August 23, 2007

The Superset of Friends

Most people seem to be fed up with entering details of all their friends each time they join a new social website. Of course, facebook's solution is that everyone building a social web app should just use the facebook platform and they can slowly replace the Internet.

I don't want to be down on facebook really, because they're probably the most open (to third-party developers) of the social websites and they also seem to have caught the non-geek audience - something that none of the others have seemed to manage.

However, those of us who create things on the Internet outside of facebook know that the facebook platform isn't the real answer. This blog post is a perfect example - it will, because I've spent time setting it up (which wasn't an obvious process), appear as a note on my facebook profile but won't appear in my friends' stream of my activities. Meaning that most of my friends won't have a full picture of my activities online.

Walled gardens, even ones with some gates like facebook, don't work in the long-term. AOL and Compuserve found that out in the 1990s; the mobile phone operators are slowly learning it; and facebook et al. will find out in the coming years.

It seems that there are quite a few people working on opening up the protocols for helping people to find their friends on new services. Brad Fitzpatrick has written a pretty good introduction to some of the problems and goals of such an endeavour.

He rightly notes and evangelizes that "[m]ost users don't care about XML, protocols, standards, data formats, centralization vs decentralization, silos, lock-in, etc. You, the reader of this document, are not a normal user."

The huge hole in his argument though seems to be his concept of "public data". He says:
"The focus is only on public data for now, as that's all you can spray around the net freely to other parties. While focusing on public data doesn't solve 100% of the problem, it does solve, say, 90% of the problem at 10% of the complexity."

What is the public data in my network of friends? I don't think there's very much. Is it just the list of my friends names? Their names and facebook identities? Their names, facebook identities and email addresses? I'm not really comfortable with my email address being given to random web services by my friends at present; I tolerate it because they're my friends but I get annoyed if I ignore the invite and the web service sends any more emails.

Luckily, at least Joseph Smarr is aware of the problem and arguing the case. "Our users tell us that the contents of their address book are private and that preserving their privacy is very important. So while some users are happy to declare their list of friends in an open and public way, we feel that dealing with private data is essential, and certainly much more than “10% of the problem�."

The problems with spam in email; blog comments; wikis... should remind us that not all users of any system we create will be honest and trustworthy. We should take the effort to think about it from the start, rather than assume we can tack on a solution after the technology becomes widespread.


Posted by Adrian at August 23, 2007 06:05 PM | TrackBack

This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to explore the site a bit further, it might be worth having a look at the most recent entries or look through the archives or categories over on the left.

You can receive updates whenever a new post is written by subscribing to the recent posts RSS feed or

Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Note: I'm running the MT-Keystrokes plugin to filter out spam comments, which unfortunately means you have to have Javascript turned on to be able to comment.