The Null Device
Brad Fitzpatrick, the founder of LiveJournal and architect of OpenID, has put forward his thoughts on the social graph problem — which is to say, the present state of affairs in which each social software application has its own social graph (of which user is connected to whom) which its users have to independently maintain — and how to go about aggregating these graphs into something less unwieldy:
Currently if you're a new site that needs the social graph (e.g. dopplr.com) to provide one fun & useful feature (e.g. where are your friends traveling and when?), then you face a much bigger problem then just implementing your main feature. You also have to have usernames, passwords (or hopefully you use OpenID instead), a way to invite friends, add/remove friends, and the list goes on. So generally you have to ask for email addresses too, requiring you to send out address verification emails, etc. Then lost username/password emails. etc, etc. If I had to declare the problem statement succinctly, it'd be: People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every site., but also: Developing "Social Applications" is too much work.
Facebook's answer seems to be that the world should just all be Facebook apps. While Facebook is an amazing platform and has some amazing technology, there's a lot of hesitation in the developer / "Web 2.0" community about being slaves to Facebook, dependent on their continued goodwill, availability, future owners, not changing the rules, etc. That hesitation I think is well-founded. A centralized "owner" of the social graph is bad for the Internet.Brad has written down a set of goals for a project to open up the social graph, in a way that allows sites to interoperate gracefully. This will include a common infrastructure that manages the social graph data, within an architecture which (much like OpenID) allows anyone to operate their own servers, and prevents any one entity from owning the graph. This will have an API, which returns all equivalent nodes of a node (i.e., given an identity on one service, the owner's identities on all other services registeded), the edges in and out of a node, the aggregated friends of a node across all services, and any missing friends (i.e., any pairs of nodes connected on one service but not another).
From the user's point of view, this will allow some fairly nifty magic to happen, saving users the hassle of registering on yet another social network site and rounding up their friends:
A user should then be able to log into a social application (e.g. dopplr.com) for the first time, ideally but not necessarily with OpenID, and be presented with a dialog like: "Hey, we see from public information elsewhere that you already have 28 friends already using dopplr, shown below with rationale about why we're recommending them (what usernames they are on other sites). Which do you want to be friends with here? Or click 'select-all'."Brad acknowledges that there will be uncooperative sites, who, owning the lion's share of the social-networking sphere, don't see it in their interest to prioritise interoperating with other sites (no names are named, though I'm betting that it'll be a cold day in Hell before MySpace plays nice with something like this; after all, it may tip their users off to the existence of other sites and depress banner-ad impressions). Thus he proposes a browser add-on which implements the system on uncooperative sites, by means of screen-scraping.
What's happening with this proposal? so far, they have prototypes of the APIs, working on the data for 5 sites (LiveJournal and Vox are, not surprisingly, two of them), the start of a Firefox plug-in to drag MySpace, kicking and screaming, to the party, and the start of a website allowing users to register their points of presence in social networks; a limited beta is expected at some time in the future. There are apparently a lot of people from different organisations working on this, much as there were on the OpenID project, and a Google group has been set up for discussion of the details.
Note that this only covers social network (i.e., "x is a friend of y") data, and not the actual content (birthdays, photos, favourite movies/bands). There is another project named Move My Data, which aims to make the actual user data portable between accounts, though so far it seems to consist of a vague proposal.
The recent cheap electronics boom (made possible by inexpensive, flexible microcontrollers and cheap manufacturing in places like China) has spawned a new wave of technological solutions to antisocial problems:
A Tennessee company has created a $50 device that shuts up other people's dogs by answering their barks with an ultrasonic squeal that humans can't hear. (The unit is disguised as a birdhouse.) British inventors are exporting a new product for people who hate lousy drivers -- it's a luminescent screen that fits in a car's rear window and, at the driver's command, flashes any one of five messages to other motorists.One of the best known examples of this phenomenon is the TV-B-Gone, a keyring-sized infrared transmitter which, at the press of a button, sends out the "switch off" codes for hundreds of models of television. Some business owners have taken to removing or masking infrared receivers on their televisions to prevent people from switching them off. while hackers have customised their TV-B-Gones by embedding them in hats or else enhancing them with massive arrays of LEDs for extra range.
There's an updated version of the TV-B-Gone in the works that will be powerful enough to shut off televisions from behind sheets of glass. A well-publicized British invention called "the Mosquito" that emits high-frequency sounds particularly irritating to congregations of teenagers is now being marketed in the U.S. by a company called Kids Be Gone.
It has emerged that Australian opposition leader and predicted next Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended a strip club four years ago.
It's not clear which way this will go. On one hand, Rudd's big advantage over Howard is his perceived honesty and cleanness. If the Howard government (or, more precisely, sympathisers in the media and pressure groups, who can be kept at arm's length) can succeed in using this (and the juxtaposition between Rudd's straight-laced Christian public image and this incident) to damage this aura, then Rudd may become just another grubby politician, only without a track record. On the other hand, Australians do love a larrikin (see also: Bob Hawke), and this minor indiscretion may make him more appealing to some voters. (Not the wowsers, of course, though whether they were ever likely to leave the Howard camp is uncertain.)
Either way, let's hope that it puts paid to any Labor overtures to Family First.