The Facebook Timeline is the nearest thing I’ve seen to a digital identity (and it’s creepy as hell)

September 23, 2011 | 48 comments

As an application developer, I have advance access to the Facebook Timeline that Mark Zuckerberg announced yesterday. Here it is:

Facebook timeline: main

At first glance, it’s a rather beautiful replacement for the social media profiles we’ve been using since forever. Rather than simply listing your latest content, the timeline allows any visitor to browse your life, literally from birth to the present day. (If you scroll down to the bottom, Facebook prompts you to add a baby photo. Aww.)

This definitely changes the paradigm for social media profiles. As Channel 4 News’s Benjamin Cohen says:

It’s interesting from a personal perspective to look back at the past five years but there’s so much that I wouldn’t want someone else to be reading. It seems like too much information about me for people to be able to discover. While it’s been possible for people to access my photographs from years ago, in a sense they were out of context. Now you can see context because of the posts I made myself and those made by my friends on my wall.

Facebook allows you to connect with an increasing number of sites and applications using your Facebook identity. You can write documents, share what you’re reading, play games, and so on – and for most people, this has been a welcome feature. Everything is controlled from one place, with one username and password, and it’s easier than OpenID. Great!

Facebook timeline: 2006Except now, when someone clicks through from anywhere on the web that uses Facebook Connect to see your profile, they’ll really see you: your life in context. It’s a contextual identity; something you won’t get from a real name, a passport, an ID card, or even a DNA profile. Whereas previously profiles were a collection of hand-picked pieces of information coupled with some things you’d shared recently, now you’ll see wedding photos, pictures of drunken nights on the town four years ago, and perhaps a status update you made when you were hurt and upset after something you’ve long forgotten that happened in 2006 – mixed up with more professional status updates and links, of course.

On one level, it’s brilliant. On another, it’s undeniably, pervasively creepy, to a level we’ve hitherto been unprepared for in human society. These things are designed to be forgotten, but with the Facebook Timeline, much of your life is all but indelible, published front and center until you go through each item individually and hide or delete it.

Nobody’s forced to use Facebook, of course, although for many it’s pretty much a mandatory part of the social experience. What worries me is the trend of radical transparency and social context throughout the web software industry, where it’s expected that everyone will share their lives unless they’ve got something to hide. On the surface, for white males like me living in California, there’s a lot to be said for this on an individual level; don’t lie, be up-front, wear your intentions and motivations on your sleeve. But ultimately the decision about what to share has to be the individual’s – if you don’t feel like sharing something, don’t. Radically transparent interfaces are designed in a way that leads to a kind of peer pressure for disclosure: everyone else is sharing information about A, B and C, so why are you being so evasive?

Furthermore, there’s something particularly jarring about squeezing emotional life events into a social database. Facebook has become a social operating system. Where “social” means “sharing pages, files and resources through electronic means,” that’s great: a much-needed step forward. Where it refers to relationships between human beings, it’s not required, and the idea of placing these things into neat, centrally-defined categories is distasteful.

Facebook Timeline: lost a loved one?

The case for allowing users to control not just their digital identities, but the platform that defines and stores their digital identities, is stronger than ever.

Update: I was quoted about the Facebook Timeline in the New York Times.

Building the user-centered web

July 1, 2009 | 9 comments

The following post contains my notes for a talk I gave at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University on June 25, 2009.

What is a social network?

I would like to reclaim some language:

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.

The audience of this talk is a social network; so are your friends, colleagues, interest groups and so on. Social networking tools facilitate social networks. The universe of social tools certainly includes web applications with social functionality, but it also includes structured face to face interactions, telephone, post, SMS, email. In other words, the web is just one possible tool for this purpose – albeit a very effective one.

If you build it, they will come

You can’t install a social networking tool and instantly expect usage: Field of Dreams is not a good model for community development. The web is littered with ghost sites created using Ning, Elgg and more that have been established in the hope that a user-base will magically appear; however, if your main selling point is the social network itself, nobody’s going to join until that network of people exists and is actively using it. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

Therefore, you either need to have an existing network of people to facilitate interactions between (for example, when Facebook launched at Harvard) or compelling functionality that is useful without a network of existing users (for example, Delicious).

If we’re creating a tool that’s useful for the first user who signs up, without a pre-existing social network, then what we’re really talking is a software application that uses the web as an interface, and happens to have social functionality as one of its features.

The web as applications

When the web was conceived, it consisted of documents and pages linked with hypertext: linked words and phrases that, when clicked, would load another, relevant document. Each page had its own Uniform Resource Locator, which allowed you to return to that specific page at any time. Each page could be a destination in itself, and although the sites (collections of pages) could be linked together through hypertext, each one had no need to know about your activities elsewhere on the web. Why would they? Documents don’t have memory; their role is simply to impart information.

Step forward to today, and the web is not entirely made of pages: applications now represent a large amount of the web. (Princeton WordNet defines an application as “a program that gives a computer instructions that provide the user with tools to accomplish a task”; Google Docs, Remember The Milk, Flickr, Delicious etc are all applications by this definition.)

The benefits are tangible: you can access an application’s functionality from any web-compatible device, anywhere in the world. You’re no longer bound to the software you happen to have installed on a particular machine, and you no longer need to worry about whether you’ve remembered to save a particular file onto a particular drive. Because of historic resource limitations, web applications tend to be easier to use, and entirely bypass the need for IT departments, which have unfortunately earned a reputation for being obstacles to productivity in many organizations.

This change of web usage has been reflected in the ongoing development of HTML, the markup language that all web interfaces are written in. The first four versions were largely orientated towards documents; however, HTML 5, currently in development, is the first version that explicitly contains functionality to support web applications. That includes offline storage and usage, sessions, and more advanced interface features. However, aspects of the document-orientated model remain.

Silos of information

Each application is its own atomic destination with its own URL, and is by default only aware of data created within it. That means we need to register for each application we want to use, fragmenting our accounts over potentially hundreds of products and company data centers, and that the documents, files and data we create within them can’t easily be shared with other applications. On my desktop, I can write a document in Word and open it in OpenOffice, or take a Paint doodle and load it in Photoshop, but there’s no easy, generic way to take my bookmarks from Delicious into another bookmarking tool, or to take my Google Docs and open them in Acrobat.com.

Currently, each web application is like a silo: they exist on their own, and if they interoperate at all, it’s through specific links between applications that have to be individually developed. Certainly, data created in an application stays in that application; sometimes you can check your GMail address book for contacts in order to find existing friends on a service you’ve just signed up to, for example, but it’s rare that you can actually export data fully into another product. As many of these services are free, a significant portion of their business models revolve around being able to control user-contributed data, keep users coming back, and sell user-generated activity data for marketing purposes. (One has to question whether the market for personal details will continue to be profitable, or whether, like the web advertising market before it, it will saturate and crash.)

In a social networking tool, the site model means that your contacts, the information you share and any detailed access permissions all relate solely to the application they were created in. However, collaborative spaces in social web applications are like documents: they’re one of the currencies of the social web. Just as I need to be able to use my wordprocessor of choice to edit a document, I need to be able to use my social tool of choice to collaborate with others.

Turning the model upside down

Right now, we have to register with each application we want to use. What if we required each application we used to register with us, in digital identities under our own control?

What if, using these identities, anyone could connect to anyone else, and anyone could store their data anywhere as long as the storage provider followed the same broad standards?

The web itself would become a social networking tool.

This is far more flexible, and future-proof:

  • Your ability to collaborate is not subject to a single company’s success: social functionality and application infrastructure are inherent in the web itself
  • The possibilities for collaboration are not subject to technology beyond common open standards, which can evolve
  • A wider range of application possibilities is ensured, because web applications gain the ability to interoperate in a general way
  • Privacy and user control are established by allowing a person to determine which application has access to which data

By establishing a general standard for social application interactions, the services and technologies used to make connections become less relevant; the Internet is people, one big social network, and users no longer have to worry about how they connect. We can all get on with communicating and collaborating rather than worrying about where we connect.

User-centered identities

Under this model, providing the software that hosts your digital identity becomes big business. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the main service providers, and they’re already fiercely competing to be your identity on the web:

  • Facebook wants your central identity to be a Facebook account (and arguably have made the user-centric model for the web part of their strategy for a very long time)
  • Google wants it to be a Google account
  • Twitter wants it to be a Twitter account
  • Microsoft wants it to be a Live ID
  • OpenID want it to be any OpenID-capable URL

Because I use all of these services, the result is a very complicated identity space. These are a subset of my profiles:

For identities to be usable as a generic standard, you should be able to use any of these – or all of them. Nobody has just one facet (or persona) comprising their identity; everyone has a collection, representing the different parts of their lives. Ben Werdmuller the web strategist for hire doesn’t need to be connected to Ben Werdmuller the Doctor Who fan, who in turn doesn’t need to be connected to the Oxford resident. They can be connected if I choose to make them, but separating parts of your life is part of a user’s control over their identity.

However, that needs to be context-specific, not application-specific. Currently, for example, my Facebook account tends to be personal, while my Twitter tends to be professional. That doesn’t make sense: in order to write personally on Twitter, I either have to accept the collision of those two parts of my life, or I need to create an entirely separate, fragmented Twitter account. Wouldn’t it be better to be able to control who sees which interactions, and choose tools based on the functionality they add to a conversation? Otherwise you have the situation I present above: one identity per communication context per application. That will quickly become unmanageable, and the web will be littered with dead profiles.

Conversely, I believe the future of the web is in atomic digital identities based on permissive, open standards, linked together as an application framework.

How do we make this work?

Problem to solve: user control

First and foremost, the framework for decentralization must be established – in other words, the actual social mesh standards that will make it possible.

Technical mechanisms need to be established for controlling access to a resource or collaborative space, which should be easy to use without removing any of the flexibility of the platform, and should allow for the maintenance of multiple personas.

Another part of access control is allowing a resource to expire gracefully. It’s important to know when to lose data: sometimes documents, resources, spaces, personas or entire identities may be transient and only required for a certain length of time. There’s no need for everything on the web to exist indefinitely; currently, rigorous indexes like Google ensure that much of it does.

Finally, the tools and standards we create must be permissive of goals, content and structure that we might not have thought of. There certainly doesn’t need to be an overarching structure or taxonomy between individual identity spaces, and constraining the technology to a rigid set of activities and data types would limit the scope of the platform.

Problem to solve: ownership

Existing web applications tend to have a single-ownership model for resources. However, Silona Bonewald rightly pointed out to me that this isn’t always the case, and in a free-flowing social mesh, multiple ownership needs to be represented. For example, all collaborators on a resource should have ownership access, unless they explicitly choose to rescind that right.

In a company environment, a user’s employer may have shared ownership (or full ownership, with author access available to the employee). The same may be true with students in a university environment. On sites like Facebook, the service owner may in reality have some ownership rights over the content.

How can we maintain this granularity, but also retain user control?

Problem to solve: privacy & transparency

There is a very public attitude of "when you put something online, it’s published" in some parts of the software development community, which is a useful concept that gives developers carte blanche to share data freely. In a fully user-controlled environment, this public-or-completely-private binary situation can no longer be the case; a resource may have been published to a few select people. Ignoring this trait disallows the platform’s use in important environments like enterprises or public bodies.

When you sign up to a service, you agree to that service’s terms and conditions and privacy policy. However, your data may be farmed out to a collection of other, secondary services via APIs, without your knowledge or consent.

An important aspect of user control is knowing how your data is used and where it is transmitted by the applications you use, so I propose a simple, human-identifiable and machine-readable mark that:

  1. Applies permissions to how my data can be used by applications (like Creative Commons does for shared content)
  2. Tells you in a visual way what happens to your data when you visit a site
  3. Incorporates multi-ownership

It may be that these issues are addressed within the terms and conditions of a service. However, it’s very unlikely that a user will actually read the full contract. Therefore, a simple graphic icon with a link to a plain-English description, with an underlying microformat for machine-readable use, would be a welcome addition to the user experience. As the web becomes more mesh-like and data moves around more freely, conveying what happens to data owned by less-technical end users will become more and more important.

Problem to solve: platform

Finally, while it’s great having a conversation about this, these ideas aren’t useful to anyone unless someone goes ahead and builds it.

There are some existing projects and thinkers who are on these tracks:

  • The Diso Project is turning the WordPress open source blogging tool into a decentralized digital identity through an array of open standards, and the project’s Chris Messina has a lot of wise things to say about its development.
  • Laconi.ca is a decentralized microblogging platform, whose Open Microblogging standard may be adaptable into a more widely-scoped technology.
  • The Open Stack is a set of developing technologies that address some of the issues.
  • Marc Canter’s Open Mesh treatise goes into detail on many of the issues.

All of these are important contributions that strongly address some of the issues; however, we’re still a long way away from the vision of an open, social web.

Conclusion

I believe strongly, for the reasons stated above, that a decentralized, user-centered model for the web is the best way to advance it as an application platform.

Needless to say, I have my own ideas about how to actually build the platform, based on my Making the most of the web principles. However, it has to be a collaborative process: there’s no sense in building an open collaborative standard by yourself. My main concern is that the platform is created and works in an open, lightweight, flexible, easy-to-develop-for way while remaining secure and yielding control to the main user. The result will be an entirely new kind of platform, and presents a unique opportunity for anyone who wants to jump on board.

Images:

  • WOW! My 1000 Friends by Cavin was released under a CC Attribution Generic 2.0 License
  • Lonely Tree by Jule Berlin was released under a CC Attribution Generic 2.0 License
  • Logo 2.0 part II by Stabilo Boss was released under a CC Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
  • Upside Down by Johnny Jet was released under a CC Attribution Generic 2.0 License
  • Pro Control 24 by Aud1073cH was released under a CC Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 License

Social networking: beyond the silo

June 8, 2009 | 1 comment

  1. The rise of social networking
  2. Monetization vs. collaboration
  3. The open web
  4. Fluid collaboration

The rise of social networking

Social forces have been the driving force behind application innovation on the web. Whereas previously we might have looked to advances in computer science for new directions, now some of the most dramatically impactful applications are lightweight, simple, and technologically unimpressive. The best new web applications have centered around collaboration, sharing and discovery with other people.

Correspondingly, enterprises have been relatively quick to pick up on this trend, and software vendors have been quick to grab the market. In an Intranet Journal article earlier this year, Kara Pernice, managing director at the Nielsen Normal Group, had this to say about the rise of social technology on the intranet:

"In the 9 years [the Intranet Design Annual, which highlights the ten best-designed intranets of the year] has been coming out (since 2001), I’ve never seen a change quite as great as this one."

On the Internet at large, social network use is growing at ten times the rate of other activities and now accounts for 10% of all online time, according to Nielsen Online in this March 2009 report (PDF), and is now more popular than email. Jerimiah Owyang has a list of more relevant statistics over on this digest blog post. Executive summary: social networks are big, transformative in terms of how we communicate and share information, and growing at an enormous rate.

Monetization vs. collaboration

Wikipedia defines a “walled garden”, in software terms, as being:

[..] A closed set or exclusive set of information services provided for users (a method of creating a monopoly or securing an information system).

In other words, a walled garden is a system where the data can not easily be imported or exported. These are often also called data silos, after the solid buildings used for secure storage.

Facebook, the #1 social networking site in most western countries, has over 200 million users, including over 30 million who update their profiles at least once a day. The network is free to use, yet their revenue for 2008 has been estimated at around $265 million, despite a decidedly “in progress” revenue strategy.

This has traditionally required a walled garden strategy: the content that users put into Facebook has not been easily removed for export or viewing in other interfaces, in order to preserve revenue from advertising (and – although this is a hunch – revenue from statistical analysis of users’ data). It’s only been in the light of some extremely negative publicity (for example this February 2008 New York Times article) that they have begun to relax this policy and embrace the open direction that much of the rest of the web is heading in.

Speaking personally, I get more enquiries from people wanting to build something “Facebook-like” than anything else, presumably because of its phenomenal popularity. However, this kind of walled garden approach is not conducive to true collaboration; generally people who ask for this are lacking a full understanding of the processes involved in social networking.

According to Nielsen, there are almost 1.6 billion people online. While Facebook’s 200 million sounds like a lot, it’s actually a drop in the digital ocean – so what happens if I want to share a Facebook conversation with someone who hasn’t signed up? The only way is currently to email them a link and force them to register for the service. Facebook would love me to do this, of course, because they get more eyeballs to view their ads and more people to fill in profiles. But what’s the point of even being on the web if you can’t make use of the decentralized communication features that form its backbone?

If I want to collaborate effectively online centering around a resource (which could be a file, a discussion or a pointer to something external), I need to be able to:

  • Share that resource with the people who need to see it
  • Grant access for them to edit it if required
  • Notify them that it’s been shared with them
  • Restrict access from everyone else

Furthermore, I need to do this with the lowest possible barrier to entry. My aim is to collaborate, not to get people to use a particular piece of software. By restricting this process, the Facebook model hinders collaboration.

The open web

The web was designed to be an open system, and adheres to principles (notably “every object addressable”, ensuring that every resource on the web has a unique reference address) set out by Doug Engelbart for open hypertext systems generally. Because web pages are interoperable, and all use the same basic standards, any page on the web is allowed to link to any other page on the web, no matter who wrote it or where it is hosted. In many ways that’s the key to why the platform is successful: despite being fragmented across millions of computers throughout the world, it navigates like a cohesive whole and can be viewed using a single piece of browsing software. (The downside to this is that the whole platform lives or dies depending on the capabilities of the browser you use: the sad fact is that Internet Explorer users, who often don’t have a choice because of policy decisions in their working environment, are at a disadvantage.)

While the original web was content-based, the social web is collaborative and centered around live data. However, because web applications are each developed separately using different sets of back-end infrastructure, their data does not adhere to the principle of interoperability – their user interfaces all use the same basic standards and can be viewed in a browser, but the underlying applications and data models tend to not work with each other. When social networks emerged, for example, there was no way to get Livejournal and Friendster, two of the pioneers in the space, to speak the same language; you still can’t add someone as a friend on one social network from another. More recently, this has become apparent in the walled garden approaches of Facebook and others.

Not only does this situation create a bottleneck for application design, and run contrary to the underlying principles that made the web a success, but it’s also a bottleneck to better collaboration. As Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor, put it recently in this essential TED talk, data needs to be linked and interoperable in the same way pages are now. Beyond that, because walled garden services are making money out of the private information we’re loading onto them, there’s a human issue regarding the overall control of that data. Marc Canter, Joseph Smarr and others codified this into a Bill of Rights for users of the social web back in 2007. Though the issue has moved on since then, the underlying principles set out there are essential for open, collaborative, social tools on the web.

While the World Wide Web Consortium works on academically-developed standards for linked data in the form of the semantic web, developers have been getting their game on trying to solve the problems of interoperability between their applications and user control over their data. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) – published sets of instructions for programmatically querying and extending web applications – have become popular, but in a very walled garden kind of way. Arguably the most successful has been Twitter’s API, which has led to a number of high profile third-party applications like TweetDeck and Tweetie that collectively eclipse Twitter’s own website interface in volume of usage. But these APIs are their own form of walled garden: an application written for Twitter will only work with Twitter, for example. The APIs are not generalized between applications, and as such are not truly open; in many ways they’re a way for services to get more functionality and reach for free.

One of the first attempts to publicize the benefits of truly open data was Marc Canter’s Data Sharing Summit, which I wrote about at the time for ZDNet. Chris Saad’s DataPortability.org attempted (largely successfully) to brand it, and latterly the Open Web Foundation has attracted some of the web’s leading lights in order to create a single organization to handle the creation of a set of open web application standards. Many of these comprise the Open Stack, which I’ve written about before; more generally, Chris Messina has written a very thoughtful overview on the topic.

Fluid collaboration

It used to be that to use the web, you would need to sit down at your computer and log on. Those days are over; the web is becoming more and more ubiquitous, thanks to devices like the iPhone. It’s also being integrated into software that wasn’t previously connected – it’s as easy, for example, to paste the URL of an image into the ‘Insert Image’ dialog box in most word processors as it is to pick an image from your own hard disk. The open, generalized API standards being created by groups like the Open Web Foundation bring us closer to enjoying that level of integration with collaborative social technologies.

The Internet is people, not technology: tools on the web (or anywhere else) facilitate social networks, but are not the network themselves. Currently they consist of destination sites, like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter – places that you explicitly have to visit in order to collaborate or share. This is the currently-fashionable model, but it’s a necessarily limited view of how collaboration can take place: all of these sites thrive on the walled garden model and are designed around keeping participation within their walls.

Not everything on the Internet works this way. Email, and increasingly Instant Messaging, are two technologies that generally do not: messages on email, Jabber and to a much lesser extent Skype are peer-to-peer and do not go through a central service:

  1. You select the people you wish to collaborate (in this case, email or chat) with. Nobody but the listed recipients will be able to see the content you share with them, and it doesn’t matter if they’re using the same service as you; you don’t have to invite them to join email in the same way you have to invite people to join Facebook.
  2. You write your content.
  3. You send it.
  4. They (hopefully) send content back.
  5. The collaborative exchange lasts only as long as it’s useful, and then disappears (but is archived for reference).

Recently, Google announced Wave, a decentralized pairing of protocol and open source web application that took email and IM as its inspirations to redefine how collaborative social technologies could work. Questions have been raised about how a decentralized tool like this can work with corporate data policies present in most large enterprises and public sector organizations, but in some ways they miss the point: Google Wave is best thought of as a proof of concept for how decentralized, transient communities can work in a standard way on the web. In short, websites are a kind of walled garden in themselves: what we will return to is the idea of the web as an open patchwork of people, data and information that links together to form a whole, much stronger than the sum of its parts.

Predicting the future of social networking on the web is hard. However, I believe that as general open social technologies develop and become more commonplace, the “social networking site” will shrink in importance – instead, social network facilitators will become more and more ingrained in all the software you use. This will dramatically increase the types of content and communication that can be used, and present opportunities for much wider, more fluid and – most importantly – more productive collaboration as a whole.

Social technology reinforces existing networks

February 17, 2009 | 1 comment

Why do we create and maintain social networks? Most people can immediately think of a few natural reasons — we get something from the interaction, or the person is nearby and is close to us in proximity, age or gender. But researching such theories on a large scale has never before been possible — until digital social networks came along.

Tracking the digital traces of social networks. The study found that technology reinforces existing social networks far more than it creates new ones – something that backs my Internet is People argument.

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