Openness, accessibility and potential

Time for another link to an article with a little discussion:

Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality by Sir Tim Berners-Lee published by Scientific American

The whole idea of the article is a call-to-arms to remind people that openness is what gave the web the power that it has today. Having things cross-referenced and accessible to anybody allowed a democratization of information that is unforeseen in human evolution. He then claims that the current trend of social networks that center the experience around you and builds a walled garden for you to live in is running against that powerful trend.

This is certainly an interesting thing to think about. But I think the point that he doesn’t really talk about is why this is happening. I think it’s a natural result of two major deficiencies of the web: security/privacy and discoverability.

The internet is scary! I know because I have friends and even family that keeps getting viruses after viruses because how impossible it is to validate anything on the web. Things are so open that anybody can post anything and give you a link to it. Then you click on this link to see what it is and now the only way you can see if it’s safe or not is to actually read it. But when you read it, it’s already too late. Creating walled gardens where everybody that can post things are authenticated and you can monitor all outgoing and incoming links allows you to quickly react to problems and handle them. Yes, there have been a lot of cases of malicious links being sent on Twitter and Facebook due to bugs on their code, but they were able to fix them. How long have been people trying to “fix” email spam? Or spam on article comments?

Another part of the scary internet is that you never know who is reading what you are writing. By having a blog I’m very aware of it, which sometimes forces me to not be able to fully express everything I want to talk about. What if person X reads it and misinterprets what I have to say? In a walled garden I have the ability to ensure that person X will never see it. Yes, there are concerns that some things that you write on those systems will eventually leak out, but again, this is a bug that can be fixed, and not something that works like this by design. I can delete anything I post, but I can never be sure that somebody will not be able to get it back from Google caches or the the Wayback Machine, or many other systems that are spidering the web storing data forever.

The internet is a mess! That’s another very interesting issue: if you can post anything to anywhere, how can you find anything you are looking for? Well, there are search engines out there, but no search engine can ever be built to actually solve whatever I’m looking for. In this case, walled gardens don’t necessarily solve your problem, but they limit it to something that can be more manageable. Yes, you lose many orders of magnitude in quantity of data, and quite a few in quality also, but what is the use of having high-quality material out there if nobody can find it?

I think the solution to organizing the web is still far away. We used to live in a world where all the information that we received was through a very well-kept social network: your friends, neighbors, teachers, the newspapers that you read, books that you read. The world worked, but was hugely biased and elitist. You were who you knew and what you had money to buy. If you lived in the middle of nowhere, you would always be a person that lived in the middle of nowhere.

Then came the web and everything fell apart. We suddenly had one big source of data that contained everything. Information was democratized. You could live in a deserted island and if you had access to the internet you could know about things as well as somebody that was living in Manhattan. And I will claim that that didn’t work at all. You had access to all this raw data, but you still had no idea what was real, biased, fabricated. You could spend days just to verify one single piece of information. Amazing sources of information were created, like Wikipedia, but still people weren’t comfortable using it.

Then came the social networks. What social networks give us is a way to get back to that old world, but that is not limited to whoever you can see in a day, or which books you have time to read. You can still live in a deserted island, but still have a curated view of the world similar to who was living in Manhattan. But there was a cost: now you are seeing the world through the eyes of these curators. You world became small and lost robustness. What happens if the person that is kept up-to-date with local politics goes on vacation? More than that: what happens if Facebook or Twitter are down? Can you still find your way to doing what you have to do?

I think what we have to keep an eye on, and Sir Berners-Lee is very good at doing that, is to ensure that this is just a fad, and not really a trend. We need to take what people that use Facebook and Twitter are telling us about the deficiencies of the web and handle that. On the article he refers to some open solutions to social networks and messaging systems that anybody can run on their servers and relate to other people’s networks. That’s all great, but they are still quite far away from the simplicity, robustness and usability mark that commercial systems can provide. I think the solution we should be aiming for is not to try to play catch-up with those commercial systems, but to understand what they are lacking and build on that. Build the safety net to catch the fallout from the social net. What does that mean? Well, I have a few ideas, but I’ll leave that to some future post as this one is already quite long.

The society tries to be a power law

This was going to be a very long post, but after writing about 20 paragraphs of it, I decided that I should change it to be brief and remove all the references to my previous research (now you understand why it was going to be long).

Going to the point here, people have to be ready for the fact that human nature is to aggregate in a power-law fashion: very few people have a lot of <something> and a lot of people have very little of <something>. Nature (and I use nature in a broad sense here – more like “the physical reality”), although also exhibiting this behavior, acts in may ways to smooth this out. For example, the number of people I can know in my life is limited to the distance they are from me and how long it takes for me to get there.

However, broadcasting and now the web are breaking a lot of those barriers that nature was adding and making it easier for those “inequalities” to happen. Twitter is a huge example of it: it’s very easy to follow somebody and you have the tendency to follow who your friends are following and there you have CNNs or Ashton Kutcher with almost a million followers (at the time that I write this, probably much more when you read it). And that gives you power and people need to be ready to handle this unequal power.

The event that triggered this post was the whole Stephen Colbert and the NASA module name. He has so many people that watch his show that pretty much anything he enlists his people to do it’s very likely he will be able to get done. So he won the vote for the name of the NASA module. And NASA had to handle it by backing out of the idea to do it and named a treadmill C.O.L.B.E.R.T. instead.

And this morning, to make sure I wrote this (even being late to have breakfast and start my day), I watched this sort-of-interesting interview with Andrew Keen that talks about the same thing (but I think he doesn’t really get the core reason for it): the web is dominated and will be dominated by a few players and the rest will be followers. He calls this a feudalism-like system. Interesting…

Alright, now I can start my day.

The public web

I was reading the news this morning and I couldn’t let this one get away without me posting it on my blog:

Woman denied degree because of MySpace profile

A classic!

There are lots of interesting things that happens in a world where things you do are more publicly accessible. It’s similar to the keynote speech by Jon Kleinberg I’ve heard during the last SIGIR: all the 6-degree-separation endless discussion has to be revalidated. Now that social networking sites makes your social network publicly visible, all numbers and goals change. It’s much easier for a person living in a cave to have hundreds of friends. On the same lines, it’s much easier for a person that is trying to know more about another person to find people or direct evidence out there. In the past you had to hire a private investigator or things like that.

I could now start reciting a number of science fiction authors that predicted this shift on the concept of privacy, but I’ll just end this post and start my day.