Hypothetical items I’d buy for Christmas if I could

December 24, 2008 | 1 comment

If these products existed, they’d make it onto my Christmas list for me and my loved ones:

The open ebook reader

  • Electronic paper screen
  • A DRM-free format (in a perfect world) or at the very least a format that allows borrowing (from libraries and friends), lending and passing on of ownership, like a real book
  • Not necessarily much memory (2Gb would easily do) but lots of battery life
  • RSS subscriptions
  • The ability to subscribe to the paper versions of magazines like the New Yorker and Wired (but get them electronically rather than on paper)
  • An optional waterproof case to cater for the people in my life who like reading books in the bath with candles lit and a glass of wine
  • Optionally, a screen reader

Bespoke television

  • Streaming TV through the Internet, with an optional set-top box for a standard TV
  • Subscribe to any TV channel anywhere, both free and pay, without having to commit to a package of multiple channels (although you might have to pay a TV license to get British channels, for example)
  • Digital Video Recorder capabilities
  • Subtitles (new media technologies shouldn’t be allowed to step backwards on support for the hearing impaired)
  • Movies and TV shows on demand (paid)
  • Pushing the boat out: the ability to pay more to excuse yourself from watching commercials

All-in-one health kit

  • Blood pressure and unobtrusive heart rate monitors
  • Pedometer
  • USB connectors for all of the above
  • Software that reads from the above and also prompts you to enter your age, weight, daily food, any additional exercise and health issues
  • Produces fitness plan to meet goals, whether they’re improved cardiovascular health, weight loss, etc

In the meantime, happy holidays to all of you, and best wishes for an excellent new year.

The Open Stack is the future of the Web

December 22, 2008 | 2 comments

The Open Stack is a term coined by Joseph Smarr to represent the core set of open technologies that web application developers are converging on:

The Open StackI spent Friday evening at the Digg offices in San Francisco for the first ever Open Stack meetup. Organised by David Recordon (who continues to be a superhero in this space) and Digg’s own Joe Stump, the main thrust of the evening was a set of presentations and demos from the likes of Smarr, OpenSocial’s Kevin Marks and DiSo’s Chris Messina (whose ActivityStreams work could lead to interesting places, and mirrors some of the stuff we’ve been doing behind the scenes with OpenDD). The room was a concentrated hotbed of some of the most interesting people in web technology; now that more and more people are focusing on the same core set of standards, the real innovation can begin.

Joseph Smarr was arguably the star of the show (as Marc puts it, he “just kicked ass”) – PortableContacts is exactly what an open, standard API should be. Using OAuth or HTTP basic authentication, users can move their contact lists from one application to another. It’s a simple concept, and the underlying technology is correspondingly lightweight. It’s nonetheless impressive to see Google export natively to Plaxo. (It also makes me wonder if OpenDD might be better served as an API standard than a format, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere.)

It’s going to be interesting watching the web develop over the next year. Economic conditions mean there are a lot of sole operators, and a lot of people clinging to very large companies for dear life. The model that the Open Stack makes possible – lots of very tiny pieces of functionality that can be wrapped into different combinations for different applications – allows people to put together interesting web tools with very little investment. At the same time, it allows some of the larger providers (eg Google) to stick their fingers into innovative new ideas without any direct financial outlay; investment through bartering, in a sense.

Update: The Yahoo! Developer Network has added their overview of the evening.

Free speech radio

December 15, 2008 | Leave a comment

I just finished watching Pirate Radio USA, a great little independent documentary about pirate radio and free speech over the airwaves. It makes one major, fundamental point: although freedom of expression is guaranteed by the US constitution (and by similar laws in many countries worldwide), because the medium of that expression has changed over time, there are often tight controls on how that medium is used. The film concerned itself with radio broadcasting; low-range, local radio stations can play vital roles in communities, but larger broadcasters have succeeded (using disinformation about things like the potential for signal interference) in making them largely illegal. The same media companies are visibly attempting similar things with the Internet as a medium, and the principle is the same: free speech is protected, and that involves not just the right to think and talk, but also to disseminate.

Although I don’t have much time for the commercial, national stations like BBC Radio One, in general I like radio a lot. Blogs, videos and podcasts are all well and good, but there’s definitely a place for live, local information; although I spent a lot of my late teens and early twenties reading websites and newsgroups, the local Oxford and Edinburgh stations were my soundtrack. There’s also a potentially much larger audience with radio: a cheap radio can cost $5, whereas a laptop and Internet connection are still not within everybody’s reach. I’ve spent some time this evening thinking about networked solutions for free speech radio, but they involve peer to peer networks, special software and broadband connections. A transmitter and an AM receiver are still much more realistic in many places.

I recommend Pirate Radio USA, by the way. I saw it on public access TV, but you can buy a DRM-free video at bside.com. (I couldn’t find anywhere that would stream it online legally; if you can, please leave a link in the comments.)

The Internet is People

December 4, 2008 | 3 comments

The following post is a fleshed-out version of my notes for my talk at the Elgg International Conference on Monday, December 1st, wherein I discussed my attitude to social networks and how they should be built.

My slides are available in Powerpoint or OpenDocument Presentation format.

Let’s take this to first principles. Stating the obvious, what is a social network? Is it a collection of profiles, friends lists and so on, or is it something more fundamental? What does the term even mean?

Social is an adjective that means relating to human society and its members.

A network is an interconnected system of things or people.

Therefore, I’d suggest that we can define a social network as just being an interconnected system of people.

When defined like this, everyone has a social network, regardless of Internet or technology use, and they’re as old as human society. Your friendships, colleagues, professional contacts, fellow students and book group members are all social networks. They’re not necessarily communities – a “community” tends to imply a common geography or set of interests, which isn’t always true to a social network. But while a social network is not always a community, a community is always a social network.

Clearly, social networks are made of people, who are joined through something in common – perhaps something as community-like as an interest or a shared geography, or something fuzzier, like a mutual friend, a chance encounter, etc. People are complicated; they have individual personalities, quirks and foibles, which make it hard to interact with them in a cookie-cutter way.

Because people are complicated, networks of people are exponentially more complicated. To get the most out of your social networks, you need to be able to embrace everyone’s individuality. Furthermore, they’re not discrete; they may overlap in all kinds of ways. My friends may also be my coworkers, or someone at work may also be a part of my knitting circle. (If I had a knitting circle. Cough.) They have all kinds of different contexts, which may impose requirements on how the members of the network interact with each other. Work colleagues generally need to communicate within an office space, or via methods imposed by management, for example. More formal networks have more restrictions. Personalities may also impose restrictions: some people are bad at talking on the phone, for example.

Of all the tools and methods social networks can talk to each other, the Web is just one. Face to face conversations, telephone calls, SMS messages, faxes, emails, letters and telegrams are all perfectly valid types of communication.

So in short, let’s reclaim a piece of language: a social network is an interconnected system of people, as I’ve suggested above. The websites that foster social networks are simply social networking tools. A social network doesn’t live on the Web, but a website can help its members communicate and share with each other.

With this in mind, what’s the best way to foster a social network using a Web tool?

Joshua Schachter, the creator of Delicious, has this to say:

“If you need scale in order to create value, it’s hard to get scale, because there’s little incentive for the first people to use the product. [...] The system should be useful for user number one.” 

In other words, people need to be able to visit your site and see something immediately useful, even when a network has not developed around it. Flickr, first and foremost, is a site for uploading photographs. Delicious is a flexible bookmarking utility. Facebook is the exception to this rule, because it’s a utlity that helps you keep in touch with your existing friends – but because it was initially limited to Harvard students, Mark Zuckerburg et al were able to carefully grow it from a handful of people. The Harvard community was an existing social network, and Zuckerburg simply gave them a tool.

To summarise: you cannot install a social networking tool and assume that a network will grow around it. You must either have another purpose, or an existing network of people to plug into it. Either way, it’s also going to take a lot of work: you need to lead by example, and participate heavily every day.

As each tool should focus on one particular network, or at least type of network, I’d argue that the exact feature set should be dictated by the needs of that network. Educational social networks might need some coursework delivery tools; a network for bakers might need a way to share bread recipes. The one common feature in any social network is people; even profiles may not be entirely necessary. (Look at Twitter.)

What they should do, however, is amplify the network effect. The idea of a social networking tool is to make that network communicate more efficiently, so anything that the tool does should make it easier for that network to talk to each other and share information. The tool itself shouldn’t attempt to create the network – although that being said, new network connections may arise through a purpose. Most of us have made new contacts on Flickr or Twitter, for example, because we enjoyed someone’s content.

The final lesson is that, once again, people are individuals, and social networks are complicated. Therefore, the featureset in any tool needs to embrace as much of the full range of personalities and ways of communicating as possible. Tagging was a great invention, because it didn’t try and dictate the terms with which people sorted their content. As Schachter said about Delicious in the above linked article:

“If I went in there and said, Hey, you’re using that tag wrong, people would just tell me [where to go].” 

In other words, he was smart enough to leave people to sort their bookmarks however best suited them. There will be inevitable variations in the tags different people use to describe the same resource, but because the network’s personalities are catered for, they’re more likely to continue to use the tool.

This attitude is what led us to develop Elgg, initially for the educational market: a user-centred social networking tool to support educational communities rather than the top-down, rigidly specified software that was common at the time. The features we built into it – extremely granular access controls, cross-site tagging, personalisation and customisation for site admins – drew a lot of attention, and it quickly became apparent that they would be useful in scenarios well beyond education. We spent the next four years developing Elgg into a flexible tool for facilitating social networks.

The latest version – rewritten from the ground up to be even more flexible, while learning from all the feedback and Elgg usage to date – addresses all the aspects of social networks I’ve discussed above, except for one: overlapping networks. That’s what the Open Data Definition is trying to solve – and something we’re coming very close to being able to support. Marc Canter is trying to solve something similar with his Open Mesh, and he’s not alone.

The Web has become a great tool for supporting networks of people, and with the kind of innovation we’ve seen over the last eight years, can only become better. The only remaining question is: what kind of network do you want to build?