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.

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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.