Violent Opposition

May 23, 2008

Lately I have been thinking a lot about leadership and this quote keeps coming to mind.

Great thinkers have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds” – Albert Einstein

Ever wondered why that’s the case?

I think It’s because genuinely new ideas usually disrupt old ideas – therefore new ideas appear at odds with an old way of thinking. When something is at odds with the way you think, your brain interprets it as ‘wrong’. So therefore often what you percieve as ‘wrong’ is just something outside your experience.

Interestingly, though, I have found that many new ideas can actually be modeled on old patterns. Patterns that have been tried and proven.

For example in my recent discussions about distributed Twitter on the Gillmor Gang and Techcrunch posts, or with the DataPortability project I run, I am basically modeling my thoughts on Blogging (independant software, RSS as glue with aggregators doing most of the work) and the work done on WiFi/DVD (multiple standards combined together under a friendly brand).

Patterns are my thing.

This is a great video made by Pascale Diaine from Orange Labs featuring a set of interviews with young entrepreneurs – including me!

GSP East 2008

I am speaking at Graphing Social Patterns. Will you be there?

You can use this discount code for a 20% discount: gspe08fos

Follow me on Twitter to work out where I am – hopefully we can catch up face-to-face.

I’ve heard a lot lately from executives at the highest levels at vendors that do not run large social networks. They might be more traditional media companies, telecommunication companies, device manufactures etc.

There are a few common and resounding themes from those conversations so I thought I would share them here:

  • The issue of data portability has only recently crossed their radar and it’s something they are very keen in getting involved with. They have heard about it either from the a-tier blogs or mainstream publications like the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal.
  • They had heard of OpenID, Microformats or the Semantic Web but never quite understood what the business or user experience imperative was. They have each asked me to pass on my thanks to the DataPortability project for coining a phrase and an organization that has helped to shape the core set of technologies into a cohesive story.
  • They have also expressed a concern that big social networking vendors can not, and should not be able to run the table on what is (and must continue to become) essentially a user-centric solution.
  • They tend to look to the DataPortability project as a sort of independent lobby group that can bring disparate industry players together to create a grass-roots, standards based solution.
  • They have asked how they can help.

I explain to them how the group works, how the standards groups before us have created many of the technologies and how we are proud to lobby on behalf of our community to shape and promote data portability best practices. And then I point them to the ‘Get Involved‘ wiki page.

This is, of course, very gratifying feedback and I look forward to having more conversations with similar organizations in the coming weeks.

On the latest Gillmor Gang we debated the evolving Data Portability landscape.

Let me try to summarize the positions:

Marc Canter: At least the big social networks are doing something – and Facebook seems to give the user most privacy control.

Robert Scoble: When I give you my email address (or friend you) I have to assume that you are going to do whatever you want with it – including import it into other apps.

Michael Arrington: Facebook is behaving like old Microsoft and Marc Canter and DataPortability should demand better.

Me: Users need an additional check box when friending each other – ‘You may move my data to other applications’. The big vendors are trying to keep control for as long as possible – that’s to be expected. Startups, second tier social networks, non ‘social networking’ sites will ultimately implement first, and the big vendors will compete themselves towards open.

Over on Techcrunch Arrington claims:

DataPortability founder Chris Saad was also on the call, but failed to take a leadership position in the debate (he did, however, weigh in with a blog post on the subject before the call). Their influence may be waning.”

Mike, don’t confuse and conflate a thoughtful position and long-term view as ‘not taking a stand’.

Forget Facebook

May 16, 2008

Debating Facebook’s data portability move (Facebook Connect) is like debating AOLs web strategy back in the day. Their strategy is clearly to create a rarefied ecosystem where users (read: facebook) are in complete control of the ‘approved’ content and interactions. With this in mind, it is clear that Facebook is not the first, best platform in which to design, implement or debate Data Portability.

Debating Google’s data portability move (Friend Connect) is like debating the Netvibes universal widget platform. It is not data portability in the sense that the DataPortability project has defined it. It is a platform that translates existing proprietary implementations into it’s own unified proprietary implementation to enable social widgets to run in more places.

MySpace’s data portability move (Data Availability) is actually the closest play to data portability as defined by the DataPortability project. It proposes to allow 3rd party sites to access the users personal data using open standards extracted from the page (using microformats and a collection of full XML standards). The terms and conditions about caching, however, also bring it in conflict with the philosophies of the DataPortability project.

So as stated before, none of these plays are true ‘DataPortability’ implementations. But they are important first steps. They are the first shots across the bow to the industry that a data portability battle is coming. In fact it has started. Are we going to let it shake out like the IM wars? Or are startups, second tier players, standards groups, bloggers and users going to rally around and standardize to a totally open, grass-roots alternative?

Are the big players going to evolve their offerings to come in line with the rest of the world, or are they going to try to dominate (read: lose).

Further, data portability, and DataPortability is not just about social networking data or social networking scenarios. Certainly not social networking as defined by the social contract of Facebook. It might even be true that Facebook is a culturally bad fit for the DataPortability ecosystem. DataPortability is about a different social contract – a contract more closely resembling the one found in the email address book.

My address book is my own. When you email me, or when you communicate with me, you are revealing something about yourself. You define a social contract with me that means that I can use your information to contact you whenever and however I like – I could even re-purpose my address book for all manor of other things.

If, however, you violate that trust, either directly or indirectly, you break the social contract and I will tend to not deal with you again. We can not perfectly engineer these sorts of contracts into systems – we can try, but in the end social behavior will be the last mile in enforcing user rights.

Also, the dichotomy between who ‘owns’ the data is false. In my mind there is shared ownership. While you use a service, it has a shared custodianship of the data. By giving the service your data you’re getting something else in return – utility. In many cases free utility.

You personally, however, have shared (and overriding) ownership over your data. This has been declared as universally true by all the vendors I’ve spoken to.

The question is not one of ownership though, it’s one of control. If you own your data but can’t control it as you choose then ownership is a moot point. Further, the question is not one of if you own it, but rather how much of it you own.

For example, do you own your friends profile data since you have access to it via the social tool you are using? Or have they only granted you access within that social context and under that social contract. These considerations blur the analogy of the purely personal address book.

In this case, there is no correct, default answer. The answer must come from an old saying – “Your rights end where my rights begin”. That is, your friends need an additional options when ‘friending’ you. A checkbox will probably be required that states ‘Allow this contact to use my data elsewhere’.

The act of ‘friending’ will also need to take on more meaning and ‘grouping’ friends will become important. It will evolve, for most of us, and in most applications, from a popularity contest to a carefully curated address book of people we actually care about.

I was told recently that a big part of leadership is listening. That’s true of course.

I actually think a bigger part of leadership, however, means learning how to say no. No to distractions, no to the nay sayers and no to feature creep.

Being able to say no is a very empowering and important leadership quality I have only just begun to learn. It is a super hard skill to master. Particularly saying no to the right things in the right way. Saying yes is far easier.

The problem with saying yes to feature creep is that you end up a big blob trying to do everything while actually achieving nothing.

The problem with saying yes to any and all criticism and changing your behavior is that you often end up being put into a corner by other people’s expectations. You end up trying to please everyone and you actually achieve nothing. You never break through expectations, passive and active resistance and the ‘old way of doing things’. It’s said if you have a genuinely good or original idea you will often have to drag people kicking and screaming to your way of thinking before they will get it. You can’t do that if you give way to any and all criticism.

Like with all things a balance needs to be struck. Each of us, as leaders of something in our lives, need to be clear about our end goals; our vision. We need to continue to execute on our daily tasks with true north in our sights.

Balance is particularly important in today’s political climate. There is far too much extremism going on from all sides of the political spectrum. For example ‘staying the course’ is not a call for balance, it’s a call for stubbornness.

The course may (and must), of course, involve all sorts of corrections to account for criticism, new scope and other changes ‘on the ground’, but being able to say no to major deviations when you still believe in the final destination is a mark of true leadership.

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