Archive: October 5th, 2007

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I'm a cartoon, which feels kinda weird. Brits... collect 'em all: Budd, Hicks, Malarkey and me.

Lock up your data

There have been a number of experiments carried out to investigate the effects of video on communication. I recall hearing about one experiment done with mothers and babies. The mothers were placed in one room with a video camera and the babies were placed in another room with a monitor showing a video feed from the mother. The babies interacted just fine with the video representations of their mothers. Then a one second lag was introduced. The babies freaked out.

I was reminded of this during the closing panel on day two of Fundamentos Web. Tim Berners-Lee dialed in via iChat to join a phalanx of panelists in meatspace. Alas, the signal wasn’t particularly strong. Add to that the problem of simultaneous translation, which isn’t really simultaneous, and you’ve got a gap of quite a few seconds between Asturias and Sir Tim’s secret lair. The resultant communication was, therefore, not really much of a conversation. It was still fascinating though.

Some of the most interesting perspectives came from George and Hannah—the people who are working at the coalface of social media. George asked Sir Tim for advice on the cultural side-effects of open data—how to educate people that publishing on sites like Flickr means that your pictures can and will be viewed in other contexts. Interestingly, Sir Tim’s response indicated that he was more concerned with educating people in how to keep their data private.

This difference in perspective might be an indication of a generation gap. The assumption amongst, say, teenagers is that everything is public except what they explictly want to keep private. The default assumption amongst older folks (such as my generation) is the exact opposite: data is private except when it is explictly made public. The first position matches the sensibilities of Flickr and The second position is more in line with Facebook’s walled garden approach.

I was really glad that George raised this issue. It’s something that has been occupying my mind lately, particular in reference to Flickr.

Flickr provides a range of ways of accessing your photos; the website, RSS, KML, LOL… and of course, the API. It’s a wonderful API, certainly the best one that I’ve played with. I had a blast putting together the Flickr portion of Adactio Elsewhere.

Using the API, I was able to put together my own interface onto my photos and the latest photos from my contacts. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that—there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of third-party sites that use the Flickr API to do the same thing. However, a lot of those sites use Flash or non-degrading Ajax. But I use Hijax. That means that, even though I’ve built an Ajax interface, the fundamental interaction is RESTful with good ol’ fashioned URLs. As a result—and this is just one of the benefits of Hijax—the Googlebot can spider all possible states of my application.

You can probably see where this is going. It’s a similar situation to what happened with my pirate-speak page converter. Even though I’m not providing a direct interface onto anyone’s pictures, Google is listing deep links in its search results.

This has resulted in a shitstorm on the Flickr forum. Reading through the reactions on that thread has been illuminating. In a nutshell, I’m getting penalised for having search-engine friendly pages. I, along with some other people on that thread, have tried to explain that Adactio Elsewhere is just one example of public Flickr data appearing beyond the bounds of Flickr’s domain—an issue tangentially relatred to intellectual property rights.

In this particular sitution, I was able to take some steps to soothe the injured parties by creating a PHP array called $stroppy_users. I also added a meta element instructing searchbots not to index Adactio Elsewhere which, I believe, will prevent any future grievances. As I said in the forum:

If a tree falls in the forest and Google doesn’t index it, does it make a noise?

I think the outburst of moral panic on the Flickr forum is symptomatic of a larger trend that has accompanied the growth of the site’s user base. Two years ago, Flickr was not your father’s photo sharing website. Now, especially with the migration from Yahoo Photos, it is. If you look at some of the frightened reactions to Flickr’s pirate day shenanigans you’ll see even more signs of this growth (Tom has a great in-depth look at the furore).

As sites like Flickr and move from a user base of early adopters into the mainstream, this issue becomes more important. What isn’t clear is how the moral responsibility should be distributed. Should Flickr provide clearer rules for API use? Should Google index less? Should the people publishing photos take more care in choosing when to mark photos as public and when to mark photos as private? Should developers (like myself) be more cautious in what we allow our applications to do with the API?

I don’t know the answers but I’m fairly certain that we’re not dealing with a technological issue here; this is a cultural matter.