Q. You are skeptical of the way people protest through social media, of so-called “armchair activism,” and say that the internet is dumbing us down with cheap entertainment. So would you say that the social networks are the new opium of the people?
A. The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy… But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.
I’ve been experimenting with bits of software to take control of my online content. The functionality is all there for me to run my own stuff, without feeding corporate silos. I can post text, images, photos, videos. I can store files and access them from anywhere. Without having to hand my bits over to any company.
Except when I want to play with others. To do that, I still need to wade into the silos. Flickr isn’t about photo storage or hosting – it’s about seeing what my friends and family are photographing. Twitter isn’t about posting 140char updates – it’s about seeing the flow of activity from the people I care about.
Although I can reproduce the content-centric functionality for posting and sharing content online, I can only do it in an extremely antisocial way. I do it by myself, on my own. Away from others. Alone.
I’d nuked my Facebook account long ago. I was happy to not be feeding Zucker’s beast. Until I realized that (nearly) everyone I cared about was there – people who would never post to a blog, or maintain a photo site, or anything that’s content-centric and close to the metal. They just want to hang out and share stuff with people they care about. So I sucked it up and recreated a Facebook account. I’m torn – on the one hand, it felt like a failure. On the other hand, it feels like a great way to keep up with what friends and family are doing – especially since many of them would never venture out of the corporate silo to post things on their own.
But the feeling of failure is pretty strong. I think we’re failing as a culture, when the only effective way to connect with people is to hand our social (online- and offline) network graphs to a corporation to monetize at will. Our social connections are far too important to trust them to Google, Facebook, Twitter, or the next big shiny thing. We need to step up, somehow, and take control back. I have no idea how that could happen. There have been many false starts1234, but they’ve been so highly technical that the people that really need them wouldn’t have even known that options existed (and so they didn’t, really). That’s why corporate silos have been so successful – they make the plumbing of online social connection disappear as much as possible.
We need a human-scale, non-technical way for individuals to manage their connections with other individuals, without having to hand control over those connections to any company to mine and monetize. It’s not about content – it’s about managing connections to people, and to the things they are doing.
Update: As usual, Boone Gorges is already thinking about this, in far greater depth than I managed. Awesome. I’ll be thinking through how I should Reclaim. Sign me up.
This is a long, rambling, incomplete blog post that’s been rattling around in my head for a week. I decided to try to just put something in writing to see if I could make it less unclear. Caveat emptor.
If people are to manage their own content, forming their digital identities, they need a way to host software and content that doesn’t require obscure and detailed technical knowledge.
Us early adopters are not normal. We’ve been so close to technologies, for so long, that we forget what it’s like to be new to the stuff. Or not to live and breathe tech every day. Most people are not like us. They don’t know what HTTP is. It’s just some silly letters before the address of a website. They don’t know what DNS is. They don’t know what FTP is. They don’t know what SSH is. Or MySQL. Or PHP. Or Perl. etc…
And they shouldn’t have to know these things in order to be full and meaningful participants in online discourse.
Currently, we have a geeky elitism. The early adopting technophile geeks are aware of how software and systems are designed, and may be able to design, host, or manage their own software and content. And everybody else, who don’t know, and don’t care, about the technical mumbojumbo that geeks seem to like to talk about incessantly. Geeks. Jeez.
I think there are FAR more people like my Dad, than there are like me. My Dad is 75, and has been using computers for as long as I have. He brought home a Vic=20, followed by a C=64, C=128, an Amiga, and now he’s on his second iMac. He’s not scared of computers, or of technology in general. But he doesn’t live it. He plays, but he sees it as a way to do stuff, not as tech for the sake of tech. At 72, he found Skype, on his own, and set up an account to talk to my older brother who lives on the other side of the globe. He can get stuff done, but gets stuck. Like, a lot.
So, when I’m thinking about “breaking away from hosted silos” I try to keep my Dad in mind. Is this something he cares about? Is it something he could do? Would he?
Why would people want to manage their own content? Third party silos are convenient, but temperamental and transient. It’s so easy to share content on a hosted (and free) service, without having to think about setting anything up or configuring anything, or running backups, or registering domain names, or any of an unlimited list of details required to host software online.
But these services exist to monetize you, your relationships, and your content. And they may change in ways you don’t appreciate, or simply disappear – leaving you suddenly without a potentially substantial component of your online life.
Data portability – the ability to export all (or even any) of your content, to be imported into some other application – gives some sense of security or insurance. But even that requires some technical background that many people don’t have and don’t want (and shouldn’t need).
When I yanked my Delicious.com bookmarks through the export process – through a hidden API url, in a cryptic XML format – I had to futz around for awhile until I got the export file. Then, it was too big to import into something else directly, so I had to futz around with the raw XML to slice it into 3 separate files. I finally got my bookmarks migrated into a self-hosted instance of Scuttle. It wasn’t exactly rocket surgery, but it wasn’t a trivial task, either. These are things that my Dad would never be able to do. Nor should he have to.
And, even though my bookmark data was all there, my network – the relationships I’d built over the years – was gone.
Right now, the best way to manage your own domain is to set up a shared hosting account on GoDaddy or Dreamhost or any of a long list of others. From there, you likely (but not necessarily) have access to the CPanel (or maybe Fantastico) interface for managing the server space – domain names, databases, directories, etc… Gardner Campbell describes this as a good starting point for students to manage their own stuff, as a 21st century digital literacy skill. I disagree – I don’t think it’s easy enough. It’s easier than managing your own server, but it’s far more complicated than most people would be comfortable with. My Dad calls me regularly for help with finding things on his Mac. I can’t imagine how many calls I’d get if he tried setting up a web hosting account. He’d have to move in with us, and that’s not the best solution to getting Dad to host his own stuff.
Actually, Dad’s iMac already has everything he’d need, in order to host his own stuff. It comes stock with Apache2, MySQL, PHP, and all kinds of other goodies. All he’d have to do is sign up for a DynDNS.org account, light up the built-in server apps, and install whatever web applications he wants. But Dad isn’t about to do that. Even that single-sentence description of the process would make his eyes glaze over.
So, what’s the alternative? If most people (including my Dad) would never set up a web hosting account, or run their own webserver, how are they going to host their own content?
The closest thing I’ve seen as an ideal alternative is the Opera Unite project. Built into the Opera browser, is a server that can install and run a number of applications – things like webservers, file sharing, whiteboards, etc… It only takes a single click to install an application. Then, it runs on your own computer, storing the data on your own hard drive. Unite takes care of mapping a domain name to your running copy of the Opera browser, and sends people directly to your computer instead of some server Out There.
Here’s the Applications menu running on my laptop, letting people who visit my operaunite.com domain choose what they want to see.
The stock Unite apps are decent enough, but don’t really replace what people are doing online. There is a blog app, but it sucks terribly. The bookmarks app is no Delicious (nor Scuttle). So, the apps aren’t a huge draw.
But the model is great. Software that runs on your own computer that lets you control your own content. It handles an automatic domain name, for those that don’t have one (or don’t want to set one up). But, it also works with regular domain name, as long as it’s configured to point to your home IP address. Unite even starts to address the social network layer – letting you connect with friends through the Unite service and see their activity streams.
Opera Unite is cool, but it’s not the killer platform for hosting your own stuff. It’s cross platform, but it requires people to switch browsers in order to run a server. They should be decoupled. A separate, ideally cross platform, server platform is required for this to really take off.
We’ve got similar models in non-server software. The App Store shows how easy it is to find and install apps – something, again, that many people just don’t do on their desktop computers. If they do install something, it’s because they’ve been asked or told to, not because they felt comfortable trying out a new app, experimenting and exploring. The app store changes that. It’s trivial to try out a new app, without worrying about installing it, or breaking anything.
So, the characteristics of this mythical standalone self-hosting platform:
- lightweight – tomcat need not apply
- cross-platform (Mac, Windows, maybe Ubuntu?)
- server “app store” analog for easy one-click installs
- simple domain name setup (default to a computer.username.ihostmyownstuff.net but allow/encourage custom domains)
- simple interface for managing apps – add/delete/start/stop/config/etc… without having to edit files
- simple interface for managing app data – backup/export/import/config/etc… without having to edit files
What about the apps? Traditional php applications currently require too much geek stuff to properly manage – you should be editing files, auditing files for plugins/themes before installing to verify that they don’t contain evil stuff, etc… My Dad won’t be doing that. He literally needs a one-click install.
So, if it’s really one-click, what does the app look like? Could they be some form of native code, rather than bundles of interpreted php etc…? Also, a stand-alone desktop app may not require MySQL or PHP or any of the other common parts of current traditional web apps. What if these apps were compiled native code, using some form of stand-alone NoSQL data storage?
One of the nice things about the use of php for web apps is that they are easily readable and modifiable – anyone with a text editor can hack on the code, tweak it, or fix things. But, how many people actually do that, in comparison to the number of potential users of the software? Is “anyone can edit” worth the cost of “everyone has to manage”? WordPress has come pretty close to trivial administration – the app has a one-click updater, and plugins and themes update almost automatically from within the Dashboard. But, it needs to get installed and configured in the first place. And there are lots of other apps out there that don’t offer anywhere near the level of interface polish as WordPress.
Dad isn’t going to install a copy of Gallery2. And he certainly isn’t going to hack a theme for it.
But, he could click “install photo gallery” from the mythical self-hosting app directory. In my head, it’s as simple as browsing the App Store on an iPhone, and clicking on an app to install it. Done. No geeky stuff required.
Of course, this would only handle the app/content side of things. What about the magic of the network of social connections? There are a few models. Google’s OpenSocial project may be a solution. Or, there could be central connection hubs – similar to GameCenter for iPhone games – where people register with the service, and all of their apps send notifications to the service (or, alternatively, let friends know where to get notifications sent directly).
And, all of this is based on the (likely false) assumption that people really give a crap about running their own stuff and owning their software and data rather than continuing to feed their activity streams into “free” hosted services so others can monetize them by inserting ads or reselling data and relationships.
One of the things I was missing when I switched from Google Reader to Fever˚ was a way to share items from my subscriptions. Fever˚ didn’t have any way to generate a feed of things I saved, so it was kind of a separate silo. But, the most recent version of Fever˚ includes a cool new feature to share my Saved items in an RSS feed. Easy peasy.
Here’s an embedded view of the last 30 saved items, thanks to the magical wondrousness of Feed2JS: (it’ll probably bork in the feed, though. irony.)
There are lots of other features that got added in the last update, including integration with Twitter and Instapaper. Fever˚ just keeps getting better and better…
I was asked to give a presentation for the From Courses to Dis/Course online conference last week, and chose the topic of identity as it relates to openness. My session, Identity in the Open Classroom, was a fun (for me, anyway) exploration of the issues, and I think served the purpose of framing discussion.
Here’s the video of the recording from the session:
and the slide that wound up framing much of the question and answer portion:
Relationships are more than artificial pigeonholes. Rex, at Savage Minds, compares Facebook (and by extension Web 2.0) identities and relationships to those of indigenous vs. colonial cultures.
Facebook subsumes face-to-face relationships, in other words, in a way similar to the way that governments subsume indigenous identities. Or at least the identities of Papua New Guinean ‘landowners’ that I study. In both cases, an institution identified people as being unambiguously one type or another for the purposes of granting them access to resources and certain types of moral recognition. I think many of the criticisms that people have made of the deforming effects of state recognition on indigenous people could in principle be applied to people on Facebook—although of course the stakes are infinitely lower in the case of Facebook.
Insofar as indigenous critiques of pathological state systems of recognition are a particular example of a more general criticism of the way that living breathing lifeworlds are formalized—or rather, how the living and breathing world has little solidified models of itself drifting around within it in complexly reflective ways. We might start thinking about the performative nature of these identities: how a new occasion to classify people as friends suddenly makes us rethink not just whether someone is a friend, but what that category means. Perhaps there will someday be computers with databases so massive and logic so fuzzy they will be able to intuit that I want Jim to see photos of my weekend hike, but not Sarah. But in the meantime perhaps we need someone to write a critique of the corrosive bureaucratic imagining of friendship that Facebook promotes. Or perhaps we need an expose of the way that its mechanisms are constantly being detourned by the communities that are constantly appropriating it.
The lens with which we view ourselves, and our relationships with others, colours our perception of both. If that lens imposes a bureaucratic structure, we pigeonhole people into appropriate boxes, without the fluidity and organic nature we might otherwise see.
I had a discussion with King Chung Huang and Paul Pival this morning, about one of King’s current research projects. He’s working on the topic of context and identity – what it would mean from both institutional and individual perspectives, if our digital identities and contexts were pulled out of the silos of Blackboard, email, and other isolated and closed systems. What would it mean if every person, group, and place has a URL, which is aware of contexts (institutional, academic, geographical, temporal, etc…) and is also able to gather and provide lists of relevant resources.
A Person would have what is essentially a profile (name, role, contact info, interests, courses, websites, etc…), a Group would describe its type (department, faculty, course, session, club, etc…) as well as lists of relevant bits of info (uses a wiki, has a Blackboard course, meets at this location at this time, has these members, etc…). And Places would describe physical locations, knowing which resources are available, where they are, which Persons and Groups are interested in the Place, as well as scheduling information, etc… (hmm… do we need a fourth primitive type of Time?)
At first blush, it felt like a “portal” problem. Set up a personal Pageflakes or Netvibes page, dropping in some relevant widgets and links. Everyone can customize their own page, and a directory could be created to help discover people, groups, and places.
But that approach loses any real meaning of the contexts. It’s just a dumb content display utility, without being aware of the meaning of the contexts of the content, or of the relationships between people, groups and places.
We talked for awhile, and came to the realization that there is a missing fundamental concept. One that describes the identity and context, and ties the relevant bits of salient info together in a way that can then be used to build novel applications.
Currently, a prof sets up a Blackboard course. They add content to the course. They add Links to various bits. But none of this stuff really knows the context – just that it’s some text that’s been pasted into a container within Blackboard. A prof could spend a lot of time and effort building up a course site in Blackboard, only to kill it at the end of the semester. (sure, it could be cloned, but again that’s context-unaware).
What if the course was just a Group, set up with its own identity and context, and aware of various bits of information. Is Called Mythical Course 301. Has Course ID of MYTHCRSE301. Has Professor… Has TAs… Has Blackboard Course… Uses Wiki at… Podcasts available at… Meets MWF 1000-1050 at ST148…
The idea that Paul came up with is that this is related to the mythical EduGlu concept, but as a necessary first step that is currently missing. Right now, there would be much manual labour to set up an EduGlu service to aggregate activity that happens as part of the practice of teaching and learning. What if we could take advantage of the contexts of Person, Group, and Place to automate that process? We could pull sets of RSS feeds into the aggregator, apply some processing, and export different formats for use in different contexts. Map views. Calendar views. Timeline views. Analysis of individual and group contributions. Interaction analysis. etc…
But, is there some tool, application or platform that is currently able to handle this abstracted concept of context – of Person, Group and Place – that can be used to create a flexible *cough*portal*ahem* to manage and display the torrents of centralized and decentralized information?
Notes for week 2 of David Wiley’s Intro to Open Education course at Utah State University, on Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.
I think I’m definitely falling down on the academic rigour of my responses – I should be providing a much deeper response, rather than just barfing out some thoughts and questions. I’ll try to pick it up for week 3.
I’m connecting the dots between two otherwise unrelated items that were in my Google Reader inbox this morning.
The first article is about students at USC Film School realizing that the copyright for their student films belongs to USC. Which means they can’t do things like post their work to YouTube, or enter them at Sundance (without first going through channels to get approval from USC). I’m assuming that USC asserts copyright over student works because there might be a chance to monetize – it is Film, after all. Are there other examples of schools asserting copyright over student works? Why hasn’t this been flagged as an issue before this?
The second article is about data ownership and privacy wrt Facebook. Facebook owns everything that goes on, and in, Facebook. Because they own the whole widget, soup to nuts, they get to control what happens to and with our data. They can decide to expose, aggregate, process, and sell our data to third parties. It’s not really a free service.
Both articles emphasize the importance of owning your content and data. In an environment where you retain copyright for your own creations (ideally, sharing with something like a CreativeCommons license), you get to decide what you can do with your own stuff. Extend that to an environment where you are in control of your own personal data (or identity). OpenID and Sxip are both steps in the right direction there.
The bottom line is, when you give up ownership of your own content and data, you lose freedom.
OpenID appears to be gaining some momentum. It feels like the right approach to identity management – let individuals control their identity in a trusted way, rather than relying on federation through central brokers. Sun Microsystems just rolled out OpenID support for all of their employees. Stephen‘s been talking about this kind of decentralized identity management for years (and most recently just yesterday).
But, it’s been a bit strange in that it hasn’t been very easy to run your own OpenID server. I mean, you could go through myopenid.com to get a free hosted OpenID, but that’s just a federated, centrally hosted identity. No different than a Yahoo! or Google account. The power of OpenID is that you can/should run your own OpenID server, so you control it. It’s not a decentralized, individual identity management system if we still hand control over it to central services. We need to be running our own OpenID servers. Which means it needs to be easy to set up. Ideally one-click easy. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s getting closer.
I’d tried to install an OpenID server yesterday, and failed because DreamHost doesn’t support the big math libraries needed for encryption, and the server I was trying didn’t fall back to “dumb” mode. But, I just installed phpMyID on my DreamHost account, and it worked flawlessly. It took maybe 10 minutes, including RTFMing. Now, I have my own OpenID server, which I control, living at openid.darcynorman.net
Now, what does that get me? Initially, not much. All I’ve been able to do is authenticate on Zooomr.com using my own OpenID server as credentials. That’s pretty cool as a “hello, world!” test. And when OpenID support gets rolled into more services, I’m ready.
DreamHost, if you’re listening, this would be a great opportunity for a One-Click Install package. Rolling out OpenID server support for all of the 46 bajillion DreamHost customers would go a long way toward kickstarting OpenID adoption. I’d say Google should roll it out for GMail account holders, but again that kind of defeats the point of a decentralized identity management system, if we all use a central broker anyway…
Update: Even cleaner, now. I’ve just added the
openid.delegate elements to the head of my blog, meaning I can just provide the url “
https://ancient.darcynorman.net/darcynorman.net/2016” as my identity in any OpenID-enabled software.
Update 2: Yikes! I just went to enable HTTPS and certificate support on the
openid.darcynorman.net domain, and it’d cost almost $250CDN per year to do that ($48US per year for static IP, $189US per year for the certificate via GeoTrust). There’s a minor flaw in the whole OpenID system – if the distributed servers aren’t trustworthy and secure, the system kind of falls over. An unsecured OpenID server is a bit of a magnet for packet sniffing usernames and passwords…
Update, 33 1/3: I got nervous about not having a secure OpenID server, so reverted back to using MyOpenID.com. Yes, it’s a centrally hosted distributed identity provider, but it’s secure, and by using my own URL as a delegate I retain control (so if MyOpenID.com turns evil, I’m able to very easily switch to another provider, or run my own).
I also added the handy OpenID WordPress Delegate Plugin to this blog, so it will automatically add my OpenID information without my having to remember to tweak the theme’s header.php file every time I update the theme…