats community petitioned or was nominated to be included. They simply were. There was no process, as far as I’m aware, as to what was included, and what was not.

So while OpenID and the other technologies may be part of the technologies recommended by DP, it should be known that there really is no official relationship between these efforts and DP (though it is true that many members of each group coordinate, meet and discuss related topics, for example, at tomorrow’s Internet Identity Workshop, and at events like the Data Sharing Summit).

Beyond that, it should be noted that OpenID, OAuth, microformats et al have been in development for the last several years, and have been building up momentum and communities all on their own, without and prior to the existence of the DP initiative. In fact, the DP project really only got its start last November with an idea presented by Josh Patterson and Josh Lewis called WRFS, or the “Web Relational File System”. At the time, the WRFS was intended to serve as a “reference design” for describing how data portability should work and this was to serve as the foundation of the DP recommendations.

In January, after ongoing discussions, Josh decided that it would be best to spin WRFS off into its own project and started a separate mailing list, leaving DP to focus exclusively on evangelizing existing technologies and communities and, in the oft-repeated words of Chris Saad, to invent nothing new (a mantra inherited from the OAuth and microformats efforts).

Are there risks associated with DataPortability?

If you accept that DP is primarily a symbol for starting the conversation about transforming social networks from walled gardens into interoperating, seamful web services, then no, not really. If you believe or buy into the hype, or blindly follow the forthcoming “technical specifications“, I see significant risks that need to addressed.

First, DP does not speak for the community as a whole, for any specific social network (except, perhaps, MySpace), or for any individuals except those who publicly align themselves with the group. On too many occasions to feel comfortable about, I’ve seen or read members of the DP project claim authority far beyond any reasonable mandate, which to me have read like attempts to seize control and influence that not only isn’t justified, but that shouldn’t be ascribed to any individual or organization. I worry that this hubris (conceivably a result of proximity to certain A-Listers) is leading them to take more credit than they’re due, and in consequence, folks interested but previously uninitiated with any of the core technologies will be lead to believe that the DataPortability group is responsible and in control of those technologies. Furthermore, if it is the case that people are mislead, I have little faith that folks from the DP project will prevent themselves from speaking on behalf of (or pseudo-knowledgeably about) those technologies, leading to confusion and potential damage.

Second, I have a great deal of concern about the experiences and priorities that are playing into the group’s approach to privacy, security, publicity and disclosure. These are concerns that I would have with any effort that aims to bridge different social or commercial contexts where norms and expectations have already been established, and where there exists few examples (apart from Beacon) of how people actually respond to semi-automatic social network cross-fertilization. Not that privacy isn’t a hot topic on the DP mailing lists, it’s just that statements like this one reflects fishtailing in the definition and approach to privacy from a leader of the group, and that I worry could skid wildly out of control if clarity on how to achieve these dictims isn’t developed very soon:

The thing is that while Privacy is certainly important, in the end these are *social* platforms. By definition they are about sharing. The problem with Facebook Beacon was not that it was sharing, but rather it was sharing the WRONG information in the WRONG way.

Also again, don’t forget, just because data is portable or accessible does NOT mean it is public or ‘open’. This is why I stayed away from the ‘Open Data’ terminology when thinking up DataPortability. Just like a Hard Drive and a PC that runs certain applications, ultimately the applications that USE the data that need to ensure they treat the data with respect – or users will simply stop using them.

[. . .]

You are right that DP should NOT be positioned that Privacy is not important – that is certainly not my intention with my answers. But being important and being a major sticking point is two different things.

Again I tend to think of this as one big Hard Disk. While you provide read/write permissions to folders on a network (for privacy) it is ultimately up to the people and applications you trust to respect your privacy and not just start emailing your word docs to your friends.

So if the second risk is that an unrealistic, naive or incomplete model of privacy [coupled with a lack of effective enforcement mechanisms in the case of fraud or abuse] will be promoted by the DP group, the third risk is that groups or communities that are roped into the DP initiative may open themselves up to a latent social backlash should something go wrong with specific implementations of DataPortability best practices. Specifically, if the final privacy model demands certain approaches to user data, and companies or organizations go along with them by adopting the provided “social technology stack” (i.e. libraries offered that implement the DP data model), the technical implementation may be flawless, but if people’s data starts showing up in places where they didn’t expect it to, they may reject the whole notion of “data portability” and seek to retreat back to the days of “safe” walled gardens of today. And it may be that, because of the emphasis on specific technologies in the DP group’s propaganda, that brands like OpenID and OAuth will become associated with negative experiences, like downloadable .exes in email are today. It’s not a foregone conclusion in my mind that this future is inevitable, but it’s one that the individual groups affected should avoid at all costs, if only because of the significant progress we’ve made to date on our own, and it would be a shame if ignorance or lack of clear communication about the proper methods of adoption and implementation of these technologies lead people to blame the technology means instead of particular instances of its application.

What’s good about DataPortability?

I don’t want to just be a negative creep, so I do think that there is a silver lining to the DP initiative, which I mentioned earlier: it provides a token phrase that we can throw around to tease out some of the more gnarly issues involved in developing future social applications. It is about having a conversation.

While OpenID and OAuth have actual technology and implementations behind them, they also serve as symbols for having conversations about identity and authorization, respectively. Similarly, microformats helps us to think about lightweight semantic markup that we can embed in human-friendly web pages that are also compatible with today’s web browsers, and that additionally make those pages easier for machines to parse. And before these symbols, we had AJAX and Web 2.0, both of which, during their inception, were equally controversial and offensive to the folks who knew the details of the underlying technological innovation behind the terms but who also stood to lose their shamanic positions if simpler language were adopted as the conversations migrated into the mainstream.

Now, is there a risk that we might lose some of the nuance and sophistication with which we data junkies and user-centric identity advocates communicate if we adopt a less precise term to describe the present trends towards interoperable social networks? Absolutely. But this also means that, as the phrase “data portability” makes its way into common conversation, people can begin to think about their social networking activities and what they take for granted (“Wait, you mean that I wouldn’t have to sign up for a new account on my friend’s social network just to send them a photo? Really?”), and to realize that the way things are today not only aren’t the way that they have to be, but that there is a better way for social applications to be designed, architected and presented, that give the enthusiasts and customers of these services greater choice and greater latitude to actually pick services that — what else? — serve them best!

So just as Firefox gave rise to a generation of web developers that take web standards much more seriously, and have in turn recognized and capitalized on the power of having a “rectangle” that actually behaves in a way that they expect (meaning that it fully complies with the standards as they’ve been defined), I think the next evolution of the social web is going to be one where we take certain things, like identity, like portable contact lists, like better and more consistent permissioning systems as givens, and as a result, will lead to much more interesting, more compelling, and, perhaps even more lucrative, uses of the open social web.

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.