Privacy

History, our future

… no civilization has ever saved everything; acknowledging that fact does not obviate the need to try and save as much as we can. — A Working Library

Way back in 2006, I heard Chris talk, demoing Nokia’s mobile web server. I loved that and in my imagination it combined with the idea of owning your own data. Imagine carrying your own data with you, the canonical copy of everything digital that’s you, serving it from your mobile device. (There was a newspaper picture I saw, during the terrible years after Yugoslavia disintegrated, of a refugee family carrying their hard drives stashed around their van and in their bags and coats. They called themselves, I think — I’ve never been able to find the picture since — the first hi-tech refugees, carrying with them all their digital stuff.)

Owning your own data:

I’m building a solution, bit by bit. It’s certainly incomplete, and with rough edges … but iteratively improving as I find time and inspiration to work on it. I’d rather host my data and live with such awkwardness in the open than be a sharecropper on so many beautiful social content farms. — Tantek Çelik

I haven’t even the beginnings of the technical knowledge needed to follow that particular path (‘This is what I mean by “own your data”. Your site should be the source and hub for everything you post online. This doesn’t exist yet, it’s a forward looking vision, and I and others are hard at work building it. It’s the future of the indie web.’), though I’d dearly like to. If someone builds that, I’d buy it.

In 2008, at Open Tech, I heard Danny O’Brien talk, Living on the Edge (pdf), and read his posts on the same theme: 2008–07–16, and then Independence DayIntermediariesDeath by BoredomH-T-T-P, You Know MeReachability on the EdgeHow Many Nines Does One Person Need?. From Independence Day: ‘a trend you couldn’t help but notice in this latest overexcitement is migration of data from the edge to centralised servers. … I’m curious as to what happens when one tries to buck this trend. … how much of our life that we share with the Web 2.0 giants do we really *need* to share? How much of these services can and should we be running from the comfort of our own homes?’

The year before, Ben had written: ‘I’m living out of webapps at the moment: Google Docs, Gmail, Reader, Meebo and the like. It has been a revelation: these things work really well.’ (And see Matt Haughey, writing in April that year.) How long ago that seems now!

Discussion of the issues hasn’t ceased and, for the foreseeable future, how can it? Take John Naughton, writing earlier this year: ‘the components needed for a new, user-controlled architecture are beginning to fall into place. It’s still a bit geeky, but all it needs is a human-friendly front end’ (my italics). And last year’s speech by Eben Moglen (FreedomBox), Freedom in the Cloud. Or, Take Back the Tubes — A DIY Data Manifesto:

… the web will likely never be completely free of centralized services and Winer recognizes that. Most people will still choose convenience over freedom. Twitter’s user interface is simple, easy to use and works on half a dozen devices. Winer doesn’t believe everyone will want to be part of the distributed web, just the dedicated. But he does believe there are more people who would choose a DIY path if they realized it wasn’t that difficult.

For much of the last year, I’ve become preoccupied with archiving and preserving our data; ‘we are all curators, in the post-modern world, whether we want to be or not’ (William Gibson, 2001). mmmarilyn: ‘The one thing that differentiates human beings from all other creatures on Earth is the externalization of subjective memory—first through notches in trees, then through cave paintings, then through the written word and now, through databases of almost otherworldly storage and retrieval power.’  And then — YAHOO!LOCAUST. John Naughton again (from earlier still this year):

Think of the pleasure we get from old family photographs or the delight that comes from clearing out an attic and finding boxes of love letters, school reports, our first exercise books and old appointment diaries. The contemporary versions of these personal documents are mostly stored either on obsolescent PC hard drives or on the servers of internet companies …

And,

The European Union says its member states must do more to digitize Europe’s cultural heritage and not simply leave that work to the private sector. To do otherwise, suggests a recently commissioned report, could steer Europe away from a digital Renaissance and “into a digital dark age.” — ReadWriteWeb, 2011

I’m no programmer, though decades ago I learned to use Fortran, writing my own program for an A level Biology project, and played with BASIC. Now, I’m playing with a Mac Mini server and a Pegasus R6. I want to know that we can hand on certain things … music, audio, photos, text and, increasingly important, video. History for the future.

Last Christmas, I was hoping we’d see some development in 2011 around the Mac Mini, though I suspected the game plan was more likely to be centred on the ecosystem that individuals, families and groups weave around multiple Apple devices. There’s room for both and it seems that Apple thinks so, too. I use cloud services a great deal, and this won’t stop as I play with creating our own, centralised repository of music, audio, photos, text and videos. I want our own backup and personally maintained server and store, but I know the cloud offers us so much, too.

In What if Flickr fails?, Doc Searls looked forward to ‘self-hosted versions of Flickr, or the equivalent’ but also to a future where we ‘pay more for what’s now free’:

I want them, and every other silo out there, to realize that the pendulum has now swung full distance in the silo’d direction — and that it’s going to swing back in the direction of open and distributed everything. And there’s plenty of money to be made there too.

Yes, indeed. If Apple gets it right with iCloud, I’ll happily pay for secure and really useful services in the cloud that respect my privacy and offer a level of backup and reliability that, even with all my best efforts, I’ll probably not (always) achieve at home. But I’ll hold them to the highest standards and aim not to have to miss a beat if it comes to moving to another service. Dave Winer:

The important thing is that you and your ideas live outside the silo and are ported into it at your pleasure. You never have to worry about getting your stuff out of the silo because it never lived in there in the first place.

Things my students might enjoy reading as they, too, wrestle with these matters:


Out of touch

We’ve been away and without connectivity for much of the last week. And what a week to choose. This summer will live in memory for its news and events. Some days, the real world is more like theatre than theatre is.

Through tools such as Reeder, and the many eyes and ears of Twitter, we just about kept abreast, snatching 3G, EDGE or feeble GPRS where location permitted, and quickly learning where towns and villages could give us WiFi. (A shout-out here for the excellent Toucan Café in Minehead, its good food and free wireless.)

Back home, I’ve caught up in detail on the accumulated reading. I wish it had been less dispiriting. It’s come to something when, as Euan said, Russell Brand is more credible than the Prime Minister.

Some of what I’ve been reading about the unrest in England, on Pinboard.


Auden: aspects of our present Weltanschauung

Looking for something in Auden, I hit another passage, about human nature, art, tradition and originality (below), that I couldn’t put my finger on when I last needed it a few months ago. We’re edging towards the World Brain, but it can’t come fast enough:

It seems possible that in the near future, we shall have microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student…. The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. — H G Wells, ‘The Brain Organization of the Modern World’ (1937)

Auden. I’ve often referred to this passage and am very happy to make it ready to hand through pinning it here:

3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in. … until recently, men knew and cared little about cultures far removed from their own in time or space; by human nature, they meant the kind of behaviour exhibited in their own culture. Anthropology and archaeology have destroyed this provincial notion: we know that human nature is so plastic that it can exhibit varieties of behaviour which, in the animal kingdom, could only be exhibited by different species.

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, when he makes something, that even the next generation will find it enjoyable or comprehensible.

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with all the danger to his integrity which that implies.

Further, the fact that we now have at our disposal the arts of all ages and cultures, has completely changed the meaning of the word tradition. It no longer means a way of working handed down from one generation to the next; a sense of tradition now means a consciousness of the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time as a structured whole the parts of which are related in terms of before and after. Originality no longer means a slight modification in the style of one’s immediate predecessors; it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice. The burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the shoulders of each individual poet and it is a heavy one.

It’s from ‘The Poet and The City’, which I think appeared first in the Massachusetts Review in 1962 and was then included in The Dyer’s Hand (1963). Lots in this essay. ‘There are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.’ The others:

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. … Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be.

We live now among ‘sketches and improvisations’.

2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena. … science has destroyed our faith in the naive observation of our senses: we cannot … ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular purpose we have in view. This destroys the traditional conception of art as mimesis …

4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds. To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfils his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.


Facebook, 2010

Where would we be without Facebook? For one thing, I could be spending time much more happily — reading, writing, gardening, walking … instead of trying to follow the labyrinth that is Facebook. 

The developments announced on 21 April have taken some time to digest and even now I’m not satisfied that we’re clear what differentiation there is for users below the age of 18. But in any case, I noticed last autumn that some users applying for university places were tidying up their profiles and photo albums — and, of course, for a number of these young students their eighteenth birthday was then upon them or imminent. Time-clocks ticking, biologically and digitally.

I posted something on our intranet today about the latest changes. The context and purpose required my having to overlook the good in all Facebook announced. Chris Messina wrote about this, as did David Recordon and DeWitt Clinton. But, as Tom Watson re-tweeted, ‘Facebook privacy settings are the new programming your VCR’ and, as several friends found, the post-f8 experience was … trying. (See Tony Hirst’s Keeping Up with Facebook Privacy Changes (Again) and Why I Joined the Facebook Privacy Changes Backlash…)

I would love, too, to have got more into my intranet posting of danah boyd’s latest writings on privacy, personal data, trust, context and the web (see, eg, Putting Privacy Settings in the Context of Use (in Facebook and elsewhere)Facebook’s move ain’t about changes in privacy norms — ‘Privacy is about having control of a situation. It’s about controlling what information flows where and adjusting measures of trust when things flow in unexpected ways. It’s about creating certainty so that we can act appropriately. People still care about privacy because they care about control’; Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data — ‘Privacy is not about control over data nor is it a property of data. … it’s about having control over a situation. It’s about understanding the audience and knowing how far information will flow. It’s about trusting the people, the situating, and the context.  People seek privacy so that they can make themselves vulnerable in order to gain something: personal support, knowledge, friendship, etc.’). But I hope I hinted at some of this just enough.

The difficulty with something as complex as these latest changes is not to put the reader off entirely and I asked a couple of folks, a student and a colleague, to vet the post first, fearing it was a swamp of detail. But as John (student) said: ‘On the issue of the information being a “swamp”‚ there’s not much anyone can do about it: Facebook privacy settings appear deliberately difficult to learn about and change. It reads well in despite of this.’ Kind words — and here’s the posting (it may have use beyond its immediate … context).

*****

Facebook and Privacy — May, 2010 

‘it may be best if you just assume that everything on Facebook will be public from now on and act accordingly’

 RWW: Facebook’s High Pressure Tactics: Opt-in or Else


Last December, Facebook changed its privacy settings. These and their implications were summarised on our intranet at the time.

On 21 April, Facebook announced a number of further, complicated changes. Some of the features users now need to understand include the following. All have privacy implications. (Note: if you have previously adjusted your privacy settings and not accepted Facebook's defaults, your experience of one or more of these new features may differ in some ways from what follows. You should check.)

  • Community Pages: a new kind of Page, replacing interests and activities. These pages are public.
  • Connected Profiles: opt-in, but ‘if you refuse to link to these new Pages, your profile information will be removed and your profile page will be left empty.’ — RWW: Facebook’s High Pressure Tactics: Opt-in or Else
  • Connections: treated as public information.
  • “Like” button: ‘When you click the button on an external website, you authorize Facebook to publish your activity to your Facebook profile (which, in turn, will also be published to your friends’ news feeds). Also, when your friends visit the external site, they will see that you’ve visited that site, too.’ — PCWorld: Facebook: 5 Privacy Settings You Must Tweak Now
  • Instant Personalisation (currently, this involves just three sites: Microsoft DocsPandoraYelp). The “Allow” checkbox for Instant Personalization is on by default — you have to opt out. If you don’t opt out, ‘when you visit these sites, they can pull in information from your Facebook account, which includes your name, profile picture, gender and connections (and any other information that you’ve made visible to the public).’ — PCWorld: Facebook: 5 Privacy Settings You Must Tweak Now

There’s a summary and “translation” of most of these terms (along with some others) on the EFF site: A Handy Facebook-to-English Translator. If you’re on Facebook, you should read this.

Within a week of the April announcement, 50,000 websites had already integrated with Facebook’s new social plugins (such as the “Like” button), including major sites such as CNN and The New York Times.

You also need to appreciate that Facebook applications access your personal data:

… many everyday Facebook users were shocked to find that applications (like quizzes) could access almost everything on a user profile, including hometown, groups you belong to, events attended, favorite books, and more. What’s worse is that your profile information becomes available to developers when your friends take the same quiz. — RWW: How to Delete Facebook Applications (and Why You Should)

That last point is important: for example, ‘Even if you opt out of Instant Personalization, there’s still data leakage if your friends use Instant Personalization websites — their activities can give away information about you, unless you block those applications individually.’ — EFF: A Handy Facebook-to-English Translator.

Whereas until 21 April Facebook apps could only store your data for 24 hours, now your data can be retained indefinitely.


All Facebook users would do well to look at another EFF post, Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline (‘Watch closely as your privacy disappears, one small change at a time!’). From there:

Since its incorporation just over five years ago, Facebook has undergone a remarkable transformation. When it started, it was a private space for communication with a group of your choice. Soon, it transformed into a platform where much of your information is public by default. Today, it has become a platform where you have no choice but to make certain information public, and this public information may be shared by Facebook with its partner websites and used to target ads.

Last week, Nick Bilton, Lead Technology Writer, The New York Timesreported on Twitter:

2010-04-29_23.26.53 adjusted.jpg


There’s huge value to personalisation and to sharing information. As Mark Zuckerberg wrote on 21 April: ‘if you’re logged into Facebook and go to Pandora for the first time, it can immediately start playing songs from bands you’ve liked across the web. And as you’re playing music, it can show you friends who also like the same songs as you, and then you can click to see other music they like’.

But personalisation means accepting some loss of privacy and you need to assess the value and the “risks” of this for yourself. Above all, users want to be in control of the context in which their information is used and when a company makes changes which affect this you simply must re-assess the situation.

The advice at the top of this page should be heeded: ‘it may be best if you just assume that everything on Facebook will be public from now on and act accordingly’.


A video and some links you may find helpful:

  (the blog post referred to in the video: EFF: How to Opt Out of Facebook’s Instant Personalization)

PCWorld: Facebook: 5 Privacy Settings You Must Tweak Now

RWW: How to Delete Facebook Applications (and Why You Should)

Facebook: de-activating your account (you need to be logged in to Facebook to see this link)

Facebook: deleting your account (you need to be logged in to Facebook to see this link)


Adrian Hon

Last Thursday, Adrian Hon came in to talk about Six to Start, games design and story-telling.

We’re about storytelling and play.

Storytelling is a huge part of the world’s culture, and great stories have always had the ability to move and excite us, whatever the medium. 

Play means a lot to us, too. We draw inspiration from video games, boardgames, casual games and playful applications and services.

Play helps us learn, grow and deal with new experiences – and when play and storytelling are combined, they give us the opportunity to deeply engage with our audience and get them to do things – as a large single group, or individually. Great storytelling and great gameplay are at the heart of what we do.

Adrian began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the great role now played in our lives by online text. You can get a good sense of what Adrian said from his posting earlier this year, How we Tell Stories.

This brought us to We Tell Stories ('six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks'), pausing briefly to look at amillionpenguins.com. In particular, Adrian talked us through Charles Cumming's The 21 Steps and Mohsin Hamid's The (Former) General. The latter grew out of an idea for a CYOA with a difference, but emerged as something very different — a "still life": 'while it does have branching, it doesn't allow the reader to affect the outcome of [the] story — only their own experience of it'. You get an excellent sense of the excitement surrounding this project from Six to Start and Penguin Books launch We Tell Stories and, of course, We Tell Stories received great acclaim, winning both the Experimental and Best of Show award categories at this year’s SXSW Web Awards. More about We Tell Stories on the Six To Start site (and there's a screencast). I'm looking forward to using We Tell Stories with my Year 9 class this year.

A number of our students have been playing Smokescreen, Six to Start's new game, developed for C4.

there is no better way to inform and educate people about online security and privacy than through a web-based game. — Smokescreen: Why Interaction Matters

Adrian describes Smokescreen as ARGish. Unlike Perplex City (designed and produced by Adrian at Mind Candy), a massive treasure hunt lasting 18 months and playable just the once, Smokescreen is replayable and each mission can be played in 10–20 minutes. The game is also marked by a strong story — and you might argue whether it is more an interactive game or an interactive story.

At the time of the talk, just 6 of 13 missions were out. My murky slides (sans flash, in a darkened room) give a sense of the realism of the game — Gaggle, fakebook, tweetr — and two, short, Six To Start videos follow:

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I think we might use at least some of Smokescreen in this year's ICT course (also Year 9).

Questions followed — about platforms, episodic games, recommendations, the time he gives to games (books claim pride of place), his role at Six To Start … We're very grateful to Adrian for taking the time to come and talk at St Paul's. These words give some indication of how he set the bar higher for us:

I feel there are two, equally mistaken, views of games. One is that stories in games are basically mediocre, and will remain mediocre, due to business reasons. There is no doubt that many publishers are demanding juvenile and  dumbed-down games, and that this makes it difficult to write a good story, but it shouldn’t make it impossible. The other view is that the stories in games are already more than a match for books and TV. I would disagree with this as well. … I think a good story in a game relies on having writers who have independence, and the trust and respect of game designers. … Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves. …

When I compared videogames to the development of books and novels, I was being serious. Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world.

It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities. We just have to open our eyes to them. — How We Tell Stories


Things (and quite a few people) are talking to me

Stephen Fry — on Twitter

One of the bits of our new course for Year 9 that has given me the most pleasure to write is the part about microblogging. We have a number of students nurturing entrepreneurial ambitions and, when their ideas hit some kind of maturity, the next thing they may come to talk about is how to get themselves known. Looking at how Stephen Fry has used Twitter to reach a lot of people is something instructive to put before these students (if only because of what makes him so different), but everyone can benefit from looking at this sequence below. There’s much food for thought here — about celebrity and the web, brands and the web, scale, writing for unknown audiences, creating and sustaining (and providing confirmation of) your digital identity, the relationship between the person posting and the companies she/he is associated with … as well as “just” microblogging in general, of course. (Roo has a very good post, How do you use Twitter?, that I recommend to our students.)

 

As of today …

 

That’s one strand.

Then, all those things now a-twittering: Andy House, Botanicalls0106, Mars Phoenix, the Shipping Forecast, Tower Bridgeold Father Thames.

Oh to be young now and see how this all works out. Matt: "treating the web not as a web of pages and websites but as a web of data"; "digital and physical things—and, increasingly, excitingly—things that can’t make up their mind which they are". Russell: "The stuff that digital technologies have catalysed online and on screens is starting to migrate into the real world of objects."

In just one lesson (35 minutes) a week, in just one year group, sometimes we can’t do more than give a heads-up (omitting so much), but I hope our nascent engineers, software developers, designers, advertisers, planners of cities, architects, climate scientists, privacy activists, politicians, doctors, civil servants … in short, all wide awake citizens-to-be are getting this.

 

Fry9

 

PS   I haven’t even mentioned Google Profiles — have you created yours (or taken the decision not to)? Or used that new Contact info tab yet? There’s a bit about them, and Windows Live Profiles, in Lesson 17. Jyri just twittered, “Google profiles reached that state where it was time to point my blog’s About link there”.


Our work (so far) this year

It’s again been an exhilarating experience to teach our first years (13 year-olds) their ICT course. The pace of adoption by them of technological developments still surprises: once again, I notice how this year’s cohort is just that much further on than the equivalent year group last year. It’s not just us, the adults, who notice this: where we might think that teenagers swim in all this digital stuff like fish in water, it’s eye-opening to watch only slightly older students being amazed at what 13 year-olds now know. So last month, a year on from when I last posted here about this course, I was feeding back to colleagues whose specialism is not ICT:

Last year, for example, we taught about tabbed browsing, but this year we didn’t need to: our 13 year-olds are experimenting freely with different browsers, wasting no time in downloading and adopting the recently released Google Chrome. They joined the school knowing more than last year’s 4ths about operating systems and several have experience of Linux. They are keen to learn about how they can maintain their personalised experience of computing (by exploiting web apps) when using the school’s networked machines and many were already using iGoogle before joining St Paul’s. One 4th former routinely uses PortableApps and showed others how to do the same. Others know about running Firefox from a memory stick, retaining all their individual settings no matter what PC they are on. There is a wide range of hardware in use and the barrier between desktop machines (hitherto commonly taken to be synonymous with computers) and mobile devices has gone — notebooks, mini-books, smartphones, the iPodTouch, iPhones ... all proving their computing worth in day-to-day life. Location-based services are being widely used on mobile phones; such services are coming soon to browsers (Firefox, Chrome) and operating systems (eg, Windows 7).

Some further context here: a year ago, iGoogle was alien to nearly all our first years; memory sticks were used more or less only as … memory sticks — running apps off of them was a fringe experience; browsers and the exploitable differences between them simply hadn’t the popular prominence they have now. Most interesting in many ways to me is the demand for Open Source software: because of 13 year-old, pupil-led demand we are networking Open Office, running it alongside MS Office. It’s up to the user which product he/she wants to use. I’m also interested in reports from colleagues about 13 and 14 year-old pupils, when asked to create a document or to collaborate, opening web-based apps as a matter of course.

So, the course as it is evolving this year is currently online here. I have no doubt, though, that we are now at a watershed and, as I also summed things up for colleagues, ‘The current course, revised from that of last year, will need fundamental revision for next year in order to keep pace with the changes afoot and the rate of adoption by young teenagers’. In particular, I think we’re now ready to make a fundamental shift towards the creative — and this pleases me a great deal.

They don’t have blogs, or I’d link to them, but my gratitude to the team with whom I co-teach this course (Richard, Andrew, Olly, David) is great: my thanks to them for all their hard work and enthusiasm.

This year has been very busy on a number of other fronts. We took the decision late last academic year to re-design our website and asked Clearleft to undertake the work. As I knew it would prove, it’s been a pleasure to work with Clearleft: we’re somewhere around halfway through the project and I’ve learned a great deal from them — about web-design, for sure (we had fun with affinity diagrams and played with post-its), but also about how good design work probes and challenges a company’s perception of how it’s promoting itself. I recommend the experience.

We’ve also been working a lot with Firefly, the company who write the software that powers both our website and our intranet. Simon and Joe, the founders and developers of Firefly, were pupils at St Paul’s and wrote the first iteration of Firefly whilst studying here. With the great help of Jess and Serena from Headshift, we have worked together, discussing how the interface and capabilities of Firefly might be developed, and this month saw the release of the new product. Thank you, Joe and Simon, for all your work on this. In summary: comments can now be enabled on all pages; we have blogs; the editing interface has been re-worked and made in-line, write-access is on by default and key editing options are immediately visible in hover-over mode; RSS has been made both much more obvious and widely available; the permissions dialogue has been improved and made more transparent; search has been improved both in UI and performance; template documentation is on its way, as is tagging; shared workspaces are available; calendaring now supports iCal; pages are owned by their creators but stewardship of a page is assignable (useful with classes, projects, etc). These are major software improvements for our intranet (which has amassed some 25,000 pages), providing us with something to build on collaboratively (staff and pupils) and develop further.

When we were deliberating the next iteration of our ICT Development Plan, I wanted green computing to be high on the agenda and I’m delighted that we worked with Gavin at AMEE and are now poised to start aggregating our energy data for the school (ie, the whole site) with AMEE. Our building program recognised the importance of sustainability from the outset.

We’ve been in discussion with Google about starting a branded YouTube channel. We filmed most of this year’s talks (see below) and have these and other stuff to go up. All this takes time, of course, but it’s coming.

This year we also began what I sense is necessarily a thoughtful, slow and sensitive engagement with games and gaming. These have a poor standing in schools, yet their cultural influence and their ubiquity in the lives of many younger people (by no means “just” students) is evident and widely reported. Grand Theft Auto originates from Paulines, of course, and it was high time to address the whole “matter”. We founded a society this term, met a couple of times (the first time without anyone, perhaps, realising it was meeting) and grew it out of two influential, important talks (see below). Next term we move the throttle forward and give it some more oomph. Those involved (it’s pretty popular) bought the idea of everyone reading more about games, and we’ll start with Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.

We’ve had a great run of speakers so far this year, with more to come. Last academic year I blogged these talks as we went, but this year things have been too busy for that (along with all the work detailed here, I’ve also switched to commuting daily, which involved decamping mid-term from my school flat and giving some much overdue attention to our own home — and then there was learning to live with First Great Western …). So here’s the run-down …

Continue reading "Our work (so far) this year" »


Kayaking

The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it.
Scott Bradner, former trustee of the Internet Society (quoted in Here Comes Everybody)

The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well,
and because they are easily modifiable they can be made to fit better over time.
— Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody, p 158) 

Clay Shirky at the ICABack before Easter, I was at the ICA for the Eno/Shirky evening. One of the books I then read over the break was Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been meaning for some time to put down a few notes about it here. This has grown to be a long post as I’ve added to it, wanting to get a few things out on the page and, so, clearer in my own mind.

It’s a great book to suggest to friends who are not familiar with the technologies Shirky discusses as it hides its knowledge well — but there are still leads to follow up. The modest ten or so pages of the Bibliography threw up a number of articles I'd either not heard of before or hadn’t visited in a long while. In the former camp, I recommend: Anderson: More Is Different (Science — 1972); R H Coase: The Nature of the Firm (pdf) — a 1937 economics paper; Richard P. Gabriel — Lisp: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big: worse is better (1991); Alan Page Fiske: Human Sociality. (There’s an online “webliography” here.) And chapters 8–11, covering so many big topics — social capital; three kinds of loss (some solve-a-hard-problem jobs; some social bargains; negative aspects to new freedoms); small world networks; more on social capital; failure (‘open source … is outfailing’ commercial efforts, 245); more on groups (‘every working system is a mix of social and technological factors’, 260) — hit my Amazon Prime account hard. (Incidentally, there’s a Kevin Kelly piece on “more is different”, Zillionics, that appeared earlier this year. See also Kevin Kelly’s The Google Way of Science and Wired’s The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn't Just More — More Is Different.)

Further reading to one side, a number of things discussed in the book particularly interested me straightaway. Firstly, sociality, privacy and exposure online. Leisa recently posted Ambient Exposure, an update (of sorts) to her post of last March, Ambient Intimacy. The titles tell their own story. Early on, Clay writes about ‘how dramatically connected we've become to one another … [how much] information we give off about our selves’. This took me back to Adam Greenfield’s recent talk at the Royal Society (I’ve also been re-reading Everyware). Our love of flocking is being fed handsomely by means of the new tools Clay Shirky discusses so well.

Privacy is always coming up in conversations at school about online life, and what I’m hearing suggests our students are beginning to look at privacy and exposure with growing circumspection. Facebook’s People You May Know functionality has made some sit up and wonder where social software might be taking us. We’re slowly acquiring a stronger sense of how seduction through imagined privacy works (alone in a room, save for screen and keyboard) and a more developed understanding of what it means to write for unseen audiences. Meanwhile, there are things to be unlearned: ‘those of us who grew up with a strong separation between communication and broadcast media … assume that if something is out where we can find it, it must have been written for us. … Now that the cost of posting things in a global medium has collapsed, much of what gets posted on any given day is in public but not for the public’ (90).  In the Bibliography, Clay refers to a post of Danny O’Brien’s — all about register — which is a longtime favourite of mine, too.

Then there was what the book had to say about media and journalism. Simon Waldman, well-placed to pass comment, on chapters 3 and 4:

The chapters most relevant to media/journalism - ‘Everyone is a media outlet’ and ‘Publish first, filter later’ should be required reading for pretty much everyone currently sitting in a newspaper/broadcaster. It’s certainly the best thought through thing I’ve read on this, and the comparison to the decline of the scribes when the printing press came in is really well drawn. 

The summary to Chapter 4 (‘Publish, Then Filter’) runs, ‘The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact’. ‘Filter-then-publish … rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means the only working system is publish-then-filter’ (98). (Language like this can sound an utopian note that rings on in the head long after the book’s been closed, as if we’d entered a world beyond old constraints. And look!: the Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers is no more.)

I was interested, too, to read Shirky’s thoughts about the impact of new technologies on institutions. His application of Ronald Coase’s 1937 paper and, in particular, the idea of the Coasean floor (‘activities … [that] are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way’), was very striking: the new tools allow ‘serious, complex work [to be] taken on without institutional direction’ and things can now be achieved by ‘loosely coordinated groups’ which previously ‘lay under the Coasean floor’.

We didn't notice how many things were under that floor because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. (47)

Later in the book (107), he comes back to institutions, taking what is happening to media businesses as not unique but prophetic — for ‘All businesses are media businesses … [as] all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world’:

The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organisational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owning a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of "consumer" is now a temporary behaviour rather than a permanent identity.

‘Every new user is a potential creator and consumer’ (106) is reminiscent of Bradley Horowitz in Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers (2006).

*****

Continue reading "Kayaking" »


Adactio hits St Paul's

It was such a pleasure to welcome Jeremy Keith to SPS last Tuesday, to talk about 'Designing for the Social Web'. As expected, it was a tour de force — but one which artfully concealed its learning and expertise so that everything was at once informed and accessible to the interested but not geekily literate.

Jeremy blogged the talk and visit here: I like his succinct overview of his talk as being about 'small world networks, the strength of weak ties, portable social networks and, inevitably, microformats'. Adam blogged it here; Alex, here. Jeremy's slides are available on Slideshare.

Adam's blog post captures very well much of what the talk was about. Part of his overview runs:

He began by outlining a brief history of the internet working his way from mailing lists and BBS to the modern social web, comparing and contrasting how they functioned and detailing the pitfalls of each. He gave specific weight to problems such as trolling and flaming, catalyzed by communities (usually over the dunbar limit) which lack a central aim and the methods by which these problems could be minimized, including keeping the community focused around groups. He named a few websites which managed this issue well (last.fm, delicious) as well as lambasting digg for failing on this front.

*****

A word about Web 2.0. Now over two years "old" — two years, that is, since Tim O'Reilly's classic paper, What Is Web 2.0; (see, also, his 2006 posting, Web 2.0 Compact Definition: Trying Again) — Web 2.0 means all things to all men: rounded corners and drop shadows; tagging; business models; leveraging collective intelligence … I hope the link to Tim O'Reilly's paper may be useful to some who attended Jeremy's talk, but this was not a talk that put this buzzword at the centre.

*****

Networks can scale very well but people don't. This is the challenge for social software design. Jeremy singled out four things to focus on and I've found myself digging back into these in the days since he spoke:

1) Social objects (eg, events — Upcoming; photos — Flickr; bands/albums/songs — Last.fm). This made me go back to Jyri's classic blog post, Why some social network services work and others don't — Or: the case for object-centered sociality (2005). (And see, too, his 2007 blog posting, What makes a good social object.) I recall, also, Stewart Butterfield talking about Flickr in these terms — something I blogged about here.

2) Community guidelines: 'be civil' (Jeremy's Irish music site, The Session); 'be polite and respectful in your interactions with other members' (Flickr); 'use common sense while posting' (Last.fm). As a school, when we go to set up a site (on Flickr, on Last.fm), guidelines are what we we soon start to think about. The advice here is sane, straightforward — and necessary.

3) Phatic communication. We miss this online. We long ago adopted emoticons, and some emergent social software just is phatic: eg, Twitter. (Facebook does phatic well.) Jeremy mentioned Leisa Reichelt's work on ambient intimacy (March, 2007) and Twitter:

I’ve been using a term to describe my experience of Twitter (and also Flickr and reading blog posts and Upcoming). I call it Ambient Intimacy. Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. … There are a lot of us … who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.

I remember, too, Ian Curry's Twitter: The Missing Messenger (February, 2007):

It’s basically blogging reduced to what the Russian linguist and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as “the phatic function. (see note below)” Like saying “what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually up, the phatic function is communication simply to indicate that communication can occur. It made me think of the light, low-content text message circles Mizuko Ito described existing among Japanese teens - it’s not so important what gets said as that it’s nice to stay in contact with people. These light exchanges typify the kind of communication that arises among people who are saturated with other forms of communication.

This brought us on to the network effect of weak ties, which made me think of Joi Ito writing (in 2003) about Granovetter's classic 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties:

Strong ties are your family, friends and other people you have strong bonds to. Weak ties are relationships that transcend local relationship boundaries both socially and geographically. He writes about the importance of weak ties in the flow of information and does a study of job hunting and shows that jobs are more often found through weak ties than through strong ties. This obviously overlaps with the whole 6 degrees thing. … What I can see emerging is a way to amplify the strength of weak ties.

And here's Grant McCracken, How social networks work: the puzzle of exhaust data (July, 2007):

Naturally, networks, especially really distributed, anti-hierarchical ones of the kind we like, are profoundly reciprocal enterprises.  So it is especially true here that, as George Herbert Mead observed, our knowledge of ourselves depends upon what (and that) others know about us.  Or, to put this another way, we we find ourselves when others find us. … I'm ok and you're ok.  This means the channel must be ok, and this means that the network must exist, and this means that the network is ok, and this means that the network is active, and this means the network is flowing.  There is a "superorganic" concept of the network at work here, according to which every small moment of phatic communications so reverberates that we are briefly and tinyily reminded of our larger network and social connections.

This has all left me thinking I want to revisit network theory and weak ties.

4) Open Data: we make these sites (an old argument, as we all know). APIs, RSS, microformats all enable us to get away from the idea of a web site as a place and enable us to extract and redeploy our and others' data. We have mashups (photos+events; maps+photos …), lifestreams. (The time stamp is key.) Jeremy has written about lifestreams here and his own is online here. (See, also, Thomas Vander Wal, Life Data Stream :: Personal InfoCloud. And, on Jaiku as lifestream, Are You Paying Attention?: Twitter vs. Jaiku vs. Loopnote.) 

Questions about privacy follow, inevitably. As Jeremy suggests (following Jeff Veen), there may be a generational difference here, younger people tending to think "my data is public except where I say it is private". I was glad Jeremy found time to talk about his experience with the Flickr API, Lock up your data: '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'.

*****

One thing even the successful social software sites don't share well so far is our social groups — which brought us swiftly to the idea of portable social networks. Here are a few touchstone reference points I've collected recently:

"If you add content to a site, then you should be able to take that content with you. You should also be able to take all associated tags and metadata. You should be able to move your content from one site to another." MoveMyData.org

"… you should be able to import or preferably subscribe to your profile information [and] your social network from any existing profile of yours. In addition it would be nice if preferences around notifications [and] privacy also transferred between profiles" Social Network Portability

"it seems like a no-brainer to design systems that allow for simple import/export of your social network. ... Today I want to walk through the mechanics of how Dopplr is working on helping you migrate your social network." LikeItMatters

"Great experiences & trust are going to be key differentiators. ... We’ve seen this movie before and walled gardens eventually get about as interesting as Biosphere 2. ... make your networking data open ... it’s the smart play given how the Web works" LikeItMatters

A lot of the data that's needed to make social networks portable is out there in the URLs, the microformats (XFN, hCards ...). Provided we accept a Pareto-like solution (over the semantic web — which works well in places with very structured data such as museums and universities), we can get to a very good end-result of portability.

*****

Finally, two things I read last night that I think are wise about how we should proceed with social software and networking. The first is a blog posting, the second a comment on the same. (Adam's argument is that 'the whole milieu in which these concerns of openness and portability are contained is broken - and not just a little broken, but badly so'. His argument challenges, as he says, a hugely popular approach to social networking online. For my part, I think Mike's comment is dead right.)

Adam Greenfield

For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

I understand that this is very much a minority opinion, and one which will not carry the day. But neither is it simply the knee-jerk, reactionary rejection of technology; I see it as a demand, rather, that we use information technology for the things it’s good at, and keep it far, far from the things it damages at first touch. I feel far too strongly about my friends and about the experiences we’ve shared, and which I cherish, to submit any of them to the idiot regime of social networking as it is currently understood.

Mike Migurski

The only sane social network relationships I’ve seen are modeled in terms of the objects featured on that network: who gets to “see your trips” or “view your photos” is a superior description of a relationship than “friend”.


Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World

— the title of a very long report by Harris Interactive on behalf of the OCLC, available for download (pdf) here. (You can also download sections of the report from here.) In its conclusion it poses the question, 'what are the services and incentives that online libraries could offer users to entice them to come back or to visit more often or even devote some of their own time to help create a social library site?'.

This OCLC membership report explores this web of social participation and cooperation on the Internet and how it may impact the library’s role, including:

  • The use of social networking, social media, commercial and library services on the Web
  • How and what users and librarians share on the Web and their attitudes toward related privacy issues
  • Opinions on privacy online
  • Libraries’ current and future roles in social networking

Any report this long is going to take time to read and digest, but a look at some of the conclusions should whet the appetite:

The drive to participate, to build, to seek out communities is certainly nothing new. “Connect with friends,” “be part of group,” “have fun” and “express myself” are the top motives for using social networks according to our research. We could as easily be describing the motives behind the rise of the telephone, civic associations or, more recently, the cell phone, or the motivations that drew e-mail from the office into the home. The motives that are driving the rise of social networking are not unique. And yet, this particular Internet innovation, the social networking craze, feels different. It doesn’t seem to be playing out like the digital revolutions that preceded it. Social networking is doing something more than advancing communications between individuals, driving commerce or speeding connectivity. It is redefining roles, muddying the waters between audience and creator, rules and relationships, trust and security, private and public. And the roles are changing, not just for a few but for everyone, and every service, on the Web. Whether one views this new social landscape as a great opportunity for improved information creation and exchange or as a messy playground to be tidied up to restore order, depends on one’s point of view. …

We see a social Web developing in an environment where users and librarians have dissimilar, perhaps conflicting, views on sharing and privacy. There is an imbalance. Librarians view their role as protectors of privacy; it is their professional obligation. They believe their users expect this of them. Users want privacy protection, but not for all services. They want the ability to control the protection, but not at the expense of participation. …

… librarians have pioneered many of the digital services we now see in broad use on the Web: intranets to share resources, electronic information databases and “ask-an-expert” services. And although it took some librarians a while to embrace the use of search engines as hubs for information access, librarians are now Googling more frequently than their users and teaching users how to maximize the potential of this powerful tool. But, unfortunately, librarians are not pioneering the social Web.

And from the final section of the conclusion, 'Open the Doors':

Our perceptions become our realities, and often, also our limitations. This was clearly the case for the authors of this report when we began our research on social networks a year ago. There is no doubt that our initial perceptions of social networks influenced our approach to this study. Handicapped by only limited personal experiences with sites, we began our study as we had every study before it—by looking at social networks as a service or set of services to be studied, learned and implemented. We conceived of a social library as a library of traditional services enhanced by a set of social tools—wikis, blogs, mashups and podcasts. Integrated services, of course, user-friendly for sure and offering superior self-service. We were wrong. Our view, after living with the data, struggling with the findings, listening to experts and creating our own social spaces, is quite different. Becoming engaged in the social Web is not about learning new services or mastering new technologies. To create a checklist of social tools for librarians to learn or to generate a “top ten” list of services to implement on the current library Web site would be shortsighted. Such lists exist. Resist the urge to use them.

The social Web is not being built by augmenting traditional Web sites with new tools. And a social library will not be created by implementing a list of social software features on our current sites. The social Web is being created by opening the doors to the production of the Web, dismantling the current structures and inviting users in to create their content and establish new rules. Open the library doors, invite mass participation by users and relax the rules of privacy. It will be messy. The rules of the new social Web are messy. The rules of the new social library will be equally messy. But mass participation and a little chaos often create the most exciting venues for collaboration, creativity, community building—and transformation.