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.