Opening and closing like flowers (social platform roundupathon)

Closing some tabs…

Stephen Fry writing on ‘social network’ sites back in January (also in the Guardian):

…what an irony! For what is this much-trumpeted social networking but an escape back into that world of the closed online service of 15 or 20 years ago? Is it part of some deep human instinct that we take an organism as open and wild and free as the internet, and wish then to divide it into citadels, into closed-border republics and independent city states? The systole and diastole of history has us opening and closing like a flower: escaping our fortresses and enclosures into the open fields, and then building hedges, villages and cities in which to imprison ourselves again before repeating the process once more. The internet seems to be following this pattern.

How does this help us predict the Next Big Thing? That’s what everyone wants to know, if only because they want to make heaps of money from it. In 1999 Douglas Adams said: “Computer people are the last to guess what’s coming next. I mean, come on, they’re so astonished by the fact that the year 1999 is going to be followed by the year 2000 that it’s costing us billions to prepare for it.”

But let the rise of social networking alert you to the possibility that, even in the futuristic world of the net, the next big thing might just be a return to a made-over old thing.


Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

After checking many of the profiles on your website, I feel it is my duty to inform you that there are some serious errors present. [...]

Lest-we-forget. AOL search log privacy goofup from 2006:

No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”

And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”

It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.

Time magazine punditising on iGoogle, Facebook and OpenSocial:

Google, which makes its money on a free and open Web, was not happy with the Facebook platform. That’s because what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook. Google would much prefer that you come out and play on its platform — the wide-open Web. Don’t stay behind Facebook’s closed doors! Hie thee to the Web and start searching for things. That’s how Google makes its money.

So, last fall, Google rallied all the other major social networks (MySpace, Bebo, Hi5 and so on) and announced a new initiative called OpenSocial. OpenSocial wants to be like Facebook’s platform, only much bigger: Widget makers can write applications for it and they can run anywhere — on MySpace, Bebo and Google’s own social network, Orkut, which is very big in Brazil.

Google’s platform could actually dwarf Facebook — if it ever gets off the ground.

Meanwhile on the widget and webapp security front, we have “BBC exposes Facebook flaw” (information about your buddies is accessible to apps you install; information about you is accessible to apps they install). Also see Thomas Roessler’s comments to my Nokiana post for links to a couple of great presentations he made on widget security. This includes a big oopsie with the Google Mail widget for MacOSX. Over in Ars Technica we learn that KDE 4.1 alpha 1 now has improved widget powers, including “preliminary support for SuperKaramba and Mac OS X Dashboard widgets“. Wonder if I can read my Gmail there…

As Stephen Fry says,  these things are “opening and closing like a flower”. The big hosted social sites have a certain oversimplifying retardedness about them. But the ability for code to go visit data (the widget/gadget model), is I think as valid as the opendata model where data flows around to visit code. I am optimistic that good things will come out of this ferment.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting several of the Google OpenSocial crew in London. They took my grumbling about accessibility issues pretty well, and I hope to continue that conversation. Industry politics and punditry aside, I’m impressed with their professionalism and with the tie-in to an opensource implementation through Apache’s ShinDig project. The OpenSocial specs list is open to the public, where Cassie has just announced that “all 0.8 opensocial and gadgets spec changes have been resolved” (after a heroic slog through the issue list). I’m barely tracking the detail of discussion there, things are moving fast. There’s now a proposed REST API, for example; and I learned in London about plans for a formatting/templating system, which might be one mechanism for getting FOAF/RDF out of OpenSocial containers.

If OpenSocial continues to grow and gather opensource mindshare, it’s possible Facebook will throw some chunks of their platform over the wall (ie. “do an Adobe“). And it’ll probably be left to W3C to clean up the ensuring mess and fragmentation, but I guess that’s what they’re there for. Meanwhile there’s plenty yet to be figured out, … I think we’re in a pre-standards experimentation phase, regardless of how stable or mature we’re told these platforms are.

The fundamental tension here is that we want open data, open platforms, … for data and code to flow freely, but to protect the privacy, lives and blushes of those it describes. A tricky balance. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy, that we’ve got it figured out, or that all we need to do is “tear down the walls”.

Opening and closing like flowers…

Google Social Graph API, privacy and the public record

I’m digesting some of the reactions to Google’s recently announced Social Graph API. ReadWriteWeb ask whether this is a creeping privacy violation, and danah boyd has a thoughtful post raising concerns about whether the privileged tech elite have any right to experiment in this way with the online lives of those who are lack status, knowledge of these obscure technologies, and who may be amongst the more vulnerable users of the social Web.

While I tend to agree with Tim O’Reilly that privacy by obscurity is dead, I’m not of the “privacy is dead, get over it” school of thought. Tim argues,

The counter-argument is that all this data is available anyway, and that by making it more visible, we raise people’s awareness and ultimately their behavior. I’m in the latter camp. It’s a lot like the evolutionary value of pain. Search creates feedback loops that allow us to learn from and modify our behavior. A false sense of security helps bad actors more than tools that make information more visible.

There’s a danger here of technologists seeming to blame those we’re causing pain for. As danah says, “Think about whistle blowers, women or queer folk in repressive societies, journalists, etc.”. Not everyone knows their DTD from their TCP, or understand anything of how search engines, HTML or hyperlinks work. And many folk have more urgent things to focus on than learning such obscurities, let alone understanding the practical privacy, safety and reputation-related implications of their technology-mediated deeds.

Web technologists have responsibilities to the users of the Web, and while media education and literacy are important, those who are shaping and re-shaping the Web ought to be spending serious time on a daily basis struggling to come up with better ways of allowing humans to act and interact online without other parties snooping. The end of privacy by obscurity should not mean the death of privacy.

Privacy is not dead, and we will not get over it.

But it does need to be understood in the context of the public record. The reason I am enthusiastic about the Google work is that it shines a big bright light on the things people are currently putting into the public record. And it does so in a way that should allow people to build better online environments for those who do want their public actions visible, while providing immediate – and sometimes painful – feedback to those who have over-exposed themselves in the Web, and wish to backpedal.

I hope Google can put a user support mechanism on this. I know from our experience in the FOAF community, even with small scale and obscure aggregators, people will find themselves and demand to be “taken down”. While any particular aggregator can remove or hide such data, unless the data is tracked back to its source, it’ll crop up elsewhere in the Web.

I think the argument that FOAF and XFN are particularly special here is a big mistake. Web technologies used correctly (posh – “plain old semantic html” in microformats-speak) already facilitate such techniques. And Google is far from the only search engine in existence. Short of obfuscating all text inside images, personal data from these sites is readily harvestable.

ReadWriteWeb comment:

None the less, apparently the absence of XFN/FOAF data in your social network is no assurance that it won’t be pulled into the new Google API, either. The Google API page says “we currently index the public Web for XHTML Friends Network (XFN), Friend of a Friend (FOAF) markup and other publicly declared connections.” In other words, it’s not opt-in by even publishers – they aren’t required to make their information available in marked-up code.

The Web itself is built from marked-up code, and this is a thing of huge benefit to humanity. Both microformats and the Semantic Web community share the perspective that the Web’s core technologies (HTML, XHTML, XML, URIs) are properly consumed both by machines and by humans, and that any efforts to create documents that are usable only by (certain fortunate) humans is anti-social and discriminatory.

The Web Accessibility movement have worked incredibly hard over many years to encourage Web designers to create well marked up pages, where the meaning of the content is as mechanically evident as possible. The more evident the meaning of a document, the easier it is to repurpose it or present it through alternate means. This goal of device-independent, well marked up Web content is one that unites the accessibility, Mobile Web, Web 2.0, microformat and Semantic Web efforts. Perhaps the most obvious case is for blind and partially sighted users, but good markup can also benefit those with the inability to use a mouse or keyboard. Beyond accessibility, many millions of Web users (many poor, and in poor countries) will have access to the Web only via mobile phones. My former employer W3C has just published a draft document, “Experiences Shared by People with Disabilities and by People Using Mobile Devices”. Last month in Bangalore, W3C held a Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries (see executive summary).

I read both Tim’s post, and danah’s post, and I agree with large parts of what they’re both saying. But not quite with either of them, so all I can think to do is spell out some of my perhaps previously unarticulated assumptions.

  • There is no huge difference in principle between “normal” HTML Web pages and XFN or FOAF. Textual markup is what the Web is built from.
  • FOAF and XFN take some of the guesswork out of interpreting markup. But other technologies (javascript, perl, XSLT/GRDDL) can also transform vague markup into more machine-friendly markup. FOAF/XFN simply make this process easier and less heuristic, less error prone.
  • Google was not the first search engine, it is not the only search engine, and it will not be the last search engine. To obsess on Google’s behaviour here is to mistake Google for the Web.
  • Deeds that are on the public record in the Web may come to light months or years later; Google’s opening up of the (already public, but fragmented) Usenet historical record is a good example here.
  • Arguing against good markup practice on the Web (accessible, device independent markup) is something that may hurt underprivileged users (with disabilities, or limited access via mobile, high bandwidth costs etc).
  • Good markup allows content to be automatically summarised and re-presented to suit a variety of means of interaction and navigation (eg. voice browsers, screen readers, small screens, non-mouse navigation etc).
  • Good markup also makes it possible for search engines, crawlers and aggregators to offer richer services.

The difference between Google crawling FOAF/XFN from LiveJournal, versus extracting similar information via custom scripts from MySpace, is interesting and important solely to geeks. Mainstream users have no idea of such distinctions. When LiveJournal originally launched their FOAF files in 2004, the rule they followed was a pretty sensible one: if the information was there in the HTML pages, they’d also expose it in FOAF.

We need to be careful of taking a ruthless “you can’t make an omelete without breaking eggs” line here. Whatever we do, people will suffer. If the Web is made inaccessible, with information hidden inside image files or otherwise obfuscated, we exclude a huge constituency of users. If we shine a light on the public record, as Google have done, we’ll embarass, expose and even potentially risk harm to the people described by these interlinked documents. And if we stick our head in the sand and pretend that these folk aren’t exposed, I predict this will come back to bite us in the butt in a few months or years, since all that data is out there, being crawled, indexed and analysed by parties other than Google. Parties with less to lose, and more to gain.

So what to do? I think several activities need to happen in parallel:

  • Best practice codes for those who expose, and those who aggregate, social Web data
  • Improved media literacy education for those who are unwittingly exposing too much of themselves online
  • Technology development around decentralised, non-public record communication and community tools (eg. via Jabber/XMPP)

Any search engine at all, today, is capable of supporting the following bit of mischief:

Take some starting point a collection of user profiles on a public site. Extract all the usernames. Find the ones that appear in the Web less than say 10,000 times, and on other sites. Assume these are unique userIDs and crawl the pages they appear in, do some heuristic name matching, … and you’ll have a pile of smushed identities, perhaps linking professional and dating sites, or drunken college photos to respectable-new-life. No FOAF needed.

The answer I think isn’t to beat up on the aggregators, it’s to improve the Web experience such that people can have real privacy when they need it, rather than the misleading illusion of privacy. This isn’t going to be easy, but I don’t see a credible alternative.

Microblogs and the monolingual

Twitter-like microblogging seems a nice granularity for following thoughts expressed in languages you don’t speak.

In 1988 I passed my French language GCSE exam; it’s been downhill all the way since. A year ago in Argentina, I got to the stage where I could just about express myself in Spanish. But it’s been fading. Nevertheless I’m on the websemantique (french) and web-semantica-ayuda (spanish) lists (this is the good influence of Chaals from W3C and SWAD-Europe days), and will try to follow and occasionally respond (usually just a perhaps-relevant link). It’s a good exercise for English speakers to do, to remind them how many folk experience the primarily English-language dialog that dominates the technology scene.

So just now I happened to notice CharlesNepote‘s name on Twitter, from the websemantique list. And in reading his twitter stream, I realised this: twitter posts in a foreign language are easier to follow than either full blog posts, email threads or realtime IM/IRC chat. It’s a nice level of granularity that can bridge language communities a little, since someone with fading schoolkid or tourist knowledge of another language can use and reinforce it by reading microblogs in it.

A related SemWeb use case: yesterday in #foaf we had someone asking about RDF who would rather have spoken Italian. It should be easier to find the members of a multi-language community who can help in such cases. We have SemWeb vocabulary that lets people declare what language they speak, read, or write; and there are ways of expressing interests in topics, or membership of a community. What we’re missing is stable, reliable and queryable aggregates of data expressed in those terms. I think we can change that in 2008…

Bottles and teargas in Piazza Navona

Bottle thrower and teargas

I’ve just posted 100 or so photos from the anti-Bush protest in Rome last night. Zac and I were on the way to a restaurant when we stumbled into the protest in Piazza Navona, just by the Senate where Bush apparently was in meetings. We wandered around the square taking photos of the protesters, then suddenly the mood changed from carnival to street fighting at the southern end of the square.

Anti-Bush crowds watching protesters fight police

I tried geo-tagging some of the photos (see flickr map) but it is hard to be precise: I don’t know the square well, my memory isn’t perfect, and the tool doesn’t allow me to be clear about position, direction or subject of the image. But it helps. I didn’t see the fighting start, but I ran to the front to see what teargas tasted like (“sort of like lemon sherbet, with an initial zing then a slow, well-rounded plummy finish”; but doesn’t sit well with mild asthma), then hung around as the square was eventually cleared.

Shield & Sky

Main thing I take away from the experience: nothing says “body language” like street-fighting Italians…

Inside the Murky World of Make Poverty History

Indymedia UK – Inside the Murky World of Make Poverty History, article by Stuart Hodkinson (reposted from Red Pepper).

Make Poverty History would seem an unprecedented success story. Uniting trade unions, charities, NGOs and a stellar-cast of celebrities, its cause is dominating media coverage while the campaign’s white wristband is being worn the world over. So why, as the G8 summit approaches, are leading members briefing against each other to the press and African social movements saying ‘nothing about us, without us’?

Notes from Bristol Amnesty International meeting

Jan 15 AI Bristol: Martin, Nancy, Margaret

Notes taken at the January 15th 2004 Bristol Amnesty International (AI) meeting. There were two guest speakers on the topic of “Israel, Palestine and Amnesty’s new mandate“: Martin Knight, AIUK Co-ordinator for Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestine Authority, and Nancy Rollason of Bristol Palestine Soldidarity Movement,

Note: this article was written a week afterwards based on my semi-legible handwritten notes. It likely containing errors and omissions (some but not all flagged with ‘@’ signs). This version (updated 18 March 2004) includes some edits and clarifications from Martin. The text that follows reports as closely as possible what I heard from Martin and Nancy. Also note that I’ve avoided prefixing each sentence with qualifiers such as “Martin reported that…”, since the article itself sets that context. Where my notes seem to capture a reasonably verbatim account of what was said, I’ve put the text in quotes; please bear in mind that I probably didn’t get it word-perfect. I’ve added a few links to supplementary materials that I found online. Except for the AI and ISM sites, these links weren’t provided by the speakers.
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