Bruce Schneier: Our Data, Ourselves

Via Libby; Bruce Schneier on data:

In the information age, we all have a data shadow.

We leave data everywhere we go. It’s not just our bank accounts and stock portfolios, or our itemized bills, listing every credit card purchase and telephone call we make. It’s automatic road-toll collection systems, supermarket affinity cards, ATMs and so on.

It’s also our lives. Our love letters and friendly chat. Our personal e-mails and SMS messages. Our business plans, strategies and offhand conversations. Our political leanings and positions. And this is just the data we interact with. We all have shadow selves living in the data banks of hundreds of corporations’ information brokers — information about us that is both surprisingly personal and uncannily complete — except for the errors that you can neither see nor correct.

What happens to our data happens to ourselves.

This shadow self doesn’t just sit there: It’s constantly touched. It’s examined and judged. When we apply for a bank loan, it’s our data that determines whether or not we get it. When we try to board an airplane, it’s our data that determines how thoroughly we get searched — or whether we get to board at all. If the government wants to investigate us, they’re more likely to go through our data than they are to search our homes; for a lot of that data, they don’t even need a warrant.

Who controls our data controls our lives. [...]

Increasingly, we’re going to be seeing this data flow through protocols like OAuth. SemWeb people should get their heads around how this is likely to work. It’s rather likely we’ll see SPARQL data stores with non-public personal data flowing through them; what worries me is that there’s not yet any data management discipline on top of this that’ll help us keep track of who is allowed to see what, and which graphs should be deleted or refreshed at which times.

I recently transcribed some notes from a Robert Scoble post about Facebook and data portability into the FOAF wiki. In it, Scoble reported some comments from Dave Morin of Facebook, regardling data flow. Excerpts:

For instance, what if a user wants to delete his or her info off of Facebook. Today that’s possible. But what about in a really data portable world? After all, in such a world Facebook might have sprayed your email and other data to other social networks. What if those other social networks don’t want to delete your data after you asked Facebook to?

Another case: you want your closest Facebook friends to know your birthday, but not everyone else. How do you make your social network data portable, but make sure that your privacy is secured?

Another case? Which of your data is yours? Which belongs to your friends? And, which belongs to the social network itself? For instance, we can say that my photos that I put on Facebook are mine and that they should also be shared with, say, Flickr or SmugMug, right? How about the comments under those photos? The tags? The privacy data that was entered about them? The voting data? And other stuff that other users might have put onto those photos? Is all of that stuff supposed to be portable? (I’d argue no, cause how would a comment left by a Facebook user on Facebook be good on Flickr?) So, if you argue no, where is the line? And, even if we can all agree on where the line is, how do we get both Facebook and Flickr to build the APIs needed to make that happen?

I’d like to see SPARQL stores that can police their data access behaviour, with clarity for each data graph in the store about the contexts in which that data can be re-exposed, and the schedule by which the data should be refreshed or purged. Making it easy for data to flow is only half the problem…

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…

Waving not Drowning? groups as buddylist filters

I’ve lately started writing up and prototyping around a use-case for the “Group” construct in FOAF and for medium-sized, partially private data aggregators like SparqlPress. I think we can do something interesting to deal with the social pressure and information load people are experiencing on sites like Flickr and Twitter.

Often people have rather large lists of friends, contacts or buddys – publically visible lists – which play a variety of roles in their online life. Sometimes these roles are in tension. Flickr, for example, allow their users to mark some of their contacts as “friend” or “family” (or both). Real life isn’t so simple, however. And the fact that this classification is shared (in Flickr’s case with everyone) makes for a potentially awkward dynamic. Do you really want to tell everyone you know whether they are a full “friend” or a mere “contact”? Let alone keep this information up to date on every social site that hosts it. I’ve heard a good few folk complain about the stress of adding yet another entry to their list of “twitter follows” people.  Their lists are often already huge through some sense of social obligation to reciprocate. I think it’s worth exploring some alternative filtering and grouping mechanisms.

On the one hand, we have people “bookmarking” people they find interesting, or want to stay in touch with, or “get to know better”. On the other, we have the bookmarked party sometimes reciprocating those actions because they feel it polite; a situation complicated by crude categories like “friend” versus “contact”. What makes this a particularly troublesome combination is when user-facing features, such as “updates from your buddies” or “photos from your friends/contacts” are built on top of these buddylists.

Take my own case on Flickr, I’m probably not typical, but I’m a use case I care about. I have made no real consistent use of the “friend” versus “contact” distinction; to even attempt do so would be massively time consuming, and also a bit silly. There are all kinds of great people on my Flickr contacts list. Some I know really well, some I barely know but admire their photography, etc. It seems currently my Flickr account has 7 “family”, 79 “friends” and 604 “contacts”.

Now to be clear, I’m not grumbling about Flickr. Flickr is a work of genius, no nitpicking. What I ask for is something that goes beyond what Flickr alone can do. I’d like a better way of seeing updates from friends and contacts. This is just a specific case of a general thing (eg. RSS/Atom feed management), but let’s stay specific for now.

Currently, my Flickr email notification settings are:

  • When people comment on your photos: Yes
  • When your friends and family upload new photos: Yes (daily digest)
  • When your other contacts upload new photos: No

What this means is that I selected to see notifications photos from those 86 people who I haveflagged as “friend” or “family”. And I chose not to be notified of new photos from the other 604 contacts. Even though that list contains many people I know, and would like to know better. The usability question here is: how can we offer more subtlety in this mechanism, without overwhelming users with detail? My guess is that we approach this by collecting in a more personal environment some information that users might not want to state publically in an online profile. So a desktop (or weblog, e.g. SparqlPress) aggregation of information from addressbooks, email send/receive patterns, weblog commenting behaviours, machine readable resumes, … real evidence of real connections between real people.

And so I’ve been mining around for sources of “foaf:Group” data. As a work in progress testbed I have a list of OpenIDs of people whose comments I’ve approved in my blog. And another, of people who have worked on the FOAF wiki. I’ve been looking at the machine readable data from W3C’s Tech Reports digital archive too, as that provides information about a network of collaboration going back to the early days of the Web (and it’s available in RDF). I also want to integrate my sent-mail logs, to generate another group, and extract more still from my addressbook. On top of this of course I have access to the usual pile of FOAF and XFN, scraped or API-extracted information from social network sites and IM accounts. Rather than publish it all for the world to see, the idea here is to use it to generate simple personal-use user interfaces couched in terms of these groups. So, hopefully I shall be able to use those groups as a filter against the 600+ members of my flickr buddylist, and make some kind of basic RSS-filtered view of their photos.

If this succeeds, it may help people to have huge buddylists without feeling they’ve betrayed their “real friends” by doing so, or forcing them to put their friends into crudely labelled public buckets marked “real friend” and “mere contact”. The core FOAF design principle here is our longstanding bias towards evidence-based rather than proclaimed information.  Don’t just ask people to tell you who their friends are, and how close the relationship is (especially in public, and most especially in a format that can be imported into spreadsheets for analysis). Instead… take the approach of  “don’t say it, show it“. Create tools based on the evidence that friendship and collaboration leaves in the Web. The public Web, but also the bits that don’t show up in Google, and hopefully never will. If we can find a way to combine all that behind a simple UI, it might go a little way towards “waving not drowning” in information.

Much of this is stating the obvious, but I thought I’d leave the nerdly details of SPARQL and FOAF/RDF for another post.

Instead here’s a pointer to a Scoble article on Mr Facebook, where they’re grappling with similar issues but from a massive aggregation rather than decentralised perspective:

Facebook has a limitation on the number of friends a person can have, which is 4,999 friends. He says that was due to scaling/technical issues and they are working on getting rid of that limitation. Partly to make it possible to have celebrities on Facebook but also to make it possible to have more grouping kinds of features. He told me many members were getting thousands of friends and that those users are also asking for many more features to put their friends into different groups. He expects to see improvements in that area this year.

ps. anyone know if Facebook group membership data is accessible through their APIs? I know I can get group data from LiveJournal and from My Opera in FOAF, but would be cool to mix in Facebook too.

Hotel Facebook

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
’relax,’ said the night man,
We are programmed to receive.
You can checkout any time you like,
But you can never leave!   [...]

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…

Begin again

facebook grabThere was an old man named Michael Finnegan
He went fishing with a pinnegan
Caught a fish and dropped it in again
Poor old Michael Finnegan
Begin again.

Let me clear something up. Danny mentions a discussion with Tim O’Reilly about SemWeb themes.

Much as I generally agree with Danny, I’m reaching for a ten-foot bargepole on this one point:

While Facebook may have achieved pretty major adoption for their approach, it’s only very marginally useful because of their overly simplistic treatment of relationships.

Facebook, despite the trivia, the endless wars between the ninja zombies and the pirate vampires; despite being centralised, despite [insert grumble] is massively useful. Proof of that pudding: it is massively used. “Marginal” doesn’t come into it. The real question is: what happens next?

Imagine 35 million people. Imagine them marching thru your front room. Jumping off a table at the same time. Sending you an email. Or turning the tap off when they brush their teeth. 35 million is a fair-sized nation. Taking that 35 million figure I’ve heard waved around, and placing it in the ever scientific Wikipedia listing … that puts the land of Facebook somewhere between Kenya and Algeria in the population charts. Perhaps the figures are exagerrated. Perhaps a few million have wandered off, or forgotten their passwords. Doubtless some only use it every month or few.

Even a million is a lot of use; and a lot of usefulness.

Don’t let anything I ever say here in this blog be taken as claiming such sites and services are only marginally useful. To be used is to be useful; and that’s something SemWeb people should keep in the forefront of their minds. And usually they do, I think, although the community tends towards the forward-looking.

But let’s be backwards-looking for a minute. My concern with these sites is not that they’re marginally useful, but that they could be even more useful. Slight difference of emphasis. was great, back in 2000 when we started FOAF. But it was a walled garden. It had cool graph traversal stuff that evocatively showed your connection path to anyone else in the network. Their network. Then followed Friendster, which got slow as it proved useful to too many people. Ditto Orkut, which everyone signed up to, then wandered off from when it proved there was rather little to do there except add people. MySpace and Facebook cracked that one, … but guess what, there’ll be more.

I got a signup to Yahoo’s Mash yesterday. Anyone wanna be my friend? It has fun stuff (“Mecca Ibrahim smacked The Mash Pet (your Mash pet)!”), … wiki-like profile editing, extension modules … and I’d hope given that this is 2007, eventually some form of API. People won’t live in Facebook-land forever. Nor in Mash, however fun it is. I still lean towards Jabber/XMPP as the long-term infrastructure for this sort of system, but that’s for another time. The appeal of SixDegrees, of Friendster, of Orkut … wasn’t ever the technology. It was the people. I was there ‘cos others were there. Nothing more. And I don’t see this changing, no matter how much the underlying technology evolves. And people move around, drift along to the next shiny thing, … go wherever their friends are. Which is our only real problem here.

Begin again.

I’ve been messing with RDF a bit. I made a sample SPARQL query that asks (exported RDF from) a few networks about my IM addresses; here are the results from Redland/Rasqal JSON.

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.

Querying Facebook in SPARQL

A fair few people have been asking about FOAF exporters from Facebook. I’m not entirely sure what else is out there, but Matthew Rowe has just announced a Facebook FOAF generator. It doesn’t dump all 35 million records into your Web browser, thankfully. But it will export a minimal description of you and your Facebook associates. At the moment, you get name, a photo URL, and (in this revision of the tool) a Facebook account name using FOAF’s OnlineAccount construct.

As an aside, this part of the FOAF design provides a way for identifiers from arbitrary services to be described in FOAF without special-purpose support. Some services have shortcut property names, eg. msnChatID and we may add more, but it is also important to allow this kind of freeform, decentralised identification. People shouldn’t have to petition the FOAF spec editors before any given Social Network site’s IDs can be supported; they can always use their own vocabulary alongside FOAF, or use the OnlineAccount construct as shown here.

I’ve saved my Facebook export on my Web site, working on the assumption that Facebook IDs are not private data. If people think otherwise, let me know and I’ll change the setup. We might also discuss whether even sharing the names and connectivity graph will upset people’s privacy expectations, but that’s for another day. Let me know if you’re annoyed!

Here is a quick SPARQL query, which simply asks for details of each person mentioned in the file who has an account on Facebook.

SELECT DISTINCT ?name, ?pic, ?id
[ a :Person;
:name ?name;
:depiction ?pic;
:holdsAccount [ :accountServiceHomepage <> ; :accountName ?id ]
ORDER BY ?name

I tested this online using Dave Beckett’s Rasqal-based Web service. It should return a big list of the first 200 people matched by the query, ordered alphabetically by name.

For “Web 2.0″ fans, SPARQL‘s result sets are essentially tabular (just like SQL), and have encodings in both simple XML and JSON. So whatever you might have heard about RDF’s syntactic complexity, you can forget it when dealing with a SPARQL engine.

Here’s a fragment of the JSON results from the above query:

"name" : { "type": "literal", "value": "Dan Brickley" },
"pic" : { "type": "uri", "value": "" },
"id" : { "type": "literal", "value": "624168" }
"name" : { "type": "literal", "value": "Dan Brickley" },
"pic" : { "type": "uri", "value": "" },
"id" : { "type": "literal", "value": "501730978" }
}, ...

What’s going on here? (a) Why are there two of me? (b) And why does it think that one of us has my Facebook FOAF file’s URL as a mugshot picture?

There’s no big mystery here. Firstly, there’s another guy who has the cheek to be called Dan Brickley. We’re friends on Facebook, even though we should probably be mortal enemies or something. Secondly, why does it give him the wrong URL for his photo? This is also straightforward, if a little technical. Basically, it’s an easily-fixed bug in this version of the FOAF exporter I used. When an image URL is not available, the convertor is still generating markup like “<foaf:depiction rdf:resource=””/>”. This empty URL is treated in RDF as the extreme case of a relative link, ie. the same kind of thing as writing “../../images/me.jpg” in a normal Web page. And since RDF is all about de-contextualising information, your RDF parser will try to resolve the relative link before passing the data on to storage or query systems (fiddly details are available to those that care). If the foaf:depiction property were simply ommitted when no photo was present, this problem wouldn’t arise. We’d then have to make the query a little more flexible, so that it still matched people even if there was no depiction, but that’s easy. I’ll show it next time.

I mentioned a couple of days ago that SPARQL is a query language with built-in support for asking questions about data provenance, ie. we can mix in “according to Facebook”, “according to Jabber” right into the WHERE clause of queries such as the one I show here. I’m not going to get into that today, but I will close with a visual observation about why that is important.

yasn map, borrowed from data junk, valleywag blog
To state the obvious, there’ll always be multiple Web sites where people hang out and socialise. A friend sent me this link the other day; a world map of social networks (thumbnail version copied here). I can’t vouch for the science behind it, but it makes the point that we risk fragmenting Web communities on geographic boundaries if we don’t bridge the various IM and YASN networks. There are lots of ways this can be done, each with different implications for user experience, business model, cost and practicality. But it has to happen. And when it does, we’ll be wanting ways of asking questions against aggregations from across these sites…

“The World is now closed”

Facebook in many ways is pretty open for a ‘social networking’ site. It gives extension apps a good amount of access to both data and UI. But the closed world language employed in their UI betrays the immodest assumption “Facebook knows all”.

  • Eric Childress and Stuart Weibel are now friends with Charles McCathienevile.
  • John Doe is now in a relationship.
  • You have 210 friends.

To state the obvious: maybe Eric, Stu and Chaals were already friends. Maybe Facebook was the last to know about John’s relationship; maybe friendship isn’t countable. As the walls between social networking sites slowly melt (I put Jabber/XMPP first here, with OpenID, FOAF, SPARQL and XFN as helper apps), me and my 210 closest friends will share fragments of our lives with a wide variety of sites. If we choose to make those descriptions linkable, the linked sites will increasingly need to refine their UI text to be a little more modest: even the biggest site doesn’t get the full story.

Closed World Assumption (Abort/Retry/Fail)
Facebook are far from alone in this (see this Xbox screenshot too, “You do not have any friends!”); but even with 35M users, the mistake is jarring, and not just to Semantic Web geeks of the missing isn’t broken school. It’s simply a mistake to fail to distinguish the world from its description, or the territory from the map.

A description of me and my friends hosted by a big Web site isn’t “my social network”. Those sites are just a database containing claims made by different people, some verified, some not. And with, inevitably, lots missing. My “social network” is an abstractification of a set of interlinked real-world histories. You could make the case that there has only ever been one “social network” since the distant beginnings of human society; certainly those who try to do geneology with Web data formats run into this in a weaker form, including the need to balance competing and partial information. We can do better than categorised “buddylists” when describing people, their inter-connections and relationships. And in many ways Facebook is doing just great here. Aside from the Pirates-vs-Ninjas noise, many extension applications on Facebook allow arbitrary events from elsewhere in the Web to bubble up through their service and be seen (or filtered) by others who are linked to me in their database. For example:

Facebook is good at reporting events, generally. Especially those sourced outside the system. Where it isn’t so great is when reporting internal-events, eg. someone telling it about a relationship. Event descriptions are nice things to syndicate btw since they never go out of date. Syndicating descriptions of the changeable properties of the world, on the other hand, is more slippery since you need to have all other relevant facts to be able to say how the world is right now (or implicitly, how it used to be, before). “Dan has painted his car red” versus “Dan’s car is now red”. “Dan has bookmarked the Jabber user profile spec” versus “Dan now has 1621 bookmarks”. “Dan has added Charles to his Facebook profile” versus “Dan is now friends with Charles”.

We need better UI that reflects what’s really going on. There will be users who choose to live much of their lives in public view, spread across sites, sharing enough information for these accounts to be linked. Hopefully they’ll be as privacy-smart and selective as Pew suggests. Personas and ‘characters’ can be spread across sites without either site necessarily revealing a real-world identity; secrets are keepable, at least in theory. But we will see people’s behaviour and claims from one site leak into another, and with approval. I don’t think this will be just through some giant “social graph” of strictly enumerated relationships, but through a haze of vaguer data.

What we’re most missing is a style of end-user UI here that educates users about this world that spans websites, couching things in terms of claims hosted in sites, rather than in absolutist terms. I suppose I probably don’t have 210 “friends” (whatever that means) in real life, although I know a lot of great people and am happy to be linked to them online. But I have 210 entries in a Facebook-hosted database. My email whitelist file has 8785 email addresses in it currently; email accounts that I’m prepared to assume aren’t sending me spam. I’m sure I can’t have 8785 friends. My Google Mail (and hence GTalk Jabber) account claims 682 contacts, and has some mysterious relationship to my Orkut account where I have 200+ (more randomly selected) friends. And now the OpenID roster on my blog gives another list (as of today, 19 OpenIDs that made it past the WordPress spam filter). Modern social websites shouldn’t try to tell me how many friends I have; that’s just silly. And they shouldn’t assume their database knows it all. What they can do is try to tell me things that are interesting to me, with some emphasis on things that touch my immediate world and the extended world of those I’m variously connected to.

So what am I getting at here? I guess it’s just that we need these big social sites to move away from making teen-talk claims about how the world is – “Sally (now) loves John” – and instead become reflectors for the things people are saying, “Sally announces that she’s in love with John”; “John says that he used to work for Microsoft” versus “John worked for Microsoft 2004-2006″; “Stanford University says Sally was awarded a PhD in 2008″. Today’s young internet users are growing up fast, and the Web around them needs also to mature.

One of the most puzzling criticisms you’ll often hear about the Semantic Web initiative is that is requires a single universal truth, a monolithic ontology to model all of human knowledge. Those of us in the SW community know that this isn’t so; we’ve been saying for a long time that our (meta)data architecture is designed to allow people to publish claims “in which
statements can draw upon multiple vocabularies that are managed in a decentralised fashion by various communities of expertise.”
As the SemWeb technology stack now has a much better approach to representing data provenance (SPARQL named graphs replacing RDF’99 statement reification) I believe we should now be putting more emphasis on a related theme: Semantic Web data can represent disputes, competing claims, and contradictions. And we can query it in an SQL-like language (SPARQL) that allows us to ask questions not just of some all-knowing database, but about what different databases are telling us.

The closed world approach to data gives us a lot, don’t get me wrong. I’m not the only one with a love-hate relationship with SQL. There are many optimisations we can do in a traditional SQL or XML Schema environment which become hard in an RDF context. In particular, going “open world” makes for a harder job when hosting and managing data rather than merely aggregating and integrating it. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a modern Web data environment for aggregating claims of the “Stanford University says Sally was awarded a PhD in 1995″ form, SPARQL has a lot to offer.

When we’re querying a single, all-knowing, all-trusted database, SQL will do the job (eg. see Facebook’s FQL for example). When we need to take a bit more care with “who said what” and “according to whom?” aspects, coupled with schema extensibility and frequently missing data, SQL starts to hurt. If we’re aggregating (and building UI for) ‘social web’ claims about the world rather than simple buddylists (which XMPP/Jabber gives us out of the box), I suspect aggregators will get burned unless they take care to keep careful track of who said what, whether using SPARQL or some home-grown database system in the same spirit. And I think they’ll find that doing so will be peculiarly rewarding, giving us a foundation for applications that do substantially more than merely listing your buddies…