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.

Chris Messina has posted a fantastic post on his blog about DataPortability. It is a real pleasure to read his thoughtful and well articulated questions, concerns and compliments about the project.

I am going to try to answer or comment on many of his comments below by quoting big chunks and including my ideas.

Contrary to what some folks have argued, I think that the semantics and meaning of the phrase “data portability” are important. To me data portability denotes the act of moving data from one place to another, and that the data should, therefore, be thought of like a physical thing, with physical properties.

So if you ask me what is “data portability”, I’ll concede that it’s a symbol for starting a conversation about what’s wrong with the state of social networks. Beyond that, I think there’s a great danger that, as a result of framing the current opportunity around “data portability”, the story that will get picked up and retold will be the about copying data between social networks, rather than the more compelling, more future-facing, and frankly more likely situation of data streaming from trusted brokered sources to downstream authorized consumers. But, I guess “copying” and “moving” data is easier to grasp conceptually, and so that’s what I think a lot of people will think when they hear the phrase. In any case, it gets the conversation started, and from there, where it goes, is anyone’s guess.

I do understand the concerns about names and the underlying meaning they convey. I do think, however, that the ship has sailed on the branding of the movement. We can call it Data Availability, Data Connectivity, Data Streaming, Data Accessibility or we can call it what everyone is already calling it – Data Portability. I think the nuance of meaning is probably one that only affects the technologists closest to the issue; not the broader audience we are trying to reach.

Also, we have long defined ‘portability’ as the ability to port the data or port the context in which the data is used. That is, use data from one application from within the context of another application.

Is it a perfect name? Probably not.

Is it worth diluting the conversation to stop and rename it? probably not.

Can the community live with it? I would argue they could. So we should probably move on.

OpenID, along with OAuth, microformats, RSS, OPML, RDF, APML and XMPP are all open and non-proprietary technologies — formats and protocols — that grace the DataPortability homepage. How they ended up on the homepage, or what selection criteria is used to pick them, is beyond me (for example, I would have added ATOM to the list). So the best way that I can describe the relationship between any of these technologies and DataPortability is that, at some point, the powers that be within the group decided to throw a logo on their homepage and add it to their “social software stack”.

I’m curious if, besides Atom, there are any other standards that community members would suggest as an addition to the list. Are there any on there that don’t belong there? Having discussed this topic for a long time now, I think that most people agree that each of those technologies listed have a place in the conversation. The final ‘stack’ however will be determined by the Technical Best Practice documents.

Beyond that, it should be noted that OpenID, OAuth, microformats et al have been in development for the last several years, and have been building up momentum and communities all on their own, without and prior to the existence of the DP initiative.

Agreed – this is a fact I constantly repeat to everyone I speak to – particularly in public forums and on podcasts. I don’t think, however, anyone can deny that the DataPortability project has accelerated the momentum and helped to propel the conversation into the mainstream. It is gratifying that many of the participants in each of these standards groups (particularly the groups that don’t have as much visibility as OpenID, Microformats or oAuth) are now participating in the DataPortability project as a way to promote their work to a broader audience.

In fact, the DP project really only got its start last November with an idea presented by Josh Patterson and Josh Lewis called WRFS, or the “Web Relational File System”. At the time, the WRFS was intended to serve as a “reference design” for describing how data portability should work and this was to serve as the foundation of the DP recommendations.

In January, after ongoing discussions, Josh decided that it would be best to spin WRFS off into its own project and started a separate mailing list, leaving DP to focus exclusively on evangelizing existing technologies and communities and, in the oft-repeated words of Chris Saad, to invent nothing new (a mantra inherited from the OAuth and microformats efforts).

This is actually not quite accurate. The DataPortability project was running in parallel to the work on WRFS. We invited the two Josh’s to bring their WRFS work into the DataPortability project and as it matured we spun it out again.

If you accept that DP is primarily a symbol for starting the conversation about transforming social networks from walled gardens into interoperating, seamful web services, then no, not really.

This is certainly where it starts – but I think it’s clear that the group has far more potential than that.

… DP does not speak for the community as a whole, for any specific social network (except, perhaps, MySpace), or for any individuals except those who publicly align themselves with the group.

This is also true – The DataPortability project speaks for itself and for the people who participate. There are thousands of people and vendors both large and small who have publicly supported the group and, by extension, given it some level of authority to consult on and develop best practices for the community.

So if the second risk is that an unrealistic, naive or incomplete model of privacy [coupled with a lack of effective enforcement mechanisms in the case of fraud or abuse] will be promoted by the DP group, the third risk is that groups or communities that are roped into the DP initiative may open themselves up to a latent social backlash should something go wrong with specific implementations of DataPortability best practices. Specifically, if the final privacy model demands certain approaches to user data, and companies or organizations go along with them by adopting the provided “social technology stack” (i.e. libraries offered that implement the DP data model), the technical implementation may be flawless, but if people’s data starts showing up in places where they didn’t expect it to, they may reject the whole notion of “data portability” and seek to retreat back to the days of “safe” walled gardens of today. And it may be that, because of the emphasis on specific technologies in the DP group’s propaganda, that brands like OpenID and OAuth will become associated with negative experiences, like downloadable .exes in email are today. It’s not a foregone conclusion in my mind that this future is inevitable, but it’s one that the individual groups affected should avoid at all costs, if only because of the significant progress we’ve made to date on our own, and it would be a shame if ignorance or lack of clear communication about the proper methods of adoption and implementation of these technologies lead people to blame the technology means instead of particular instances of its application.

Open standards are developed as building blocks. The DataPortability project is building something from them. If some of the standards groups would -for some reason – like their standard to be excluded from our recommendations then we would be happy to oblige.

Also, there are a lot of people from all over the world looking at, refining and experimenting with the best practices being developed. I think most would agree that ‘something could go wrong’ is not enough reason not to try working through the challenges to come up with something worthwhile.

What’s good about DataPortability?

I don’t want to just be a negative creep, so I do think that there is a silver lining to the DP initiative, which I mentioned earlier: it provides a token phrase that we can throw around to tease out some of the more gnarly issues involved in developing future social applications. It is about having a conversation.

While OpenID and OAuth have actual technology and implementations behind them, they also serve as symbols for having conversations about identity and authorization, respectively. Similarly, microformats helps us to think about lightweight semantic markup that we can embed in human-friendly web pages that are also compatible with today’s web browsers, and that additionally make those pages easier for machines to parse. And before these symbols, we had AJAX and Web 2.0, both of which, during their inception, were equally controversial and offensive to the folks who knew the details of the underlying technological innovation behind the terms but who also stood to lose their shamanic positions if simpler language were adopted as the conversations migrated into the mainstream.

Agreed. I have often used the example that DataPortability can and will do for open standards what Web 2.0 and AJAX did for CSS, Javascript and XML.

Now, is there a risk that we might lose some of the nuance and sophistication with which we data junkies and user-centric identity advocates communicate if we adopt a less precise term to describe the present trends towards interoperable social networks? Absolutely. But this also means that, as the phrase “data portability” makes its way into common conversation, people can begin to think about their social networking activities and what they take for granted (”Wait, you mean that I wouldn’t have to sign up for a new account on my friend’s social network just to send them a photo? Really?”), and to realize that the way things are today not only aren’t the way that they have to be, but that there is a better way for social applications to be designed, architected and presented, that give the enthusiasts and customers of these services greater choice and greater latitude to actually pick services that — what else? — serve them best!

So just as Firefox gave rise to a generation of web developers that take web standards much more seriously, and have in turn recognized and capitalized on the power of having a “rectangle” that actually behaves in a way that they expect (meaning that it fully complies with the standards as they’ve been defined), I think the next evolution of the social web is going to be one where we take certain things, like identity, like portable contact lists, like better and more consistent permissioning systems as givens, and as a result, will lead to much more interesting, more compelling, and, perhaps even more lucrative, uses of the open social web.

I obviously agree completely here.

It is clear with Chris’ great post, that the data portability conversation, and the DataPortability project has unearthed a fantastic set of questions and opportunities.

The Data Portability narrative, and the resulting questions that it posses, are precisely the tools that will encourage end users, developers, vendors and media to further investigating popular standards like OpenID and Microfomats, and dig deeper into more nascent standards like RDF, XRDS and APML.

The resulting acceleration in just six months has been phenomenal – I look forward to the next six months.

I’ve written more on this subject in my “Internal note of thanks” post.

In the last couple of days data portability and the DataPortability project have been all over the headlines. That’s always a good thing for the cause of open standards and interoperability.

Each announcement has been a small and long-overdue step towards making social network profile data available to other sites in some sort of digestible way.

First, MySpace announced their ‘Data Availability’ push with a series of launch partners, and then, seemingly in response, Facebook announced ‘Facebook Connect’ which is an iteration on their existing APIs to allow 3rd parties to connect and access their user data.

Both moves have rightly been attributed as ‘Data Portability’ plays – but neither of them are true ‘DataPortability’ implementations… yet.

They are each proposing and implementing their own specific mechanisms, policies and technologies for moving the data around, and none of them are allowing true two way sync.

Over the coming months it will be our job, at the DataPortability project, to further refine and ratify the DataPortability Best Practices to provide a complete, end-to-end guide that Facebook, Myspace and others can follow. Once properly implemented, all applications on the web will essentially become part of a friction free inter-operable and two way data layer based on open standards.

It will be up to bloggers and other media outlets to keep the pressure on these players to continue to improve their offerings to achieve true compliance based on community recommendations made through the DataPortability project.

I look forward to the journey and further discussing these issues at the Internet Identity Workshop on Monday May 12 and the 2nd Data Sharing Summit on Thursday May 15.

We’ve all heard about User Generated Content (UGC). I don’t like the term. Once you start generating content in a two way ecosystem you are no longer a user, you are a participant. In fact I have written long rants about the subject.

But that’s a subject for another day. An oft missed point re-occurred to me today so I thought I would write it up.

Bloggers and social media consultants are still trying to convince mainstream media and businesses that Participant Generated Content is a new media reality. Many companies are trying to grapple with the phenomena and are wondering if users remixing copyrighted material and/or generating their own media is an opportunity or a threat. At the very least it is highly disruptive to the role of traditional broadcast media – and where there is market disruption, opportunity is usually mixed right in.

It’s key to remember or realize though, that Participant Generated Content is not new. In fact, it’s as old as cave paintings. You don’t even have to look that far back. What about Lego and Crayons. What about singing in the shower. What about writing a letter or making a mix tape.

It’s clear through these examples that people have been expressing themselves through their creations since the dawn of time. The only difference in the new web ecosystem is the scale, scope, tools and business opportunities associated with this self expression. As usual the web simply gives us new visibility and connectivity to each other and new tools to create and share.

It’s important to have this context in mind during the debate around the purpose, place and legality (in terms of copyright) of participant generated content; Because with this more long-term lens perhaps more businesses and media companies will properly understand the phenomena and the instinct that drives it. It might even help them to engage with the opportunity in more creative, human ways.

It’s not a set of weird web early adopters. It is not just ‘the bloggers’. It is not some fringe activity. It is a basic human instinct to create and share. And it certainly isn’t new.


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