Tags: social




I went up to London today to have a chat about HTML5 with some of the developers in the trenches of the BBC World Service.

It was only when I was on the train from Brighton that I realised I had left my reading material at home. Never mind, I thought, I’ve got my my Huffduffer feed to listen to.

First, I listened to a talk from at The RSA entitled How Many Friends Does One Person Need?

How Many Friends Does One Person Need? on Huffduffer

Then I listened to Jared interviewing Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone on Designing Social Interfaces.

Designing Social Interfaces on Huffduffer

The thematic segue was seamless.

Moral panic

Thanks to Tom’s always excellent linkage, I came across an excellent in-depth article by Brenda Brathwaite called The Myth of the Media Myth, all about the perception of videogames by non-gamers. The research was prompted by a dinner conversation that highlighted the typical reactions:

It happens the same way every time: People listen and then they say what they’ve been feeling. Videogames are not good for you. Videogames are a waste of time. They isolate children. Kids never go outside to play. They just sit there and stare at the TV all day.

The tone of the opinions reminded me of the Daily Mail attitude to social networking sites. The resonances were so strong that I decided to conduct a quick experiment using my hacky little text substitution script. Here are the terms I swapped:

videogamesocial networking site
gamingsocial networking
game designerweb designer

Because the original article is paginated, I ran the print version through the transmogrifier. Please excuse any annoying print dialogue boxes. Here’s the final result.

The results are amusing, even accurate.The original article begins:

There are six of us around the table, and the conversation turns to what I do for a living, also known as “my field of study” in academia. “I’m a game designer and a professor,” I say. The dinner had been arranged by a third party in order to connect academics from various institutions for networking purposes.

“You mean videogames?” one of the teachers asks. It’s said with the same professional and courteous tone that one might reserve for asking, “Did you pass gas?”

“Videogames, yes,” I answer. “I’ve been doing it over 20 years now.” Really without any effort at all, I launch into a little love manifesto of sorts, talking about how much I enjoy being a game designer, how wonderful it is to make games, all kinds of games.

After substiitution:

There are six of us around the table, and the conversation turns to what I do for a living, also known as “my field of study” in academia. “I’m a web designer and a professor,” I say. The dinner had been arranged by a third party in order to connect academics from various institutions for networking purposes.

“You mean social networking sites?” one of the teachers asks. It’s said with the same professional and courteous tone that one might reserve for asking, “Did you pass gas?”

“social networking sites, yes,” I answer. “I’ve been doing it over 20 years now.” Really without any effort at all, I launch into a little love manifesto of sorts, talking about how much I enjoy being a web designer, how wonderful it is to make websites, all kinds of websites.

The comments from interviewees also hold up. Before:

One friend complained about GTA, admitted she’d never played the game and then offered this: “If you really are interested in deep psychoanalysis… the truth of my disdain for games is from a negative relationship — [a former boyfriend] would play for hours, upon hours, upon hours. Maybe I felt neglected, ignored and disrespected.”


One friend complained about Facebook, admitted she’d never surfed the website and then offered this: “If you really are interested in deep psychoanalysis… the truth of my disdain for websites is from a negative relationship — [a former boyfriend] would surf for hours, upon hours, upon hours. Maybe I felt neglected, ignored and disrespected.”

Even the analysis of the language offers parallels. Original:

“I haven’t found this kind of attitude about games per se. But in my version of your dinner party anecdote, I start with ‘I make games,’ not ‘I make videogames,’ and I’ve never had a response like the one you describe. This leads me to wonder if the very term ‘videogames’ is the problem meme.”


“I haven’t found this kind of attitude about websites per se. But in my version of your dinner party anecdote, I start with ‘I make websites,’ not ‘I make social networking sites,’ and I’ve never had a response like the one you describe. This leads me to wonder if the very term ‘social networking sites’ is the problem meme.”

But most telling of all are the quotes in the closing passages that haven’t been changed one jot from the original:

“If I had a choice, I would want to include these distrustful folks in finding solutions. I would prefer it if they understood. I would prefer it if they could see the long sequence of events that is going to address their fears and create the medium they will inevitably love and participate in, whether they expect to or not. What’s sad is that their ideological, ignorant, hostile, one-dimensional attitudes oversimplify one of the most beautiful problems in human history.”

Foo camping

The day that I was flying to San Francisco, Simon and Nat were flying to New Zealand for Kiwi Foo and Webstock so we shared a bus to Heathrow. They both look knackered because they had attempted to “get on New Zealand time” by staying up all night. We parted at the airport: See you in Austin I said. Good luck decentralising the social graph he replied.

Since arriving in San Francisco, I’ve spent most of my time trying to meet up with as many people as possible. A hastily-convened microformats/geek dinner helped to accomplish that.

Now I’m in Sebastopol for the SG Foo Camp. The letters SG stand for Social Graph, which is unfortunate—I’m not a big fan of that particularly techy-sounding term. That said, I’m really looking forward to hearing more from Brad Fitzpatrick about the new Social Graph API from Google. It isn’t the first XFN parser but it’s the only one with Google’s infrastructure. The data returned from spidering my XFN links is impressive but the fact that it can also return results with inbound links is very impressive, although it takes significantly longer to return results and often times out.

For most people, today’s big news was Microsoft licking its lips at Yahoo but that was completely eclipsed by the new API for me. While I was waiting at Tantek’s for Larry and Chris to drive by and pick us up, I spent my time gleefully looking through the reams of information returned from entering just one URL into the API. Just now, I was chatting with John Musser from Programmable Web and we were thinking up all the potential mashups that this could open up.

I’m not going to build anything just yet though. I’m far too tired. I need to find a nice quiet corner of the O’Reilly office to unroll my sleeping bag.

Back to school

When I went to the Reboot conference in Copenhagen earlier this year, I met plenty of people who were interesting, cool and just plain nice. In fact, I met half of those lovely people before I even arrived in Denmark—it was at Stansted airport, waiting for a delayed flight, that I first met Riccardo Cambiassi, Lee Bryant and David Smith.

David is a teacher at St Paul’s school in London. Lately he’s been organising an ongoing series of guest speakers to come in and talk to the students. came in and gave a talk a little while back—yes that Ted Nelson. As you can imagine then, I was simultaneously honoured and intimidated when David asked me to come along to the school to give a talk on Designing the Social Web.

Yesterday was the big day. I walked across Hammersmith bridge and stepped inside a school for the first time in almost twenty years. Despite my nervousness, I felt the talk went well. I put together some slides but they were mostly just notes for myself. I had a whole grab-bag of things I wanted to discuss and while I might have done it in a very unstructured way, I think I managed to cover most of them.

Obviously this was a very different audience than I’m used to speaking to but I really enjoyed that. It was illuminating to go straight to the source and find out how teenagers are using social networking sites. Once the talk and questions were done, we adjourned to lunch—a good old fashioned school dinner—where the discussion continued. I really enjoyed talking with such sharp, savvy young gentlemen.

It isn’t surprising that they’re all so Web-savvy; the Web has always been there for them. Thinking back on my own life, it almost seems in retrospect as if I was just waiting for the Web to come along. Maybe I was born too soon or maybe I’m just young at heart, but I found that I was able to relate very closely with these people who are half my age.

I took the opportunity to test a theory of Jeff Veen’s on the difference in generational attitudes towards open data. Given the following two statements:

  1. my data is private except what I explicitly choose to make public or
  2. my data is public except what I explicitly choose to keep private,

…the overwhelming consensus amongst the students was with the second viewpoint, which happens to be the viewpoint I share but I suspect many people my age don’t.

There were plenty of other stimulating talking points—the Facebook/Beacon debacle was a big topic. It was a great way to spend an afternoon. My thanks to David for inviting me along to the school and my thanks to the young men of St Paul’s for their graciousness in listening to me natter on about small world networks, the strength of weak ties, portable social networks and, inevitably, microformats.

Seeing as I was in London anyway, I took the tube across town to see my collaborators at New Bamboo. That meant that by the time I was leaving London, it was rush hour. Oh joy. Despite the knackering experience of the commute, I managed to stay on my feet long enough to enjoy a great gig in Brighton that evening. It was a long but very fulfilling day.


The nerdier nether-regions of blogland have been burning through the night with the news of the OpenSocial initiative spearheaded by Google and supported by what Chris so aptly calls the coalition of the willing.

Like Simon, I’ve been trying to get my head around exactly what OpenSocial is all about ever since reading Brady Forrest’s announcement. Here’s what I think is going on:

Facebook has an API that allows third parties to put applications on Facebook profile pages (substitute the word “widget” for “application” for a more accurate picture). Developers have embraced Facebook applications because, well, Facebook is so damn big. But developing an app/widget for Facebook is time-consuming enough that the prospect of rewriting the same app for a dozen other social networking sites is an unappealing prospect. That’s where OpenSocial comes in. It’s a set of conventions. If you develop to these conventions, your app can live on any of the social networking sites that support OpenSocial: LinkedIn, MySpace, Plaxo and many more.

Some of the best explanations of OpenSocial are somewhat biased, coming as they do from the people who are supporting this initiative, but they are still well worth reading:

There’s no doubt that this set of conventions built upon open standards—HTML and JavaScript—is very good for developers. They no longer have to choose what “platforms” they want to support when they’re building widgets.

That’s all well and good but frankly, I’m not very interested in making widgets, apps or whatever you want to call them. I’m interested in portable social networks.

At first glance, it looks like OpenSocial might provide a way of exporting social network relationships. From the documentation:

The People and Friends data API allows client applications to view and update People Profiles and Friend relationships using AtomPub GData APIs with a Google data schema. Your client application can request a list of a user’s Friends and query the content in an existing Profile.

But it looks like these API calls are intended for applications sitting on the host platform rather than separate sites hoping to extract contact information. As David Emery points out, this is a missed opportunity:

The problem is, however, that OpenSocial is coming at completely the wrong end of the closed-social-network problem. By far and away the biggest problem in social networking is fatigue, that to join yet another site you have to sign-up again, fill in all your likes and dislikes again and—most importantly—find all your friends again. OpenSocial doesn’t solve this, but if it had it could be truly revolutionary; if Google had gone after opening up the social graph (a term I’m not a fan of, but it seems to have stuck) then Facebook would have become much more of an irrelevance—people could go to whatever site they wanted to use, and still preserve all the interactions with their friends (the bit that really matters).

While OpenSocial is, like OAuth, a technology for developers rather than end users, it does foster a healthy atmosphere of openness that encourages social network portability. Tantek has put together a handy little table to explain how all these technologies fit together:

portabilitytechnologyprimary beneficiary
social applicationOAuth, OpenSocialdevelopers
social profilehCard users
friends listXFN users
loginOpenID users

I was initially excited that OpenSocial might be a magic bullet for portable social networks but after some research, it doesn’t look like that’s the case—it’s all about portable social widgets.

But like I said, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve really got a handle on OpenSocial so I’ll be digging deeper. I was hoping to see Patrick Chanezon talk about it at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin next week but, wouldn’t you know it, I’m scheduled to give a talk at exactly the same time. I hope there’ll be plenty of livebloggers taking copious notes.


Sometimes I write something here in my journal and open up the post for comments. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe one in ten posts. That’s because I still firmly believe in my corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs:

Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.

No doubt there are still those who believe that what I am doing is somehow anti-community. The fallacy there is in equating comments with community. Choose a random video on YouTube or a random story on Digg, read each and every comment and then tell me that the comments contribute to any kind of community discussion. They are shining examples of antisocial networking.

As for the oft-quoted justification that comments on blogs enable conversation, I’m going to quote my past self again:

The best online conversations I’ve seen have been blog to blog: somebody posts something on their blog; somebody else feels compelled to respond on their own blog. The quality of such a response is nearly always better than a comment on the originating blog for the simple reason that people care more about what appears on their own site than on someone else’s.

I’m guilty of this myself. I chimed in with some comments on Jeff Croft’s latest post. There was some subsequent miscommunication between Jeff and myself that I think was partly due to the medium: a textarea at the end of a blog post has a low barrier to entry but it’s that same ease of access that discourages deeper reflection. If I had crafted a response here on my own site, I probably wouldn’t have hit the curt tone that I unintentionally wrote in and I’m sure our mutual misunderstandings could have been avoided. Jeff has now deleted the back and forth we had in the comments as is his prerogative and that’s probably for the best.

I often wonder why so many writers are so keen to have comments on their blogs considering the burden it places on them. Managing a centralised community (the kind fostered by blog comments) is hard work. I know this from all the effort I put in over at The Session. It takes a lot of time and it can be extremely frustrating (though, admittedly, it can also be very rewarding).

Between my ill-advised contributions to Jeff’s blog post and a particularly heavy week of cat-herding at The Session, I was feeling less than optimistic about the nature of online communication. Then I made the mistake of reading the responses to Molly’s open letter to organisations beginning with W. I became very despondent indeed.

I find it very depressing to see people I consider to be good friends bickering. The really discouraging aspect is that these disagreements are based on such minor differences. I’m reminded of Gulliver’s Travels in which a debate about the correct way to crack an egg eventually leads to war.

For crying out loud, we’re all on the same side here, people! We have so, so much in common and yet here we are, focusing on the few differences that separate us. Step back. Look at the big picture. We are comrades, not enemies.

Leaving aside the trolling and petulance in the comments—which should hardly surprise me, given my opinion of most blog comments—the contents of Molly’s post is equally dispiriting but for different reasons.

Molly is calling for more action from the W3C and the WaSP. She’s right, of course. Things have been far too quiet at the Web Standards Project. I’ve been feeling guilty about my own lack of activity and Molly’s rallying cry has increased that feeling.

But here’s the thing… I don’t think I can muster the requisite energy. I’m not saying that the work of the DOM Scripting Task Force is done but the perception of JavaScript has come along way since we wrote our manifesto. Two years ago, I really felt that something had to be done. I couldn’t just sit still. My colleagues and I were motivated to get out there and encourage best practices. A lot of that came from frustration: anger is an energy. Today, that flame burns lower. I’m not saying that best practices are widespread but they’re more widespread than they were and I got the feeling that there are a lot of good developers out there who could do a better of job of spreading the word than me.

This has happened before. I caught the CSS bug back in 2001. I started evangelising at any opportunity; mailing lists, blogs and so on. A few years later, I was kind of burned out but in a good way. I couldn’t muster the necessary enthusiasm for activism but that was okay: plenty of other people came along with abundant time and energy. I was free to get on with actually building websites, using standards instead of just talking about them.

Well, apparently it’s not enough to just use best practices. Molly—and others I’m sure—want to see much more direct action. But I can’t force myself into action. I certainly can’t get behind the conspiracy theory that Molly is seeing in Mozilla and Adobe collaborating on JavaScript… it’s bad when companies don’t sit down and talk to each other but it’s worse when they do? I just don’t get it.

I’m also getting tired of the no-win situation: you can either get passionate about a cause and be labeled a zealot or you can keep your head down and be labeled complacent. To quote Molly: Fuck. That.

I honestly don’t think I can muster the requisite enthusiasm to contribute to mailing lists, blog posts and other fora for advancing best practices. I am, however, very willing to lead by example; to publish online using standards and validate what I put out there. Maybe that isn’t enough. But I’m drawing a line.

I can appreciate how much effort someone like Molly has put into fighting the good fight over the years. But I can also see the toll it has taken and I don’t think I’m willing to pay that price. I’m not feeling quite as nihilistic as Brothercake but I can certainly relate to his conclusion:

So screw the endless arguments. I’m just going to quietly get on with doing what I think is the right thing to do, in the way I think it should be done.

There are still topics that get me excited. Microformats have rekindled my love of markup and I don’t see that excitement fading anytime soon.

In amongst all the doom and gloom that’s being weighing on everyone’s shoulders lately, I’m immensely buoyed by Aral’s outlook. I share his optimism regarding the collaboration between the worlds of Web standards and Flash. Crucially, I think that what Aral and I feel is bolstered by interaction and communication in the real world.

I love the Web. I really do. But sometimes I think that one good natter over a beer is worth a thousand mailing lists or a million blog comments. For that reason, I intend to maintain as much meatspace standards activity as I can: conferences, workshops, local meetups… but don’t expect too much in the way of emails, articles or other online evangelism from me. I’m going to be too busy building a better Web to spend much time talking about building a better Web.

Comments are, most emphatically, closed.


In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve got a real thing about portable social networks. And I’m not the only one. At a recent meetup in San Francisco a bunch of the Web’s finest minds got together to tackle this issue. You can track the progress (and contribute) on the microformats wiki.

Ever since then, Brian Oberkirch has been doing a sterling job documenting the issues involved:

Head on over there, read what Brian has to say and join in the conversation in the comments.

Lest you think that this is some niche itch that needs to be scratched, I can tell you from personal experience that everybody I’ve spoken to thinks that is a real issue that needs tackling. Heck, even Wired News is getting upset in the article Slap in the Facebook: It’s Time for Social Networks to Open Up:

We would like to place an open call to the web-programming community to solve this problem. We need a new framework based on open standards. Think of it as a structure that links individual sites and makes explicit social relationships, a way of defining micro social networks within the larger network of the web.

Weirdly, the same article then dismisses XFN, saying Trouble is, the data format doesn’t yet offer any tools for managing friends. That’s kind of like dismissing HTML because it doesn’t offer you a way of managing your bookmarks. XFN is a format—a really simply format. Building a tool to manage relationships would be relatively easy. But you have to have the format before you can have the tool.


The latest social networking app de jour is called Pownce. Like most people, I signed up a few days ago and starting playing around.

If you read the 140 character reviews of Pownce on Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pownce is some kind of Twitter clone. Here, for example, is the collected wisdom of Paul Boag:

Just dont get pownce. Just feels like Twitter but i need to invite all my friends again

Not sure I can be bothered to update both twitter and pownce. Might have to make a decision soon.

It’s understandable, I suppose. Pownce lets you send little updates… just like Twitter. You can share links… just like Del.icio.us. You can share share events… just like Upcoming. So comparing Pownce to any of these services is understandable, I suppose. But I am reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant. It seems that many of my own friends are displaying a disappointing lack of imagination by only comparing Pownce to what they already know.

The key feature of Pownce is the ability to share files. If you read the about page, the service is defined in a nutshell:

Pownce is a way to send stuff to your friends.

Stuff + friends. And like all the best apps, it was built to scratch an itch:

Pownce is brought to you by a bunch of geeks who were frustrated trying to send stuff from one cube to another.

If you want to compare it to anything, Dropsend feels like the closest competitor. Pownce is a pain-free way of sharing music, video and images amongst a discrete group of people.

And that’s the other key point: groups of people. It’s no coincidence that this app has support for groups built in from the start. The combination of file sharing with groups could potentially make it a killer app. It could be a social app like Twitter or whatever, but I think it could just as easily be a productivity app, more akin to something from 37 Signals.

Here’s an example: I’ve got everyone in the Clearleft office signed up. Each of us can have as many friends as we want but as long as we each have a Clearleft group, we can share files, links, events and notes with one another.

I’ve also created a Britpack group. If enough of my fellow Illuminati sign up, I can share stuff privately with them—something I can’t do on the mailing list because it quite rightly strips out attachments.

Another potential use would be for my band, Salter Cane. Emailing songs around is a royal pain. Being able to share MP3 files with an addressable but private URL could be really handy.

Far from being another Twitter or Jaiku, Pownce is a completely different part of the ecosystem of the social web.

I still plan to put public events on Upcoming and videos on YouTube, Viddler, Vimeo or wherever. But for that space between private and public, when I want to share something with a certain number of people, Pownce sure beats CCing a bunch of email addresses.

There’s another unspoken advantage that Pownce has over other social uploading sites like YouTube. If you’re sharing a file that might be slightly bending the law around license agreements or copyright, the ability to restrict the circulation could save everyone a lot of hassle. What the RIAA and MPAA don’t know won’t hurt ‘em.

The utility of Pownce isn’t the only reason I like it. It’s also really nicely designed. I don’t just mean the visual design—which is lovely, thanks to Daniel. The interaction design is well thought-out.

This is a surprisingly full-featured app considering that just four people put it together. There was just one full-time programmer for the website: Leah Culver. In spite of that, the site has launched (still in Alpha) with a whole bunch of features. The notifications and privacy settings, for example, are really nicely done. There’s also a nice “friends of friends” feature to help you track down people you might know.

Oh, and it’s got one of the best 404 pages ever.

Under the hood, everything has been put together with Django with storage handled by Amazon’s Simple Storage Service. If you peek into the markup, you’ll also find a bunch of nice microformats.

There’s also a desktop app for the service. It’s built using AIR née Apollo. It’s pretty slick and frankly, seeing an independent product like this is going to be far more likely to convince me of the benefits of the platform than any product demo from Adobe.

There are whole bunch of other little things that I like about Pownce that add to its personality—like the gender options in the profile form or the ability to choose themes—but I’ll stop going on about it. The key thing is that I can see this service filling a need through the combination of groups + file sharing.

If you’ve tried Pownce and come away feeling that it’s just like Twitter, you’re doing it wrong.

Social networking

Here’s a list of websites on which I have an account and which involve some form of social networking. I’m listing them in order of how often I visit. I’m also listing how many contacts/buddies/friends/connections/people I have on each site.

My Social Networks
Linked inRarely90

This is just a snapshot of activity so some of the data may be slightly skewed. Pownce, for instance, is quite a new site so my visits may increase or decrease dramatically over time. Also, though I’ve listed Del.icio.us as a daily visit, it’s really just the bookmarklet or Adactio Elsewhere that I use every day—I hardly ever visit the site itself.

Other sites that I visit on a daily basis don’t have a social networking component: blogs, news sites, Technorati, The Session (hmmm… must do something about that).

In general, the more often I use a service, the more likely I am to have many connections there. But there are some glaring exceptions. I have hardly any connections on Del.icio.us because the social networking aspect is fairly tangential to the site’s main purpose.

More interestingly, there are some exceptions that run in the other direction. I have lots of connections on Linked in and Facebook but I don’t use them much at all. In the case of Linked in, that’s because I don’t really have any incentive. I’m sure it would be a different story if I were looking for a job.

As for Facebook, I really don’t like the way it tries to be a one-stop shop for everything. It feels like a walled garden to me. I much prefer services that choose to do one thing but do it really well:

Mind you, there’s now some crossover in the events space when the events are musical in nature. The next Salter Cane concert is on Last.fm but it links off to the Upcoming event … which then loops back to Last.fm.

I haven’t settled on a book reading site yet. It’s a toss-up between Anobbii and Revish. It could go either way. One of the deciding factors will be how many of friends use each service. That’s the reason why I use Twitter more than Jaiku. Jaiku is superior in almost every way but more of my friends use Twitter. Inertia keeps me on Twitter. It’s probably just inertia that keeps me Del.icio.us rather than Ma.gnolia.

The sum total of all my connections on all these services comes to 890. But of course most of these are the same people showing up on different sites. I reckon the total amount of individual people doesn’t exceed 250. Of that, there’s probably a core of 50 people who I have connected to on at least 5 services. It’s for these people that I would really, really like to have portable social networks.

Each one of the services I’ve listed should follow these three steps. In order of difficulty:

  1. Provide a publicly addressable list of my connections. Nearly all the sites listed already do this.
  2. Mark up the list of connections with hCard and, where appropriate, XFN. Twitter, Flickr, Ma.gnolia, Pownce, Cork’d and Upcoming already do this.
  3. Provide a form with a field to paste the URL of another service where I have suitably marked-up connections. Parse and attempt to import connections found there.

That last step is the tricky one. Dopplr is the first site to attempt this. That’s the way to do it. Other social networking sites, take note.

It’s time that social networking sites really made an effort to allow not just the free flow of data, but also the free flow of relationships.

I’d twit that

Khoi writes about Twitter and its younger sibling, Twitterific. He makes some great points about the differences that the two interfaces confer on the experience of Twittering.

He’s not the only one with something to say about Twitter. At Web Directions North, the subject came up at least once every evening and usually resulted in an hour-long conversation/discussion/argument about its merits and failings. I can’t remember the last time that a service prompted such strong feelings.

Personally, I found my emotional connection to Twitter deepening while I was in Vancouver. I didn’t have much opportunity to Twitter myself because my phone didn’t want to play nice with Canadian networks but Jessica was twittering. Being able to catch up with the minutiae of her activity during the day was just wonderful. Of course there’s always emails, chats, phone calls, blog posts and Flickr pics but they all require a certain level of effort.

I must admit, not having a working phone did feel a little bit like going cold turkey. I’m sure that, like Dan, I would have been Twittering from on top of Whistler.

If you want to see some real Twitter addiction, Patrick Haney has it bad, man. He paid the price for his addiction when a Twitter drinking game was decreed at the Media Temple closing party. The rules are simple:

  • If you receive a Twitter, you must take a drink.
  • If you send a Twitter, you must take a drink.
  • If you say the word Twitter, you must take a drink.

I hadn’t seen Tantek in an inebriated state until that night.

Whither Twitter?

Twitter is a funny little beast about which I’ve had plenty to say. The service has been growing in popularity and lots of new people are showing up to try it out.

I know quite a few people who don’t like it. Eric is frustrated. Meanwhile, on a mailing list, some other friends of mine expressed similar feelings of frustration and even disgust.

Most of the frustrations stem from Twitter’s crappiness as a communication tool for a social network. It’s like a crippled version of IRC. It’s not as good as instant messaging. Creating a network of friends is too time-consuming.

All of these accusations are true. But they don’t matter one little bit to me. I can understand why coming to Twitter now — when you know that lots of your friends are already using it — must be so frustrating: it looks like a communication tool so why is it so hard to make it work like one? But when I started using Twitter, I didn’t know anybody else using it (except for Dunstan). So I use Twitter to broadcast, not to converse.

Since then, with the influx of so many of my friends, I find myself occasionally participating in ad-hoc conversations but they are, by nature, fragile. I’m far more likely to use the “direct message” feature if I’ve got something to say to someone specific on Twitter.

So if Twitter isn’t much good as a collaborative communication tool and all I really use it for is to broadcast my current state of mind, newcomers to the service might rightly ask, “what’s the point?”

It’s not the first time that this question has been asked of online tools. A few years back, that same question was the mantra chanted by most people when they heard about blogging; “what’s the point?”

For anyone coming to blogging now of course, there are plenty of good answers to that question. Most of the answers are to do with “building brand”, “networking”, and other valid but, in my mind, shitty reasons for starting a blog.

Twittering is like blogging: I would do it even if no-one was going to read it.

I don’t blog for other people. I don’t twitter for other people. I do both for myself.

What’s the point? It’s fun.

Life streams and Jaiku

After I wrote about mashing up RSS feeds to create a sort of life stream, some people have taken this idea and run with it. Probably my favourite implementation is Deliciously Meta from Steve Ivy, which looks very classy. For Wordpress users, Chris J. Davis has created a plug-in. Check out his own life stream to see it in action.

Just the other day, I came across a site which allows you to create a life stream by entering a series of URLs. The site is Jaiku.

Jaiku is a Finnish competitor to Twitter—with the added benefit of a life stream thrown in. You send the site little updates of what you’re doing (via the Web or mobile) and you track what your friends are up to.

In many ways, Jaiku is superior to Twitter. It certainly looks a lot better. It feels snappier. The markup is clean. There’s also a dedicated mobile client for Nokia smart phones. All in all, it’s a slick, fun site.

And yet… simply by virtue of the fact that I discovered it after Twitter, I’m unlikely to use Jaiku as much. It all comes back to the issue of creating yet another network of friends on yet another social networking site: I don’t feel very motivated to do it and I suspect that none of my contacts on Twitter relish the prospect either.

Khoi posited the idea that the exclusivity of social networks may be a feature, not a bug. That may be true to a certain extent. On Last.fm, my criteria for adding a contact is not just my relationship with that person, but also whether or not they have crappy taste in music. On Twitter, I only add people I’ve met in real life. Perhaps I’ll end up using Jaiku for a limited subset of people I know: maybe I’ll use it just for tracking my Central European Tribe comrades.

But what I really want is to be able to take all my friends from Twitter and quickly and easily port them over to Jaiku. Alas, in the absence of hCard and XFN on Twitter, this seems unlikely. A movement in the other direction seems more likely given that Jaiku is using hCard.

Meanwhile, I could kill two birds with one stone and add my RSS feed from Twitter to my life stream on Jaiku. That way, every time I post to Twitter, it would show up on Jaiku. I wonder if that would constitute “gaming” the system?

If I wanted to game the system in a harmless but fun way, I could have some fun with the query string on Jaiku and post the results to Flickr. D’oh! They fixed it: that was fast!

More thoughts on portable social networks

I’m not the only one thinking about portable social networks:

There are some good comments on these posts ‘though I keep noticing the trend for things to get too complex too quickly. Tom Carden mentions FOAF but I have a number of issues with that:

  1. Publishing XML is hard, certainly harder than publishing HTML.
  2. Out of sight is out of mind. I’ve actually got a FOAF file here at adactio but I haven’t updated it in years. Invisible metadata rots.

A lot of people are talking about the need for some kind of centralised service (ala Gravatar) for storing a social network. But surely the last thing we need is yet another walled garden or roach motel?

I’d much prefer a distributed solution and, frankly, I wish Gravatar had gone down that route given its often slugglish ways. I realise that a centralised service is needed for people who don’t have their own URL but it should, in my opinion, be second choice rather than default.

In any case, I think we may be barking up the wrong tree with all this talk of needing something new. Personally, I don’t think the solution need be complicated it all. It’s within reach right now and it doesn’t require the creation of any new service.

Suppose, just suppose, that…

… were marked up with XFN (update: or more importantly, hCard—see below). Now all I have to do is provide one of those URLs to the next social networking site I join.

Far fetched? Two of the sites I listed are already walking the walk. All that’s needed is for the sign-up form on the next fadsite I join to at least include the option of importing a buddy list by pointing to a URL.

Sure, it won’t work perfectly. People might have different names from site to site. But that’s okay. It’ll work good enough. It will probably get 80% of my contacts imported. And that’s a lot better than the current count of zero.

We don’t need yet another centralised service. The information is already out there, it just needs to be explicitly marked up.

Once you populate a network on one site, that information should be easily portable to another site. That’s doable. It isn’t even that hard: all it requires is the addition of a few rel attributes and possibly some hCard encoding.

Let’s not go chasing a complicated solution when a simpler one will do.

So here’s my plea—nay, my demand—to the next Web X.X social networking doohickey that wants me to join up:

  1. Give me a simple input field for entering a URL that lists my contacts.
  2. Parse that URL for people and relationships.
  3. Voila! I’ve added a bunch of friends. I may repeat from step one with a different URL.
  4. Markup my contacts on your doohickey in an easily exportable way.

Who wants to get the ball rolling? Why can’t this become as ubiquitous as gradients, closed betas, giant text and wet-floor reflections?

For all the talk of social media and the strength of weak ties, there isn’t much action being taken to really try to “harness collective intelligence®”. Within the confines of their own walls, these Web X.X sites might be all about social this and social that, but I want to see more sites practice what they preach on a wider scale… the scale of the World Wide (semantic) Web.


Following on from some comments and Twitter chat, I wanted to clarify a few points:

  1. Yes, social networks differ depending on context. That’s why I want the ability to point at more than one URL. If I join up to a new music site, I might want to point to my Last.fm contacts, but not my Flickr contacts. If I join a new site about food or drink, I’d probably want to point to my Cork’d drinking buddies, but not my Linkdin network. Or I might want to point to any combination thereof: Flickr + Twitter - Last.fm, for example.

  2. The issue of whether the people you’re adding even want to be your friend is a red herring. That’s an issue regardless of portability. I can quite easily add people as my friends on Flickr who don’t want to reciprocate. The same goes for Twitter. Portability will allow me to add friends en masse but it won’t ever automatically add me as a friend to the people I’m importing: that’s still up to them.

  3. No, this won’t move 100% of contacts from network to network. But it will move a lot. My user name is adactio on Flickr, Last.fm, Twitter, Upcoming, Technorati and Cork’d. I suspect a lot of people use the same user name across sites. For sites that use real names, there’s an even greater chance of portability.

  4. None of this portability is irreversible, it’s just a shortcut. If I get false positives—people imported that I don’t want as contacts—I can just remove that relationship. Likewise if I fail to import some people automatically, I’ve still got the old-fashioned way of doing it by hand (which we all have to do now anyway).

  5. Forget about XFN for a minute. The important thing is that I’m pointing to a page and saying, “any people listed on this page are contacts I want to import.” Now, there is no <person> element in HTML so how does it know which strings are people? Well, we need some way of saying “this is a real name”, or “this is a nickname”. We have that already: class="fn" and class="nickname". These are properties of hCard. So I guess it’s hCard usage that really matters. That said, XFN can added an extra level of granularity: contact vs. friend, at least. But I stand corrected: the really important formatting issue here is marking up “who are the people on this page?” rather than “what are the relationships on this page?” The URL itself contains the information that everyone listed is a contact.

Just take a look at these URLs:

  • http://corkd.com/people/adactio/buddies/
  • https://www.flickr.com/people/adactio/contacts/
  • http://last.fm/user/adactio/friends/

A semantic consensus is already emerging across sites in URL structure:

http://site name/[people|user]/username/[buddies|contacts|friends]/

All that’s needed is to explicitly mark up any people on those pages. That’s easily done with hCard. All these sites have to do is edit a template. For extra relationship richness, XFN can help.


Twitter has suddenly taken off, at least amongst my friends. Who knew that a site could still be popular without amending the end of its title from “er” to “r”? It’s been fascinating to watch the usage grow.

Apparently it’s been pretty popular in the States for a while already. Brian was telling me how popular it was at the Future of Web Apps summit in San Francisco. I only discovered it a few weeks ago, which I mentioned in my post about my life stream. That may have prompted some people to investigate but I suspect that the real Typhoid Mary was Dunstan’s message about moving from Apple to Flickr, which acted as a vector for European infection.

Since then, people have been steadily signing up. At the same time, the site has been rolling out updates at a very fast pace. It’s a lot of fun watching an app get iterated on a daily basis.

The usage of Twitter is, um, let’s call it… emergent. Whenever I tell anyone about it, their first question is “what’s it for?”

Fair question. But their isn’t really an answer. You send messages either from the website, your mobile phone, or chat. What you post and why you’d want to do it is entirely up to you.

The usage seems to vary between the States and here. While Americans are doing a lot of updates from mobile, my comrades in the Greenwich Mean Tribe are more likely to update from the website or chat. That means that the US stuff tends to be a bit more outdoorsy than the European updates sent from geeks sitting at their desks.

Overall, Twitter is full of trivial little messages that sometimes merge into a coherent conversation before disintegrating again. I like it. Instant messaging is too intrusive. Email takes too much effort. Twittering feels just right for the little things: where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking.

It’s strangely compelling watching messages from other people come rolling in (the page updates via Ajax). Twitter is simultaneously a complete waste of time and a genuinely rewarding experience. I guess that describes most of the best social websites.

The site has many problems, but given its rapid iteration cycle, I suspect that these will soon be sorted. Tantek pointed out problems with the sign-up process. I have issues with the Ajax implementation:

  1. It uses a href="#" in places spit
  2. There is no instant feedback when you submit a message. Update: one hour after posting this, I noticed that the submit button now changes to being disabled as soon as you click it. Coincidental rapid iteration or SWAT-team style response to a feature request?
  3. While there is a setting for enabling and disabling updates to mobile, there is no corresponding setting for disabling updates to chat.

Jon points out a more pervasive problem. Twitter is yet another social network where we have to go and manually add all the same friends from every other social network: Flickr, Upcoming, etc. This is something that Derek talked about in his talk at Web Directions.

Here’s what I want: when I go to the latest social networking fadsite, I want it to ask for my URL. Then it can go off and fetch my hCard and XFN list. A pre-filled form for my details and a pre-filled list of potential contacts can then be presented to me.

I’m not saying that this should be the only way of signing up but wouldn’t it be a nice added extra for those of us already using microformats?

dConstructing the network

One of the sponsors of this year’s d.Construct is a local company called Madgex. Glenn Jones works there.

At the Clearleft office warming party, I chatted with Glenn about what form the sponsorship might take. Rather than go down the usual schwag-based route, Glenn was determined to do something useful, like build an app. He started telling me what he had in mind. The more he told me, the more excited I got.

Glenn has been working feverishly on the project and it’s now ready for unveiling. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

The d.Construct06 Backnetwork

You know the way that a backchannel develops at most conferences? IRC, iChat, and all that. Well, this is a backnetwork.

It’s a social network app, but a genuinely useful one. For a start, it’s all based around a single focal point: the d.Construct conference. Everyone using the backnetwork has something in common. They are all attendees of the conference. This network is closed to the outside world.

I’ve seen some other events attempt a kind of pre-conference network. The South by Southwest website last year had a section for maintaining a profile and connecting with other attendees. But these connections were very simple. As with most social network sites on the Web, either someone is your friend or you have no connection to them whatsoever. That isn’t a very accurate reflection of reality.

Instead of inventing some new proprietary schema for representing the connections between people, the d.Construct backnetwork uses XFN — XHTML Friends Network. The relationships represented in XFN map remarkably well to an event like this.

Here’s my profile. You can see all the people that I’ve connected with (friends, acquaintances, colleagues) and all the people who have a connected with me. Based on these connections, I even get a cloud of names with the sizes indicating the strength and reciprocity of that relationship.

But here’s the best bit. I can take this information with me. Instead of being yet another roach motel or data silo, the backnetwork actively encourages me take my data with me. There’s a pre-formatted XFN list that I can cut and paste into my own site. Or, if I want, there’s an OPML file of all the feeds from people in my network.

As with most social network sites, you have to go through the process of filling out your details before you can start using it. But here again, you are actively encouraged to then take this information with you. I can cut and paste my hCard or simply download a vCard via Brian Suda’s hCard converter on Technorati.

You can specify how you want sensitive data like emails and telephone numbers to be treated. You can make them public, you can not reveal them at all, or you can allow only your friends to view them.

There’s a lot of microformatted goodness throughout the backnetwork and constant encouragement not just to put data into the system, but also to take it away with you. The result is something that’s fun and useful before, during and after the conference.


In the run-up to d.Construct, you can find out who else is coming. If you know any of the people, you can connect with them. There’s even a Google Maps mashup so you can see where people are coming from. You might even find people coming from the same town as you and make travel plans with them.

There’s an aggregator that pulls in any relevant blog posts written by attendees. You can subscribe to the aggregate feed or take away an OPML file with a list of all the sites.


The aggregator is going to be very handy during the conference as a way of following any liveblogging. There’s also a really nice photo page that pulls in Flickr pics and displays them in a lightbox.

There will even be an Ajax chat room opened up on the day.


Once the conference is over, you’ll probably want to revisit the attendee list. You will undoubtedly want to mark a lot of people as “met”. Heck, you may even make some friends. You’ll certainly have made lots of connections. And if you didn’t manage to exchange business cards, you can grab each other’s hCard or vCard instead.

There’ll probably be plenty of post-conference blog chatter to track through the backnetwork. If you want to add your own impressions of the panels, you can post straight to your blog or you can add a review through the backnetwork. You can fill out a form and submit your review. This is formatted in the hReview microformat so that, once again, you can take it with you. Just copy and paste the review into your own site. You can even specify a creative commons license while you’re at it.


The backnetwork is using microformats all over the place: XFN, hCard, hReview, rel-license and rel-tag. It’s quite remarkable how useful this turns out to be. It makes it so, so easy to take your data with you. Your contact details, relationships, and reviews are yours for the taking.

This is something you can see on a lesser scale on the d.Construct website. The list of speakers has been marked up with hCards. The schedule for the day is an hCalendar. There’s a link off to Brian Suda’s converter on Technorati so that you can subscribe to the calendar, put it on your iPod, your mobile phone, whatever you want. If there are any changes to the schedule, the page will be updated and the change will be reflected in the subscribed calendar. There’s no need to maintain a separate file like Michael had to do for Reboot or Jon did for @media.

If you’re coming to d.Construct, you should have already received an email with an activation code for the backnetwork. I suggest you use it. If haven’t received your activation code, you’d better let Andy and Richard know.

If you aren’t coming to d.Construct, you can still browse the backnetwork and track the blog posts, reviews and photos as they come in. You just won’t be able to add your own profile or define any relationships with the attendees.

If you want to know more about the technologies driving the backnetwork, check out the “about” page. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m really excited about this application. I’m like a kid with a new toy and I’m loving it.


The blogroll is a common component to many blogs. It’s a sociable idea: a sort of recommended reading list of blogs by other people.

To North Americans, the word blogroll is a nice play on words on logroll. To European English speakers, however, it sounds regrettably similar to bog roll (bog as in toilet, roll as in paper).

I’ve never had a blogroll here at Adactio, but I have decided to a list of links to other blogs. Here’s the catch though: I’m only linking to people who have stayed in my house. I’m calling it my bedroll.

It is, of course, XFN friendly, even though it’s a foregone conclusion that everyone will have rel="met".

I’ve also marked everyone up with hCards. If you have a blog/bog/bed roll, I encourage you to the same. Here’s an example:

<li class="vcard"> <a class="fn url" href="http://designrabbit.com/" rel="friend met">Cindy Li</a> </li>

Wanna get on the ‘roll? Well, ya gotta come visit me. Wanna come visit me? Well, you might have to hold off for a little while… Jessica and I will be moving in to a new place at the start of next month. First thing we’ll do is get a nice comfy sofa. After that, normal service will return at Geek Central Station… we’ll be sure to register our new abode at Can I Crash?