Open social networks: bring back Iran

Three years ago, we lost Iran from Internet community. I simplify somewhat, but forgivably. Many Iranian ISPs cut off access to blogs and social networking sites, on government order. At the time, Iran was one of the most active nations on Orkut; and Orkut was the network of choice, faster than the then-fading Friendster, but not yet fully eclipsed by MySpace. It provided a historically unprecedented chance for young people from Iran, USA, Europe and the world to hang out together in an online community. But when Orkut was blocked at the ISP level in Iran, pretty much nobody in the English-speaking blog-tech-pundit scene seemed to even notice. This continues to bug me. Web technologists apparantly care collectively more about freeing Robert Scoble’s addressbook from Facebook, than about the real potential for unmediated, uncensored, global online community.

Most folk in the US will never visit Iran, and vice-versa. And the press and government in both states are engaged in scary levels of sabre-rattling and demonisation. For me, one of the big motivations for working (through FOAF, SPARQL, XMPP and other technologies) on social networking interop, is so young people in the future can grow up naturally having friends in distant nations, regardless of whether their government thinks that’s a priority. If hundreds of blog posts can be written about the good Mr Scoble’s addressbook portability situation, why are thousands of posts not being written about the need for social networking tools to connect people regardless of nationality and national firewalls?

Some things are too important to leave to governments…

Update: a few hours after writing this, things get hairy in Hormuz.  Oof…

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…

Loosly joined

find . -name danbri-\*.rdf -exec rapper –count {} \;

rapper: Parsing file ./facebook/danbri-fb.rdf
rapper: Parsing returned 2155 statements
rapper: Parsing file ./orkut/danbri-orkut.rdf
rapper: Parsing returned 848 statements
rapper: Parsing file ./dopplr/danbri-dopplr.rdf
rapper: Parsing returned 346 statements
rapper: Parsing file ./
rapper: Parsing returned 71 statements
rapper: Parsing file ./
rapper: Parsing returned 123 statements
rapper: Parsing file ./advogato/danbri-advogato.rdf
rapper: Parsing returned 18 statements
rapper: Parsing file ./livejournal/danbri-livejournal.rdf
rapper: Parsing returned 139 statements

I can run little queries against various descriptions of me and my friends, extracted from places in the Web where we hang out.

Since we’re not yet in the shiny OpenID future, I’m matching people only on name (and setting up the myfb: etc prefixes to point to the relevant RDF files). I should probably take more care around xml:lang, to make sure things match. But this was just a rough test…

FROM myfb:
FROM myorkut:
FROM dopplr:
GRAPH myfb: {[ a :Person; :name ?n; :depiction ?img ]}
GRAPH myorkut: {[ a :Person; :name ?n; :mbox_sha1sum ?hash ]}
GRAPH dopplr: {[ a :Person; :name ?n; :img ?i2]}

…finds 12 names in common across Facebook, Orkut and Dopplr networks. Between Facebook and Orkut, 46 names. Facebook and Dopplr: 34. Dopplr and Orkut: 17 in common. Haven’t tried the others yet, nor generated RDF for IM and Flickr, which I probably have used more than any of these sites. The Facebook data was exported using the app I described recently; the Orkut data was done via the CSV format dumps they expose (non-mechanisable since they use a CAPCHA), while the Dopplr list was generated with a few lines of Ruby and their draft API: I list as foaf:knows pairs of people who reciprocally share their travel plans., LiveJournal, and Advogato expose RDF/FOAF directly. Re Orkut, I noticed that they now have the option to flood your GTalk Jabber/XMPP account roster with everyone you know on Orkut. Not sure the wisdom of actually doing so (but I’ll try it), but it is worth noting that this quietly bridges a large ‘social network ing’ site with an open standards-based toolset.

For the record, the names common to my Dopplr, Facebook and Orkut accounts were: Liz Turner, Tom Heath, Rohit Khare, Edd Dumbill, Robin Berjon, Libby Miller, Brian Kelly, Matt Biddulph, Danny Ayers, Jeff Barr, Dave Beckett, Mark Baker. If I keep adding to the query for each other site, presumably the only person in common across all accounts will be …. me.

As snow through which the foot breaks

Originally uploaded by danbri.

In our daily lives we all respond urgently to dangers that are much less likely than climate change to affect the future of our children. … Feb. 2 will be remembered as the date when uncertainty was removed as to whether humans had anything to do with climate change on this planet. (Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program via New York Times)

I learned a new word last month. Köniuači – from the Yamama word meaning:

Not reaching unto, or fairly unto as a rail a little too short, the end of which cannot be secured to the post in consequence. Unsupported, unsecure, not fastened securely, treacherous, incapable of supporting, as snow through which the foot breaks, or as the crust over mud. Not firm or solid, but suddenly giving way where one expected otherwise, fallacious, deceptive, ajar, loosened, incapable of being secured as the end of a rail to a post which is either too short or shattered to receive and hold a nail.

Good to have a word for that familiar concept. Does having a word for it make it easier to bear the idea in mind? Regardless, it is awful to be losing the language it came from, both culturally and academically. The above definition from Thomas Bridges’s Yamana-English Dictionary.

There’s only one native speaker left now. There were recently two – but they weren’t on speaking terms. Sometimes you just have to laugh. Thin ice…

When I wasn’t taking photos of melting glaciers, I spent a lot of my recent time in Patagonia reading this dictionary and other history of the area, and remembering the Workshop on Endangered Languages I helped organize in 1995 in Bristol. When you walk into an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant reading a dictionary, the staff are prone to glance nervously at each other. But I didn’t pace myself well, and their business model survived. Unlike my plans for selling homeopathically-dilute genuine preserved Glacier water to the ecologically minded, with the story that they’d hold it “in trust” in their fridges until the gaiasphere were healed and it was safe to release it back into the wild. Sadly I hit my baggage allowance, so the precious fluid stayed in Buenos Aires.

Anyway, the photo was from the Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Argentina last month. Don’t ask me how much carbon dioxide went into the atmosphere to get me there and back again. This year I’m going to start taking my carbon footprint more seriously…

If you’ve not seen An Inconvenient Truth, I do recommend taking the time to watch it.

The Website opens with a quote that jumps out at me, since I write this from Leiden, Netherlands visiting the Joost offices, following a trip to Berlin, and preceding another to Rome:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Instead of flying, should I be taking the train? Or a boat? Or getting better at remote meetings? Send money to plant-a-tree projects to clean my conscience? After a year and a half of working from the road or from home, it is great to actually be meeting up with people again, that much is clear. As I write, I wonder if there’s a “slow travel” movement akin to the “slow food” scene. I find a website of that name, though seems as-yet unconnected with issues of eco-disaster. Longer trips, perhaps by train, might make some sense. And more pleasant than stockpiling for the end-times.