Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

Digital Identity Roundtable

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Yesterday I attended a meeting called a mashup* event – private Digital Identity Roundtable, organised by the indefatiguable Tony Fish – whose book My Digital Footprint also came out yesterday.

The conversation was varied and under Chatham House rules so can’t talk about it in detail. What I can repeat here is my closing remark – a result of pervasive assumption that there should be identity provider(s) and my data doesn’t need to be mine:

I want to own and drive, manage, share my identity.
I want to do that on my own terms, using technology that enables me rather than provides for me.
I want to be my own ‘identity provider’ and I’d rather address challenges that this would pose than shoe-horn notions and practices of offline identity management onto the online networked world.

There you go, I said it. Here I try to work on it.

Brand as identity and branding as behaviour

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I have been thinking, again, about branding and its role in business strategy. I have been known to wear my attitude towards branding on my, er, chest.

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However, the word ‘brand’ is being used to describe something that matters to me and needs to be understood. That something is very different from what the term brand currently means. Rather than banish the word entirely, I’ll treat it as a sort of category error and work my way to an alternative meaning of brand.

A person can have various represenations, a photograph or a portrait, which give others an idea of what he or she looks like. It is an image, a projection of likeness. Everyone knows it is not the real person and that often such representations may look rather different or even mislead.

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Branding is the art of creating an image of a company. Like a photograph that is carefully staged and edited. As technology progresses, branding gets clever and innovative. Still, the best it can do is a ‘hologram’. Rich media, marketing campaigns, reputation management, PR, advertising and now online and social media ‘engagement’. A vast range of projections enabled by media and technology. And just like with holograms, the more realistic they look, the more shocking it is to discover you can’t talk to them or shake their hands, any ’social’ gestures go right through it. This is because it is a projected image, there is no person made of flesh and blood.

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Most branding is about image and its projections. When using the term branding, I prefer to think about it as identity and behaviour. Because identity of a company and its behaviour existed long before branding was invented as part of business. That kind of branding comes from the other side of the reality fence. It is driven by behaviour rather than projection.

John Dodds who writes interestingly on such matters has this to say:

It refers to nothing more and nothing less than reputation, reputation you earn by your behaviour or, more realistically, reputation which other people (customers or not) confer on you because of that. It’s not something you impose on others.

The reason for image branding was the nature of distribution of the brand projections. There were channels, mass media, who mediated what companies wanted to communicate. So identity became an image and behaviour and communication messages.

The web has created, unwittingly for most part, an alternative to building what in industry circles counts for a ‘brand’. It resurrected the ‘old ways’, warts and all, of creating reputation by behaviour. There is one major difference between the old times and the web times – before my identity was determined by others and my behaviour was often judged out of context or in a context that was hostile to the individual.

The brand as identity perspective has two major implications. One has to do with the relationship of company with its employees. The other with business strategy.

First is the Who – the balance (or lack of it) between the corporation as legal entity, its management and employees, its structure and culture. These pulls and pushes within the company will determine its identity and its behaviour. Explicit knowledge of this can help companies understand who they are and why.

Then it is the What – the actions, behaviours, based on the raison d’etre of the business. A common mistake is to talk of strategy when meaning tactics. Strategy is the question of what to do and whether to do it in the first place. Tactics is about how to get to where strategy points.

This is all very well but what is a humble communications or marketing person to do? They can’t start reviewing or changing the company’s strategy. But they can start thinking less about projections and messaging and more about identity and behaviours. A hint: One-way communication is messaging, two-way communication is behaviour.

To sum up, the bad news for the branding folks is that messages and projections are not what they used to be. The good news is that a company can define its identity and behave according to who they want to be. That sounds like a good trade-off to me.

The creepiness factor

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Yesterday at one of my client workshops I was explaining the benefits of Twitter – I use the term ’synchronicity maximised’ to describe the ad hoc organisation of encounters, connectivity and sharing that makes Twitter so useful and addictive. I mentioned an example of twittering my location – let’s say I am in New York having brunch with a friend and I let the ‘world’ know about it. One of the attendees remarked how creepy this seemed to her. And here we have the ‘creepiness factor’ – which usually refers to someone not necessarily violating our privacy legally but to the ability of others to gather our public details (as private data would be a privacy violation), piece together data and information about us that allow them to act in ways we don’t expect. It is the realisation that someone knows so much about us by deliberately gathering information and using to behave in a way that implies familiarity. It feel like a violation of autonomy and privacy, even though existence of either is a delusion in our mind.

There is a difference between me ‘broadcasting’ on Twitter that I am having brunch with a friend plus the exact location, and learning the hard way that someone is ’scraping’ or gleaning such information from places that I, probably very foolishly, consider private or even semi-private, such as Facebook. It comes down to me knowing what happens to my data. The creepiness comes from realising that someone is gathering and piecing together information about me for purposes that don’t directly involve me and/or are not in my interest. Twittering my location is not a problem if I am doing it with awareness of my network and audience.

Sometimes it seem that the vision of web of document turning into web of people has gone the other way around. It is turning the web of people into the web of information about those people without their ability to do much about it.

And of course, all this contributes to all the talk about privacy. And the view that the web is eroding it and that the younger generation don’t appreciate or value it or give it away and, and, and… I have a different view. I am a privacy freak myself and value my privacy highly although I have considerable online presence. That is because privacy is behaviour according to your own preferences – it’s a policy, not a system.

Below is my response to an overly legal approach to privacy on the project VRM mail list thread, where privacy was seen as a legal agreement and to be guaranteed by a contract. Here is what I said:

Yes, the whole legal thing is not addressing or even originating from the way people interact. Bemoaning the fact and trying to build systems, processes or tools that force people to ‘behave in their best interest’ or to ‘protect their privacy’ is not going to work and/or deal with the problem.

Privacy is a policy, not a system. ToS is a creature of systems, platforms and silos not of the individual/user/customer.

I, as an autonomous individual, am the best judge of my privacy requirements. When I talk to my friends, I know what to tell them and what not to share – and if I mess up, I suffer the consequences and learn not to gossip with those who betray confidences.

In a larger context, beyond my immediate social circles and when money or reputation or other value is at stake, in order to manage my privacy I need to understand the context and consequences of information I share or other have about me. But if my privacy is not up to me to manage, there can be no reasons or demand for such knowledge to be available or for me to find out easily. Hence, many people have no idea about how their data is used and abused. So that will is part of the challenge in which the web has helped enormously – it is now possible for a dedicated or persistent person to find out what’s going on most of time.

But there is little they can do to act on that knowledge – and I have said this elsewhere many times before – our privacy options are rather binary. Either you participate in transactions, exchanges, communities, etc and you give up some of your privacy or you don’t. However unacceptable I find the former, the latter is not the way to live either.

The best ‘privacy settings’ are in my head, but I need ways/tools that help me to ‘execute’ my privacy policy. And as it’s been pointed out these are not necessarily of the legal world. It helps not to assume it and start building tools that help individuals manage their data and help them to determine their privacy behaviour themselves.

On email, logins, idenfiers and identity

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David Cushman asked for my thoughts on his post about finding a way to express our id and metadata outwardly just as broadly and effectively as your email account can collate it centrally.

My first impression was that the question might be about logins or GUID* management based on this:

So if I asked you to write a list detailing what and where, you wouldn’t be able to complete one. And if I asked you to confirm your username and password for each of these – you’d struggle even more.

For the sake of order, let me run through some implications of using email as your GUID to log on everywhere.

  1. your email accesses all web services a la google, which allows me to use gmail to sign in to greader, gdocs etc with the same email/password combo. That’s possible because it comes from the same provider and relatively safer. Obviously, this can’t easily be scaled to other providers of web services or platforms.
  2. I could use my gmail/email as a handle for single sign-on a la OpenID but unless I have a similar infrastructure as OpenID (i.e. a bit of magic in the URL, with my password management under my control) I’d still have passwords stored on other sites and would be back to the same problem as now – too many usernames and passwords… apart from the fact that we eliminate usernames (and have just email instead) and have (potentially) just too many passwords.

But I think David might be trying to get at something else here. I am not sure I see email as my identity or identifier in the sense he describes. It’s certainly a store of my communications and important information from my contacts etc. But to paraphrase an ubergeek: “all applications progress to the point where they can send e-mail”. Danny O’Brien talked about this in the first lifehacking presentation and he had the corollary that people use e-mail for everything, including to-do lists, and even as virtual hard-drives. Resources get used for other than their intention – so looking at e-mail as a “hub”, some sort of nexus of your information might be wrong way around. Instead it’s a resource and it exhibits properties that are useful for many tasks. Your e-mail repository is no more a badge of your identity than is your car or your house.

The closest thing to my ‘identity’ is a mesh of my blogs/blog posts/flickr photos/twitter/dopplr/friendfeed/socnet de jour etc etc. Alas, this ‘identity’ is all fractured across many platforms and in my view needs a unifying point. And those who read my blog already know what my solution to the problem is.

I am not sure a handle (whether URL, username or email) would fundamentally fix my online identity as it’s the stuff I create and distribute that is my identity. I see usernames/passwords/handles/GUID in general as meta-identity or shortcuts to my identity. Just like passport or driving license is not my identity, merely a proxy for it vis-a-vis a particular kind of system or record.

And finally, there seems to be an implicit assumption in what David (and not just him I hasten to add) is saying and that is that my existence on the internet requires a GUID. I don’t think that’s necessarily true but that’s a topic for another post…

*GUID = global unique identifier

Driving your car

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See here:

Now consider the new world of social networks. Facebook, unwittingly or on purpose, has been teaching people to manage their own data about themselves. Facebook’s launch of the Beacon service — which informs Facebook of members’ activities (i.e., purchases) on other sites — was a PR fiasco. But it still familiarized millions of users with the notion that they can control information about themselves online — and determine to whom it is visible.

And here:

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebook and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

And then here:

So the Mine! is an attempt to give people their own car, getting them to decide where they go with it, how fast and who they take along as passangers. They will have to look after it a bit and perhaps learn to maintain it but that will be easier with time too. It is an alternative for networked and social existence on the web for those ready and willing to break out of silos.

Nuff said.

Ownership of data, privacy policies and other VRM creatures

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Here are some thoughts based on what I posted to the Project VRM mailing list on the discussion about data ownership:

The ownership of data, whatever that means, is merely a starting point of VRM and our attempts to redress the balance of power between vendors and customers. I might volunteer information – to me that means I share it on my own terms – but I also need the ability to establish and
maintain relationships. For that I (others may not) need and want
the following ‘functionality’:

  1. take charge of my data (content, relationships, transactions, knowledge),
  2. arrange (analyse, manipulate, combine, mash-up) it according to my needs and preferences and
  3. share it on my own terms
  4. whilst connected and networked on the web.

That’s what I mean when I talk about turning the individual into a platform, etc etc.

This does not happen by creating a database or a data store, however personal. Store implies passive and static, even with some sort of distribution. The objective is equipping individuals with analytical and other tools to help them understand themselves better and give them an online spring board to relationships with others (in VRM context this includes vendors).

I think it’s the user who should define the nature of the data stored/shared/analysed and what data is called what – whether confidential or premium or whatever. The crucial point is being able to share it (as well as do all sorts of groovy things with it, independently of third party and without the data being hijacked, er, harvested by third parties in the process.)

In the spirit of user-driven-ness, it should be the user who determines the ‘policies’ by which his or her data is managed and shared. I don’t see why they need to be standard(ised) as my sharing preferences and tolerance are a matter of my policy* – just like security and privacy are policies, not systems, i.e. what’s secure or private to me is not necessarily the same to you and vice versa.

What happens after information/data/whatever is shared is partly provenance of the law but mostly of a relationship I have with those the data is shared with… The main issue with the latter is that it can become meaningful only if the user is the most authoritative source of his or her data. Hence I call the means of doing this the Mine!

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*My take on privacy is that it is a policy of the individual, not in a sense of privacy policy for the individual selected from a given selection, in the style of Creative Commons. Huge difference. For instance, I have a policy about who I let into my house. I don’t need to display it on my doors or attach it to my address or business cards. It is far more convenient and flexible for me to decide there and then, when someone’s knocking at the door. It is my implicit privacy policy that kicks in. Sure, I don’t want junk mail or door-to-door salesmen but just because I can display notices to that effect, doesn’t mean that is the way to deal with the rest of the humankind. So online, it is about creating tools that help the individual control the data to the point that he/she decides practically and directly who gets to see what – without a third party or intermediary…

cross-posted from VRM Hub

Signing up with OpenID

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Now and then I give OpenID a go but I do find it cumbersome to say the least. In an experimentation fit I used it to sign in to Plaxo, and every time I log in, it’s a several step process. So much for saving the user time and effort.

MindMeister mindmapping software has an OpenID option for signing in. I thought – ooh, it would be convenient to just put in my OpenID and not worry about yet another username/password etc. Perhaps there is something to this. I even remembered my OpenID URL…

But no luck this time, this is what I got.

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Additional Information: Because your OpenID provider didn’t send all the information we need in order to create your account please fill out the fields to the left.

Arrgh! Why put an OpenID sign-in option on a page, if the website doesn’t actually accept it?! The point of OpenID should be not only about the convenience of signing-in process but also about my ability to decide what information is provided throughout. FAIL.

cross-posted from VRM Hub.

What I did last weekend

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Last Saturday I went to OpenTech in the afternoon to hear Ben Laurie, Bob Blakley and Alec Muffett pontificate on security. And a good pontification it was!

Then on Sunday, met up with Bob again, together with his frighteningly smart daughter and Alec for brunch in Covent Garden. The conversation was whirling around networks, identity, relationships but not exclusively so. (I will write about that in a separate post.)

Afterwards, Alec and I proceeded to Bloomsbury to meet with Marc Canter and a friend in the London Review Bookshop cafe. Another intense and fun conversation ensued and I have the drawings to prove it for the posterity. There is something else preserved from that afternoon and that is Marc signing opera for his lemonade (he doesn’t drink tea or coffee so Alec’s blog post headline is a bit of an artistic license :) ).

Even Marc’s voice couldn’t stop the cafe from closing and so we relocated to the nearest pub. Lovely time was had by all it seems and I am definitely up for a repeat performance. :)

Bringing identity home

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Identity is one of those elusive concepts that underpin several important debates. It appears to me that identity can be tied to a systemic view or an individual view. The former is the provenance of centralised systems and intrusive governments, the latter usually confined to the realms of philosophy or psychology. I’d argue that individual focus plays an increasingly important role in the online world as individuals drive their own identity. My aim (in working on the VRM project) is to find ways to equip them with better tools to continue to do so in all areas of their life, if they choose so.

Offline, we have the crowd who argue about identity in the political sphere, where the debate is really about privacy, rights of the individual, the relationship between the state and its citizens, efficacy of various methods of authentication and security implications. This involves fighting the Big and Bureaucratic Brother in all his shapes and guises, and his equally overbearing cousin the national database or register.

Online, we have the identity gangs within Identity Commons, Identity 2.0 and other identity related projects. Let’s look at Dick’s articulate case for digital identity, Identity 2.0. Without going into too much details, I believe the objective is to mimic the modern identity that revolves around photo IDs (passport, driving license, student card etc) in our online identity transactions. In other words, to enable the user to have the kinds of benefit in the online environment that identity management affords us in the offline world. The requirements for that are scalability of trust, privacy, re-usability, less fragmented identity, convenient ways of accessing and managing one’s identity, secure and private handling of sensitive or private information. For example, the same way your driving license proves your age and allows you to buy alcohol legally, Identity 2.0 is about you being able to prove claims relevant to your online transactions. On another level it is making it more convenient to manage what is currently an ‘identity’ scattered across the net – the ubiquitous logins with passwords, one for every time you deal with someone who created a platform to a) interact or transact with them and b) offer some functionality/capability in exchange for your data. The requirements for that is to be simple & open.

This is all good, as Doc is fond of saying, but this is not the kind of identity I had in mind when thinking about where to start with VRM and how identity relates to it.

According to Dick Hardt identity is what I say about me and what others say about me. The latter being more trustworthy, it makes sense to identify myself through referring to someone who can corroborate what I say. I am therefore defined by external, verifiable and validated statements, facts and information – identifiers. Dick defines his identity as consisting roughly of address, date of birth, URLs of blogs he writes, emails he uses, phone numbers, banks, airlines, clothes and car brands he uses, books, movies and magazines he likes.

These are all shortcuts to what constitutes Dick Hardt as a person, they put his identity in a recognisable frame of reference and allow him to participate in identity transactions.

In the offline world identity is really third-party driven, to put it crudely, we are what our papers say we are. Your birth certificate attests to your date of birth, your utility bills to your residence, your diploma to your education etc etc. It has been so because our identity management has had several fundamental features – it is centralised, system-centric and it is read-only. We are used to deriving our authority and credibility from a system that grants and confirms it. It is important that we can do that as the only way we can transact in a hierarchical environment is via authorisation from the level above us. (a definition of hierarchy is that in order to interact with somebody on the same level I have to go via a superior level).

Whatever the web turns out to be, it is not a hierarchy. It is a network, i.e. a heterarchy, a network of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role. This has impact on how my identity is defined and who defines it. From blogs to social network profiles, people are learning how to define their thoughts and ideas, record their lives in multimedia formats, share their experiences, swarm around causes and defy companies, institutions and authorities. From linky love to P2P, they are bypassing traditional media and distribution channels, learning the ways of direct connections.

People online build and destroy reputations, create and squander careers, establish themselves as experts or celebrities. That’s the bird’s eye view. The closer look reveals emergence of self-defined (and self-driven) identities. By writing I learn to articulate my thoughts better, by sharing I learn to differentiate from, as well as identify with, others. I become aware of myself and my preferences in ways that in the times before the web were available to a select few – writers, artists, politicians and the more articulate celebrities. We have ways of connecting with others who become validators and authenticators of our self-defined and persistent identities. The challenge is to understand and find how to evolve and use those for other than communication and information transactions.

And yet, instead we build platforms – vestiges of offline identity – third-party defined spaces designed to ‘contain’ bits of your identity. They clash with my ability as an individual to define and drive my identity. Over time I learn to manage who I am and as more tools and networks emerge my fractured existence, scattered across others’ silos becomes more obvious. The silos are a result of various platforms vying for my data, offering bits and pieces of functionality that I find useful and empowering. It got me where I am now as an ‘empowered’ individual. However, a picture of fractured identity emerges.

fractured_identity_sml.jpg

Centralised database(s) of identity information and its verification, authentication etc is based on a hierarchy mindset. In a heterarchy, each node is self-defined first and then defined by its relationships. I want to have an identity that evolves and exists in a network, i.e. a structural heterarchy. Why not start by ‘defragging’ identity by outsourcing its definition to individuals as they are capable of creating much richer identities than any system.

identity_shadow_sml.jpgTo my amazement I often see logins and passwords to various sites and platforms described as “identity”. I don’t think of them as my identity, but as things that I currently need to access bits of my scattered identity, at best they are my meta-identity. (Btw, by self-defined identity I am not referring to self-asserted identity which still relates to identifiers of the kind I’d call meta-identity. I am looking for ways of establishing identifiers that are part emergent, part validated by relationships rather than by a systemic-level third parties designed to do that. Let’s not have a ‘centralised’ trust, let’s have distributed one.)

What I want is option (with set of tools) for individuals taking charge of their identities.* And on the web that starts with exercising sovereignty over my data. This alternative must be networked and not third party dependent or platform based. As I have said before, there are only two ‘natural’ online platforms – the individual and the web.

But what about authentications and authorisations that are needed for transactions, aside from all the fluffy social empowering self-publishing identity utopia? …I hear you cry. As is often the case on the web, there may be other ways to skin the authentication cat than using identity. The key is in realising that authorisation and identity are related but separate.

Authentication is the act of establishing an identity – this is separate from the existing identity approach where the focus is on collection and disbursement of bits of data to do with someone. The cheap and cheerful explanation of this is that you can authenticate with a password (i.e. something that only you know). However, that password need not reveal anything about you/your identity. It just reveals that you are someone who knows the password. Therefore, authentication is free to be separate from identity. They are in separate but related domains. Have I mentioned that they are separate?

I owe this point to Alec who explains:

Traditionally authentication is one-or-more of three things.

  1. something you KNOW, e.g, you KNOW the password
  2. something you HAVE, e.g, you HAVE the door key,
  3. something you ARE, e.g, you ARE a 4-star general on an army base
  4. The latter tends to be a bit weak, as authentication goes, in my experience it is prone to social hacking. Good authentication might be combining something like: KNOWING the password that UNLOCKS the certificate that you HAVE on the laptop, that permits a remote website to challenge you and get the response it expects, since it KNOWS that you have your certificate on your laptop…

In short, let me have a go at my identity myself, on my own terms, the web way, without intermediaries, ‘trusted’ parties and hierarchical non-direct ways. Locking me into new ‘better’ platforms, offering ’services’ to manage my meta-identity is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. Instead, give me tools, flexible and modular, to reclaim my digital personae, help me piece together my fractured identity. And then allow me to drive it forward with all of the benefits that it can bring me and to those I interact and transact with. Learn to live with the unpredictability and emergent juicy goodness that comes from my independence and lack of your control over me. Finally, let me learn from my mistakes, my first uncertain steps with my data sovereignty. Without those how can I ever learn to fully value privacy, security and engage in mutually beneficial interactions?

*I plan to cover this in more detail in the upcoming white paper on the infrastructural level elements (the Mine! and FeedMe) that enable people to reclaim their data, manage and share them on their own terms whilst being connected, networked and part of the web.

Scratch your VRM itch meeting follow up

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Yesterday was a good day. Great people, splendid venue and discussions about VRM. What’s not to like? The VRM Hub working meeting Scratch your VRM itch took place in the club room at the October Gallery in London.

Scratch  your VRM itch meeting

Here are some good notes on the proceedings as recorded by industrious Paul Hodgson. (Although Paul points out he’s more of a post-industrious guy. Heh.) More amendments to follow by the rest of the crew.

The next meeting is being planned for the first half of June. Rock on, as they say.

What’s in a social network? A Facebook by any other name would be as useless… discuss

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A friend shared with me a link to this article about how pointless Facebook is.. and while we are at it the whole social networks malarky etc etc…despairing how some people around her are taking refuge, er, applauding wisdom contained within.

I am not an indiscriminate fan of social networks and some of Fabrizio’s gripes have a point especially the one about privacy… although he does come across as an old cranky, dare I say it, web-o-phobe. His objections against Facebook and social networks are not entirely unreasonable and from a personal perspective justified. I would just add that if others subscribe to them too enthusiastically, without further thought, I fear it says more about them, than the nature of social networking. So let’s have that further thought, shall we?

1. The whole thing of social networking is mere bullshit to me.

I would agree that Facebook is pretty pointless in terms of its applications and overall usefulness for a blogger geek like me is zero. However, that is a far cry from social networking being mere bullshit. It is a phenomenon that is worth noting and dismissing it will make you only more ignorant of what is truly happening.

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebook and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

2. It’s not the right way to communicate with my friends.

Again, half-right. Just because face to face is still hard to beat, doesn’t mean other ways of communicating are not useful or often better in some contexts, e.g. writing a book is a much better way of communicating one’s ideas, theory or sum of knowledge, then a series of chats in a bar… although it is usually a good start. I am a big advocate of online communications because it enables people to define their thoughts in ways they rarely get to do in an offline social context.

That said, Facebook is not an ideal place for that but it helps people to piece together a record of their life. Self-selected and therefore some might say ‘manipulated’ but as I am keen on people to learn about themselves and their identity, I see it as a feature not a bug. There is a post to be written about a stage when people discover that being themselves brings greater rewards than manipulation of their image, but that’s for another time.

Also, social networks are not pointless for communication with friends, if hardly of much use for early bloggers. It is great to find a long lost friend, knowing they exist is better than losing contact with them forever. And a phone is definitely not the best way of communicating either! Social networks enable one-to-many communication for individuals – unheard of before the age of the web unless you were a politician or an author or a celebrity – in short, had some sort of institutional backing whether politics or the media. I can communicate efficiently and persistently with people in my contact list and let them expand on that communication if they are interested.

The main issue I have about the statement that it’s not the right way to communicate with one’s friends is the subsequent presumption that a phone call or a chat in a bar are the right ways. Since that is the only ‘human’ ways people communicate?! What about the wonderful tradition of letter-writing? Is that not a worthwhile communication with a friend even thought it’s not in a bar or over the phone? This goes deeper to the nature and diversity of communication, which makes such utterances short-sighted or blinkered (check the appropriate box). Stinks of an old fart, if you pardon the pun.

There is no reason why we can’t develop ‘human’ dimension in our communications online equivalent to the meeting of minds we experience in human contact offline. Not much to do with social networks as such, see my point about ‘learning how to drive’ above. The way to get there is to differentiate carefully and correctly – and this is going to take some time methinks – between what bits can and should be automated, what bits can and shouldn’t be automated and which bits we have been forcing technology to handle inadequately. I think the serenity prayer sentiments apply just fine here too:

God grant me curiosity to use my brain where irreplaceable, the skill to design and develop technology to assist it and the wisdom to know the difference.

3. I don’t want others to know too many things about me.

I couldn’t agree more. Privacy is a fine thing and until we are the ones who determine what goes out and what stays in, it will be mostly a delusion. Our privacy is protected about the same way a pretty young girl is safe in hands of a pimp held in check by a few hastily drafted rules that are actually very hard to enforce. As long as he’s seen keeping his hands of her, he’s left alone. But she’s still at his mercy and there is not much she can do if he decides to sell her on. Substitute data and information about you and you’ve got the picture.

On the other hand we have the wonders of connectedness and sharing which are very fine things too. It’s what made the web what it is today (in a good way). So to hoard and isolate would be overshooting although the ability to do so should be part of the deal, if that’s what I chose. It is about the right balance and like in any balanced ‘relationship’ it takes two to tango. At the moment, my data is held ransom in an abusive relationship and the fact that I get ’something’ out of it, doesn’t justify the imbalance of power. I should be the one making a decision about – and bear the consequences of – what happens to my data and by extension to my privacy, not Facebook or any other silo or platform. The problem is we have no way of doing that. Yet.

Finally, as Alec is points out security is a policy and so is privacy – what is private to me, may not be to you and vice versa. So what sense can a uniform set of rules or system make in a decentralised environment where a) it is near impossible to enforce and b) the distributed and persistent nature of our communication makes privacy an awkward bolt-on when it should be integral to our behaviour. The more people learn what privacy means and understand its merits and the price of its abuse, the better ‘policies’ they can devise for themselves.

So back to my point about how social networks are the ‘learning wheels’ for our identity online. Social networking is not bullshit, just like driving in a parking lot of a driving school is not pointless. Just see it in the context of the web and the individual and the picture get more interesting, if also more tricky and longer term.

It is about ability to manage one’s own data and network. Even social networks built on closed platforms cannot diminish the first giddy experience of creating a profile that consists of more than a username and data serving the platform owner more than the user. It is the control, the flexibility, the fun and play, the ease of communication and technology that makes the whole experience dynamic and mildly addictive. At the moment, not much else matters to the users – that is why privacy and security is a nice to have, rather a must have. I believe that will change as people get accustomed to more control over their online environment.

I want to be there when they want something more – their own car and their own choice of the destination – to push the driving school metaphor to its limits. Cue VRM hoping to equip people with tools that enable them to take charge of their data, provide context for it, learn from them and pass the knowledge on as they see fit.

OpenSocial – more social than open

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So, been watching all that excitement about Google’s OpenSocial and I couldn’t hear over all that cheering how much do I get to ‘own my data’ and take it with me until I read Tim O’Reilly’s post OpenSocial: It’s the data, stupid:

My disappointment with OpenSocial was crystallized by an exchange between Patrick Chanezon, Google’s developer advocate for the program, and an audience member at the OpenSocial session at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin. The audience member asked something about building applications that can remix data from the participating social networking platforms. Patrick’s answer was along the lines of: “No, you only have access to the data of the individual platform or application.”

That is rather disappointing. I do not just want social network aggregators. As a user I want to take my information, profile, contacts and context with me wherever I want and can. If I am to invest my time into creating profiles and gathering contacts (thus making my friends to invest theirs), then spending time building context, which is actually more important than data. Data has become a commodity, it can be replicated and distributed without the physical constraints data faces offline. What is now rare is context because that still a) has to be created by humans and b) is not machine readable. So to elaborate on Tim O’Reilly’s

…two key principles of Web 2.0:

* It’s the data, stupid. (Formerly “Data is the Intel Inside”)
* Small pieces loosely joined.

…a principle of social web

* It’s the context (and control over it), stupid.

If all OpenSocial does is allow developers to port their applications more easily from one social network to another, that’s a big win for the developer, as they get to shop their application to users of every participating social network. But it provides little incremental value to the user, the real target. We don’t want to have the same application on multiple social networks. We want applications that can use data from multiple social networks.

Such applications would have to be based and designed around the user, not another platform and its growth and maintenance. Which is what every social network to date has been. And if you design for the individual, the distributed is definitely the way (see Small pieces loosely joined). At a VRM meeting in London last Friday, among other things, how to design an architecture around increasing control over our data. Alec summed it up:

…should we consider making a VRM pilot and simplify our lives by making the assumption that the database would be wholly centralised; the answer to that was an emphatic NO; the reason being that working from a perspective of “the data is centralised in a fortress” will lead to thinking that will never be able to accommodate a distributed architecture; whereas there is nothing to prevent an architecture which is capable of distribution in a wholly or partly centralised matter, as a convenience. In short: the web-browser would never have been invented had someone elected to ignore the distributed nature of the Web; instead, they would have merely yet again reinvented the file-browser. So: DESIGN IT DISTRIBUTED, TEST IT DISTRIBUTED, BUT IMPLEMENT IT HOWEVER YOU CHOOSE.

That’s the spirit. But Tim O’Reilly asks the crucial question:

Would OpenSocial let developers build a personal CRM system, a console where I could manage my social network, exporting friends lists to various social networks?

No, it doesn’t look like OpenSocial will, but VRM is predicated on that. Set the data (and their owners) free!

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