March 26, 2004
The fate of JOHO: Should we carry on?
Why I hate Friendster. Really: I have excellent reasons to be wary of social networks. Now want to hear the real reasons? (Now with FOAF and LOAF!)
The slippery slope of slippery slope: Thank goodness for slopes.
Walking the Walk: Open Source.
Cool Tool: AutoHotKey, and an X1 you may not want to refuse.f
Game I'm playing: Blackhawk down is fun but disturbing
Internetcetera: Miscellany from Linux Journal and Mother Jones.
Bogus Contest: Can you figure out what the book I'm almost writing is about?
It's a JOHO World After All
I'm totally thrilled to report that I've been made a Fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. It's a one-year appointment that enables me to do a little non-credit teaching, draw upon the wisdom of the other fellows as I work on a book, and lord it over just about everyone I meet.
The fate of JOHO
Yes, it's been a while. And not for exceptional reasons. My new normal militates against publishing JOHO. Should I stop?
Writing a 'zine made sense back when that was the way you got your long-form ideas out into the webby world. But now all them durn bloggers are ruining it for us 'zinists. Doing a 'zine that gets published once every three weeks — or once every 5 months according to my current schedule — suddenly seems old-fashioned. And we here at JOHO are noted for being, above all, hip.
Then there's the fact that I currently write two blogs and contribute to two others. And I think I'm about to start contributing to two more. I'm writing 3-5 pieces a day. Putting JOHO together takes longer than you probably realize, and most of the time isn't in the actual writing. So, I'm only getting around to doing this issue because I'm promising myself that I won't include all the links and emails. I know if I do include that stuff, it'll take another three days of work, and I don't have three days free until mid April.
So, I don't know what to do. Among the choices:
1. Denial. Pretend that JOHO is published every three weeks, the same as always, but really get around to it about once every six months
2. Murder. Kill JOHO. Encourage subscribers to read my blogs.
3. Diminishment. Diminishment. Use JOHO as a way of distributing the higher-protein blog entries. Drop the links, the email, the contests, the "Middle World" stuff.
4. Hand waving. Something else and much better.
What do you think? I personally hate #2, so if you have a way for me to avoid it, please do let me know.
Where I publish
Just in case, here are the blogs I publish or write for:
JOHO the Blog. The main one.
Loose Democracy. Politics.
Many2Many (contributor). Social software.
BlogCritics (occasional contributor). Reviews of stuff.
I've also agreed to contribute to a blog for an upcoming magazine.
I update the first two collectively several times a day.
What else I've been writing
Oy veh, I've been busy.
I spent all of December and half of January writing a 15,000 word article on Geographic Information Systems for Esther Dyson's Release 1.0. It was called "The Semantic Earth," and the premise was that not only is GIS being integrated into business, but places are getting an overlay of information and conversation. The mute earth will speak.
For the past couple of weeks, I've been working on a 5,000 word article for Wired on how we'll locate the photos we want when we have 50,000 of them on our hard drive, thanks to digital cameras. I visited the cave that houses the Bettmann Archive as well as Corbis' non-cave-like HQ in Seattle.
Both of those articles are actually about the importance of and problems with metadata. That's because I'm still working on a book proposal on that topic. (See the Bogus Contest.)
I also had an article in Salon recently about whether the Internet is a set of "echo chambers." Its real point was that the concept of an echo chamber assumes a rationalist view of conversation that is, well, wrong.
I continue to write a column for KMWorld. I continue to do commentaries for "All Things Considered" and to be the tech commentator for "Here and Now," a daily NPR radio show you probably never heard of.
I've also been on the conference circuit. In March, I spoke at: the O'Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-in, Harvard's New Content conference, twice at SXSW's Wireless Future, and the Institute For Politics Democracy & The Internet's conference on e- politics. I attended Esther Dyson's PC Forum and the O'Reilly Emerging Tech. Next week I'm talking at a Microsoft conference on social software, then BloggerCon , then maybe a KM conference in Portugal.
I also have some clients to whom I'm a marketing consultant to pay the bills. (I love each and every one of you madly, of course.)
I'm not looking for pity. I'm not bragging, although I'm afraid it's coming out like that. I'm trying to excuse myself for failing to get issues of JOHO out.
(BTW, I finished a Young Adult novel about a kid who wins $100 million in the lottery but has to keep it secret. I can't find an agent who cares about it. Anyone interested in publishing it? Otherwise, I'll eventually put it on the Net under a Creative Commons license.)
The truth about why I hate Friendster
I have some good reasons for looking down my long and winding nose at Friendster and other such Artificial Social Networks (ASNs). I will happily tell you those reasons. Then I'll tell you the real reasons.
Fake but worthy reasons
I am a member of Friendster, LinkedIn,Spoke, Flickr, Orkut, and DeanLink. Friendster aims at dating, LinkedIn at business contacts, Spoke at sales team efficiency, Flickr at photo sharing, Orkut at who knows, and DeanLink at enabling Dean supporters to organize local events. I am equally active in all six, even though one of them is defunct, which tells you exactly how active I am.
The only one I liked was DeanLink, and that was because I wanted Dean to be elected president. All of them suffer from the following problems, to one degree or another.
First, they attempt to recreate our social network by making us be explicit about it. But our social bonds are necessarily implicit. Making social relationships explicit uproots them, distorts them and can do violence to them. Just try describing your child to someone, with your child in the room.
Second, ASNs make us be precise about that which is necessarily messy and ambiguous. This not only leads to awkward social moments (Am I a friend yes-no of some person I met once and don't know if I like?), it also reinforces the worst idea of our age: The world is precise, so our ambiguity about it is a failure.
Third, they inculcate the stupid belief that relationships are commutative. LinkedIn is especially guilty of this. I have been C in a five-term series that A initiated in order to contact E, which means someone I don't know asked someone I marginally know to introduce him to someone I kind of know who maybe knows someone I don't know at all. The formal name for this is "using people."
Fourth, the fact that they require explicitness in public about relationships guarantees that they will generate inordinate amounts of bullshit. For example, some ASNs let you write "testimonials" about your friends, a feature destined to encourage flattery and sucking up. Worse, they don't let you refuse testimonials as part of your profile, so I've had to to explain to a handful of people why I'm not accepting the sweet sentences they spent time putting together.
Those are my reasons. I get to pronounce them with an air that announces my moral superiority, my greater wisdom in social matters, and my fearless refusal to support social bullshit.
Now for my real reasons.
Real but unworthy reasons
Friendster has 6 million users. People are rushing into Orkut like ants into an aardvark. So why am I not excited?
After all, my buddies and I have been saying for years that the Net's key value is that it makes it so easy for new connective applications to arise. Email, listservs, IM, chat, P2P...it's never been so easy to invent new ways for humans to connect.
But ASN's we don't like. Why not?
Look, I want to say to the Friendsters of the world, we already invented a social network for friends and strangers. It's called the Internet. Why are you privatizing it? Why do we need a proprietary sub-network to do what the Internet has already done in an open way?
And the right response is: Sit down, old man!
I don't like Friendster because, well, I don't like it. I'm not dating. I'm not even looking for more friends. I love meeting new people — not a statement I would have made before the Net — but I like meeting them because we first engage in discussion about some topic. An email to me saying, "I disagree with your blog entry about X or Y, and let me tell you why" is much more likely to lead to a friendship than one that says, "Hey, I see we're both interested in video games and Peeps art!" That's just the way I am. And I do think it's generational.
I don't like this thing coming along that implies that the existing social networks on the Internet — my social networks, the ones that constitute my social world — are so inadequate that some badly designed system with a derivative name (enoughster with the "sters" alreadyster!) sweeps the Net like photos of Janet Jackson's poppin' fresh wardrobe malfunction. What's a matter, the Net wasn't good enough for you?
Hey, you kids! Get off of my lawn!
One last reason and two new standards
Remember in the mid-90s when the NewsGroups monkeys would throw poop at you if you dared to acknowledge that you were an AOL user? AOL was perceived as a walled-garden for low IQ types who were afraid of the Wild and Wooly Internet.
I saw a demo of Microsoft's experimental ASN, Wallop, a few days ago and I had an oddly similar reaction. Wallop, a research project restricted to 150 members at this point, is a slick piece of work with a sweet and swoopy UI written in Flash, designed to dazzle. And the functionality is impressive. For example, if you annotate one of your photos indicating that the smiling face in the back belongs to Mathilda, Mathilda automatically gets notified that there's a new photo of her in the system. That's the sort of thing you can do if your Artificial Social Network owns all the data. Think how hard it would be to do the Mathilda trick if you were posting the photo simply on your own Web site: Mathilda would have to send out spiders to crawl around looking for photos of her, and if it found some called "Mathilda," it wouldn't be sure that it was the right Mathilda. That's the price you pay for working in an open network. But if you can close the network, you can monitor every event and know who each person is.
ASNs are closed networks when it comes to data. Of course they exist on the Net and use the usual Net protocols, but these systems get their benefits by walling off their data. The benefits are powerful. But, like AOL back when the Web started, they are protectionist. As a result, as more data is added to them, their value increases but that value is invisible to the rest of the Net. The open Net becomes less valuable as human links are moved into ASNs.
The Friend of a Friend (FOAF) proposal attempts to add value to the open Net. Invented by Dan Brickley of the W3C and Libby Miller of the University of Bristol — Dan used to be at U of B and he and Libby are best friends — FOAF is a way for a person to bundle up the sort of information typically expressed by a home page: name, employer, address, hobbies, etc. It can also include lists of friends and acquaintances' sites. FOAF is completely voluntary and you can put in as few or as many personal facts as you like. Applications can then spider from site to site, gathering the FOAFs to build social networking applications. The applications are yet to be invented.
FOAF is kind of catching on. For example, the popular blogging software, TypePad, automatically creates FOAF files based on user profiles. (Leigh Dodds' Foaf-a-matic will create a FOAF file if your blogging app doesn't do it for you.) Applications for FOAF are not catching on, at least not yet.
LOAF is a new proposal for making available information about social networks. It encrypts your address book and makes it accessible to others. The most immediate application is in fighting spam: If I receive a message from someone not in my address book, LOAF (which stands for nothing, although List of All Friends seems to be catching on) can see if it's coming from a friend of a friend.
LOAF is damned clever. It uses a Bloom Filter that works something like this: Create a series of bits of some predetermined length, and set all the bits to 0. Run an application that "hashes" each entry in your address book, creating a unique number for it; hash numbers can't be reverse engineered. Turn on the bits in the series that represent the hash number. Attach this series to each email message you send. Let's say the recipient wants to know if "Marc Cantor" is in your address book. The recipient hashes "Marc Cantor" and checks the bit series. If any of the bits representing the Marc Cantor hash aren't on, the recipient knows for sure that Marc Cantor wasn't in your address book. If all the Marc Cantor hash bits are on, then Marc may well be in your address book; the likelihood of a false positive depends on the length of the bit series and the number of hash functions. Of course this would all happen automatically. The brilliance of the Bloom Filter is that it is compact (a few kilobytes would typically suffice) and absolutely cannot be "decrypted" into the names in your address book.
FOAF and LOAF add value to the Net, enriching it with voluntarily disclosed information about who we are and who we know. In this they are unlike Artificial Social Networks that capture the conversations between us but make them inaccessible to other applications.
The trade-off is high, however. Just take a look at Wallop and you'll see what I mean.
[Thanks to Joshua Schachter for explaining Bloom Filters to me. He is not responsible for the parts I got wrong. ]
The slippery slope of slippery slope
If we allow same-sex marriages, the next thing you know, we'll be allowing threesomes to marry, adults to marry 14 year olds, and then what's to stop Mr. Ed from marching down the aisle with Wilbur?
I can't tell you how many times I've heard that argument, including from US Senator Rick Santorum and respected newspaper columnists, such as the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby, as well as in just about every online discussion I've seen about the topic.
It's called the slippery slope argument, and there's a good reason why it's counted among the fallacies.
In the classic slippery slope argument, you argue against an idea, let's call it A, by saying that if we accept A, then B will happen, then C will happen, until we get all the way to Z ... and Z is so awful that everyone agrees we should avoid it.
The first thing fishy about a slippery slope argument is that it argues against A by distracting us. The problem with A, it says, isn't with A or even maybe with B, but with that awful, awful Z. But that's usually not what the arguer really thinks. If you show them the slope isn't really slippery, and it doesn't lead to B or C or Z, the opponents of same-sex marriage don't say, "Well, I guess A is ok then. Thanks for changing my mind!" No, they're still against same-sex marriage. The slippery slope argument doesn't reflect their real issues with it.
But is there really a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to all those awful Z's? You could just as easily argue against heterosexual marriage because if we allow it, then inevitably we're going to face demands that gays and lesbians be allowed to marry. Is the slope from same-sex marriage to child marriage any more slippery than the slope from heterosexual marriage to same-sex marriage?
It depends on what slippery means. How inevitable are such slopes? What would force us to go - inevitably - from same-sex marriage to the awful Zs? For many people, it's all about setting a precedent. But precedents are peculiar: We humans get to pick what constitutes the precedent. If we allow same-sex marriage, is the precedent that any creatures who claim to be in love ought to be allowed to marry? Then, sure, we'd be saying we're ok with child marriages, people marrying their goldfish, or whatever absurd Z you want to come up with. But that'd be a ridiculous precedent to draw. The more realistic precedent is that gender doesn't matter in marriage — a precedent that doesn't lead to any of the catastrophic Z's the arguers dangle before our eyes.
Besides, we get to make up our minds as an electorate. We lowered the voting age to 18, but that doesn't mean we then have to lower it to 7. It's up to us. If we decide people of the same sex can marry, there's no way Americans would then say, "Well, I guess I'm going to vote in favor of child brides." The slope just isn't slippery.
Beyond the particularities of same-sex marriage, the Slippery Slope is fundamentally dishonest. It often masks a fear of change, because every time we change our mind, we look up a hill at our former self's beliefs. They're standing there, smug and certain that they're right. But now they look a little foolish. That's the price of change.
Twenty years ago, I would have argued vehemently against same-sex marriage. The slope I went down in changing my mind wasn't very slippery. In fact, it was rocky and I got scraped going down it. I deserved the bruising: I was a jerk who refused to see the loving relationships that were before my eyes. So, I look at my old self standing at the top of the hill, and I'm ashamed. And I say: Thank goodness for the slope.
Middle World Resources
Walking the Walk
Malcolm Wheatley in CIO Magazine (March 1) reports on a whole bunch o' companies going open source. Employease, "which provides employee benefits administration services to more than 1,000 organizations" has 25 application servers running Red Hat Linux. "It's not about being cheap," says Employease. "It's about doing our jobs effectively...We want stable software that does what it says it will do."
Linux has cut the rate of server failure from one a day to at most two a month. Plus, Linux is running faster than NT. "Linux increased our capacity by between 50% and 75%."
Likewise, La Quinta claims cheapness isn't the reason they're moving their booking system to Linux. On the other hand, Sabre Holdings, the company behind the Sabre Travel Network, is willing to own up to its cheapness: It's moving to open source in order to save tens of millions of dollars in the next ten years.
For the Hyperlinked Organization
I'm enjoying AutoHotKey, although I really shouldn't be.
It's a free, open source keyboard remapper for Windows that lets you program just about any keystroke to do just about anything. And I mean "program" literally. For example, this is the script for getting the Windows key followed by "s" to open my weblog:
IfWinExist, Joho the Blog
Run, %ProgramFiles%/Internet Explorer/iexplore.exe "http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger"
If I had any brains at all, I'd prefer ActiveWords that does the same and more without requiring a drop of programming. But for some reason, I like the spareness of AutoHotKey. And so far it's been working good.
I've touted X1 before, except that it was called "Find" then. Since it's a desktop search engine that indexes your email and files, it was truly an act of marketing genius (of the Not kind) to rename it X1. Anyway, release 3 is out, and if you click on this link, you can get it for $49.95 instead of the usual $99. (No, I don't get anything if you take advantage of this offer.)
I just finished BlackHawk Down. You're in Somalia in 1994, shooting your way out of peril. The game play is pretty good, although you're only given a limited number of saves for each mission, so you end up playing the same scenarios over and over.
But it's hard to get past the overall tastelessness of the game's turning a real-life disaster into a video game. It's too fresh and it's too specific. Plus, everyone you kill is black. Wow, that's a nasty feeling. It's not like the game could do anything about it, but that's the problem with taking an actual, recent event as your entertainment fodder.
The game does have some nods in a human direction. You are penalized (sort of) for shooting non-combatants, many of whom throw a stone at you and tell you to get out of Somalia. Even so, this is a tough game to recommend.
According to Linux Journal (March '04), Sun projects it will roll out 800,000 Linux-based Sun Java desktops in the UK, and is "aiming at" deploying 500,000,000 Linux desktops in China.
And, the same magazine says that installing Linux at Hill House Hammond (tag line: "We have no idea what we do, either") enabled them to go from 500 to 50 technical support people.
Mother Jones (Sept/Oct. '03) has a similar list of context-free stats. Included:
Tons of additional air pollutants permitted to be released by 2020 under Bush's 'Clear Skies' plan: 42 million
Estimated amount that Clear Skies-related health problems will cost taxpayers, per year: $115 billion
Years that the Bush administration says global warming must be further studied before substantive action can be taken: 5
Amount that the energy advisory board members gave to Republican candidates in the 2000 election: $8 million.
Average annual number of species added to the Endangered and Threatened Species list between 1991 and 2000: 68.4
Number voluntarily added by the Bush administration since taking office: 0
Look, I know that there are plenty of ways the above statistics could have been bent to serve Mother Jones' (and my) agenda. But I'll trade some indignant activism for accuracy at this point.
Bogus Contest: What's my next book about?
For about the past 18 months, I've been trying to figure out how to frame a book I want to write. I've known the set of topics I'm interested in and what the sub-text conclusion is. I know that at some level the book is about the fearsome price we pay for thinking that the world is precise and ambiguity is a failure, when just the reverse is true: The world is analog and continuous, and ambiguity is required for understanding our shared world.
Only two problems with that: No one would want to read that book, and it'd be impossible to write. To take a self-aggrandizing example, Malcolm Gladwell didn't go to his publishers with a proposal to write a book about network topologies, even though that's what The Tipping Point is about (sort of).
So, here's what I think my book is about:
Information about information has always been embedded in our understanding of our world. Now, because of the explosion of information, we are being forced to deal with this "meta-information" explicitly. But there's a problem: When we make information about information explicit, we uproot it and it loses its context and its richness.
This book looks at the science, art and culture of information about information and how its changing how we understand and navigate our world.
Something like that. In fact, here's a different way of looking at the same thing: We've assumed that as our understanding gets more abstract, we get wiser: We go from data to information to knowledge to ... Nope. The next step up the ladder degrades our understanding of the world. There's a gap in the wisdom series.
So, I have three challenges for you:
1. Boil it down to a single phrase, on the order of "The Tipping Point is about how small changes can have big effects."
2. Suggest topics for me, or people with whom I should speak. Taxonomists, ontologists, librarians, indexers, and, most important, the sorts of folks I would never think of. The more unexpected, the better.
3. Suggest titles and, possibly, subtitles. For a while I liked Contents: One Book. The Arrow's Tail is another contender. Eh.
The prize: A grudging mention in the acknowledgements of the book, if a book ever comes out of this.
JOHO is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by David Weinberger. If you write him with corrections or criticisms, it will probably turn out to have been your fault.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.