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.

Embedding queries in RDF – FOAF Group example

Is this crazy or useful? Am not sure yet.

This example uses FOAF vocabulary for groups and openid. So the basic structure here is that Agents (including persons) can have an :openid and can be a :member of a :Group.

From an openid-augmented WordPress, we get a list of all the openids my blog knows about. From an openid-augmented MediaWiki, we get a list of all the openids that contribute to the FOAF project wiki. I dumped each into a basic RDF file (not currently an automated process). But the point here is to explore enumerated groups using queries.

<rdf:RDF xmlns:rdf=”http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#” xmlns=”http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/”>
<Group rdf:about=’#both’>
<!– enumerated membership –>
<member><Agent><openid rdf:resource=’http://danbri.org/’/></Agent></member>
<member><Agent><openid rdf:resource=’http://tommorris.org/’/></Agent></member>
<member><Agent><openid rdf:resource=’http://kidehen.idehen.net/dataspace/person/kidehen’/></Agent></member>
<member><Agent><openid rdf:resource=’http://www.wasab.dk/morten/’/></Agent></member>
<member><Agent><openid rdf:resource=’http://kronkltd.net/’/></Agent></member>
<member><Agent><openid rdf:resource=’http://www.kanzaki.com/’/></Agent></member>

<!– rule-based membership –>

PREFIX : <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/>
<http://danbri.org/yasns/danbri/both.rdf#thegroup> a :Group; :member [ a :Agent; :openid ?id ]
GRAPH <http://wiki.foaf-project.org/_users.rdf> { [ a :Group; :member [ a :Agent; :openid ?id ]. ] }
GRAPH <http://danbri.org/yasns/danbri/_group.rdf> { [ a :Group; :member [ a :Agent; :openid ?id ]. ] }

This RDF description does it both ways. It enumerates (for simple clients) a list of members of a group whose members are those individuals that are both commentators on my blog, and contributors to the FOAF wiki. At least, to the extent they’re detectable via common use of OpenID URIs. But the RDF group description also embeds a SPARQL query, the kind which generates RDF rather than an SQL-like resultset. The RDF essentially regenerates the enumerated list, assuming the query is run against an RDF dataset with the data graphs appropriately populated.

Now I sorta like this, and I sorta don’t. It may be incredibly powerful, or it may be a bit to clever for its own good.

Certainly there’s scope overlap with the W3C RIF rules work, and with the capabilities of OWL. FOAF has long contained an experimental method for using OWL to do something similar, but it hasn’t found traction. The motivation I have here for trying SPARQL here is that it has built-in machinery for talking about the provenance of data; so I could write a group description this way that says “members are anyone listed as a colleague in http://myworkplace.example.com/stafflist.rdf”. Or I could mix in arbitrary descriptive vocabularies; family tree stuff, XFN, language abilities (speaks-reads-writes) etc.

Where I think this could fall down is in the complexity of the workflow. The queries need executing against some SPARQL installation with a configured dataset, and the query lists URIs of data graphs. But I doubt database admins will want to randomly load any/every RDF file mentioned in these shared queries. Perhaps something like SparqlPress, attached to one’s weblog, and social filters to load only files in queries eg. from friends? Also, authoring these kinds of query isn’t something non-geek users are going to do often, and the sorts of queries that will work will depend of course on the data actually available. Sure I could write a query based on matching the openids of former colleagues, but the group will be empty unless the data listing people as former colleagues is actually out there and in the Web, and written in the terms anticipated by the query.

On the other hand, this mechanism does appeal, and could go way beyond FOAF group definitions. We could see a model where people post data in the Web but also post queries, eg. revisiting the old work Libby and I explored around RSS query. On the other other hand, who wants to make their Web queries public? All that said, the same goes for the data being queried. And since this technique embeds queries inside ordinary RDF data, however we deal with the data visibility issue for RDF/FOAF should also work for the query stuff. Perhaps. Can’t blame me for trying…
I realise this isn’t the clearest of explanations. Let’s try again:

RDF is normally for publishing collections of simple claims about the world. This is an experiment in embedding data-generating-queries amongst these claims, where the query is configured to output more RDF claims (aka statements, triples etc), but only when executed against some appropriate body of RDF data. Since the query is written in SPARQL, it allows the data-generation rules to mention interesting things, such as properties of the source of the data being queried.

This particular experiment is couched in terms of FOAF’s “Group” construct, but the technique is entirely general. The example above defines a group of agents called the “both” group, by saying that an Agent is in that group if it its OpenID URI is listed in each of two RDF documents specified, ie. both a commentator on my blog, and a contributor to the FOAF Wiki. Other examples could be “(fe)male employees” or “family members sharing a blood type” or in fact, any descriptive pattern that can match against the data to hand and be expressed in SPARQL.