Monthly Archive for March, 2008

Facebook users: more and more in just four months

I am currently doing some research for an analyst report at work, and I thought I might update my November findings of how many Facebook users there are.

The total is within the ballpark figures of total users (Mix08 panel indicates around 65million from memory) so listing seems fairly complete, with maybe less than million missing for small countries not listed.

I found some of the results impressive, especially given the user growth in less than four months- even in countries like the US and Australia which I’d thought would be peaking. Sweden appears to have a bit of Facebook fatigue with canceled accounts, and looks like fundamentalist Saudia Arabia has a bigger userbase then tech-savvy Russians showing.

facebook users march08 update

How to piss your customers off – a lesson courtesy from eBay

I get e-mails from companies. Sometimes I request it; but on the whole I always tick the option “please do NOT send me promotional material”. So when I receive e-mails from companies, I give them the benefit of the doubt that it was my error, although this is being extremely generous because I know I never allow them to send communications above what I need. The fact I am getting an e-mail from them already has me tense.

So if a company is going to send me promotional e-mails, I expect courtesy because they are taking up my time. Note to companies about how not to do it:

ebay

“…to change your communication preferences, log into eBay…” and click through the barrage of poor usability options to find that hidden box that allows you to stop being spammed. After all, a one click unsubscribe option or even a link of where you need to go makes it more likely that you would unsubscribe so we adopt of model of trying to discourage you, because we know most people haven’t got the effort to action and would rather delete it than remove the sending from the source. Hey, marking us as ‘spam’ or deleting each incoming e-mail is a better option because the more numbers we have on our mailing list as ‘receiving’ the more it makes the marketing director feel all warm and fuzzy that we have distribution outlets for campaigns, even though we know you don’t read them.

“Please note it may take us up to 10 business days to process your request” because it takes 10 microseconds to technologically do so but we are a bunch of losers who are going to hope you forgot you tried un-subscribing and will send follow up e-mails in that time hoping to win you back, because we refuse to accept we screwed up and have ruined our relationship with you”.

Here’s a secret: the semantic web is the boring bit

Marshall Kirkpatrick caused a wave today, when he gave a brutally honest assessment of one of the most talked up semantic web applications, Twine. It was as per usual, an excellent analysis by Marshall and I don’t think he needs to hide behind his words as they are fair. However, what I think is crucial is now that the semantic web is gaining traction into the mainstream from a academic thesis to real world web applications, is we do a little bit of stakeholder management.

Ready? The semantic web is as boring as bat shit.

Essentially, the semantic web is about structuring content in a way so that computers can interpret the information. It’s a bit like linking every word on the web, to a dictionary entry so that computers understand the language that humans use.

But seriously, how is that exciting? People don’t get the semantic web, because it’s the fundamentals – and thats boring! Take for example RDF, the semantic web building block, and which is about structuring data into subject, predicate and object. This is straight from primary school grammar lessons, where we learn about the fundamentals of the English language (no coincidence I just linked to an grammar guide, not the RDF guide). And if you have heard of subject, predicate and object before in the context of the semantic web, you probably didn’t even realise it’s how the entire English language is based. It’s because you probably did learn it, and forgot – it’s boring as bat shit. But damn, without them, we wouldn’t be communicating right now to each other.

The point I want to make, is that the building blocks are not where the excitement: the excitement, is what you can do once we have those building blocks. In English, we have poetry, literature, and just language in general where we communicate as human beings. Once we get the basics down of information, we are laying the foundation of a whole new world of computational possibilities. Marshall is spot on in saying “…semantics may be best suited to the back end…” because the excitement is what they enable, not the actual semantics itself which is going to take a long time to build up.

Imagine, the sum of human knowledge accessible by a computer to query? Semantic web applications are boring and you won’t ever get them – but what they enable, is a whole new world of potential which once we can flick the switch, will mean a world we will barely recognise from today’s standpoint.

February 2008 DataPortability project report

The DataPortability project has now released its February 2008 report, with a massive thank you to Mary Trigiani and Daniela Barbosa, our Italian and Portuguese glamour ladies in the evangelism action group! The delay this month was due to Mary’s family getting hit by a tornado (!) which had her busy with other things, and the finalisation of our new wiki platform, with the new uri http://wiki.dataportability.org now live for the world to access.

Highlights include:

  • A new logo competition
  • A new collaboration platform
  • The announcement of the”investigation” phase of the DataPortability project
  • …and a lot more

Be sure to read the February 2008 report (and the January 2008 report if you missed it) to get the latest news about DataPortability, as we have commited to be open and transparent about what we are doing.

Net neutrality

Mick just posted a video he has come across on net neutrality. At the very least, you should watch it because it’s an important issue. We take for granted that when we are connected to the net, we are given equal access; what the large Telco’s appear to be pushing, is to influence that actual content that flows over the internet. It’s a bit like a bunch of shops in a marketplace – the Telco’s want the consumers to pay for entering the marketplace (as they do) and now they want to charge the people who choose to host shops in the marketplace as well as allocating consumers a personal guide who depending on how much you tip them, will determine if you can visit a particular shop. The beauty of the internet, is that all you need is a connection and you are given equal like anyone else. In a world where space is finite, rent for a shop makes sense because it’s managing the demand; but in a virtual world there is no reason to inherit this age old concept as it will kill the core of what is what makes it the most amazing invention in history.

The first video is one I found that is more concise and to the point. The second one is the one on Mick’s blog which is certainly a lot more emotive.

DataPortability is about user value, fool!

In a recent interview, VentureBeat asks Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg the following:

VB: Facebook has recently joined DataPortability.org, a working group among web companies, that intends to develop common standards so users can access their data across sites. Is Facebook going to let users — and other companies — take Facebook data completely off Facebook?

MZ: I think that trend is worth watching.

It disappoints me to see that, because it seems like a quick journalists hit at a contentious issue. On the other hand, we have seen amazing news today which are examples of exactly the type of thing we should be expecting in a data portability enabled world: the Google contacts API which has been a thing we have highlighted for months now as an issue for data security and Google analytics allowing benchmarking which is a clear example of a company that understands by linking different types of data you generate more information and therefore value for the user. The DataPortability project is about trying to advocate new ways of thinking, and indeed, we don’t have to formally produce a product in as much maintain the agenda in the industry.

However the reason I write this is that it worries me a bit that we are throwing around the term “data portability” despite the fact the DataPortability Project has yet to formally define what that means. I can say this because as a member of the policy action group and the steering action group which are responsible for making this distinction, we have yet to formally decide.

Today, I offer an analysis of what the industry needs to be talking about, because the term is being thrown around like buggery. Whilst it may be weeks or months before we finalise this, it’s starting to bother me that people seem to think the concept means solving the rest of the world’s problems or to disrupt the status quo. It’s time for some focus!

Value creation
First of all, we need to determine why the hell we want data portability. DataPortability (note the distinction of the term with that of ‘data portability’ Рthe latter represents the philosophy whilst the former is the implementation of that philosophy by DataPortability.org) is not a new utopian ideal; it’s a new way of thinking about things that will generate value in the entire Information sector. So to genuinely want to create value for consumers and businesses alike, we need to apply thinking that we use in the rest of the business world.

A company should be centered on generating value for its customers. Whilst they may have obligations to generate returns for their shareholders, and may attempt different things to meet those obligations; they also have an obligation to generate shareholder value. To generate shareholder value, means to fund the growth of their business ultimately through increased customer utility which is the only long term way of doing so (taking out acquisitions and operational efficiency which are other ways companies generate more value but which are short term measures however). Therefore an analysis of what value DataPortability creates should be done with the customer in mind.

The economic value of a user having some sort of control over their data is that they can generate more value through their transactions within the Information economy. This means better insights (ie, greater interoperability allowing the connection of data to create more information), less redundancy (being able to use the same data), and more security (which includes better privacy which can compromise a consumers existence if not managed).

Secondly, what does it mean for a consumer to have data portability? Since we have realised that the purpose of such an exercise is to generate value, questions about data like “control”, “access” and “ownership” need to be reevaluated because on face value, the way they are applied may have either beneficial or detrimental effects for new business models. The international accounting standards state that you can legally “own” an asset but not necessarily receive the economics benefits associated with that asset. The concept of ownership to achieve benefit is something we really need to clarify, because quite frankly, ownership does not translate into economic benefit which is what we are at stake to achieve.

Privacy is a concept that has legal implications, and regardless of what we discuss with DataPortability, it still needs to be considered because business operates within the frameworks of law. Specifically, the human rights of an individual (who are consumers) need to be given greater priority than any other factor. So although we should be focused on how we can generate value, we also need to be mindful that certain types of data, like personally identifiable data, needs to be considered in adifferent light as there are social implications in addition to the economic aspects.

The use cases
The technical action group within the DataPortability project has been attempting to create a list of scenarios that constitute use cases for DataPortability enablement. This is crucial because to develop the blueprint, we also need to know what exactly the blueprint applies to.

I think it’s time however we recognise, that this isn’t merely a technical issue, but an industry issue. So now that we have begun the research phase of the DataPortability Project, I ask you and everyone else to join me as we discuss what exactly is the economic benefit that DataPortability creates. Rather than asking if Facebook is going to give up its users data to other applications, we need to be thinking on what is the end value that we strive to achieve by having DataPortability.

Portability in context, not location
When the media discuss DataPortability, please understand that a user simply being able to export their data is quite irrelevant to the discussion, as I have outlined in my previous posting. What truly matters is “access”. The ability for a user to command the economic benefits of their data, is the ability to determine who else can access their data. Companies need to be thinking that value creation comes from generating information – which is simply relationships between different data ‘objects’. If a user is to get the economic benefits of using their data from other repositories, companies simply need to allow the ability for a user to delegate permission for others to access that data. Such a thing does not compromise a company’s competitive advantage as they won’t necessarily have to delete data they have of a user; rather it requires them to try to to realise that holding in custody a users data or parts of it gives them a better advantage as hosting a users data gives them complete access, to try to come up with innovative new information products for the user.

So what’s my point? When discussing DataPortability, let’s focus on the value to the user. And the next time the top tech blogs confront the companies that are supporting the movement with a simplistic “when are you going to let users take their data completely off ” I am going to burn my bra in protest.

Disclosure: I’m a hetrosexual male that doesn’t cross-dress

Update: I didn’t mean to scapegoat Eric from VentureBeat who is a brilliant writer. However I used him to give an example of the language being used in the entire community which now needs to change. With the DP research phase now officially underway for the next few months, the questions we should be asking should be more open-ended as we at the DataPortability project have realised these issues are complex, and we need to get the entire community to come to a consensus. DataPortability is no longer just about exporting your social graph – it’s an entirely new approach to how we will be doing business on the net, and as such, requires us to fundamentally reexamine a lot more than we originally thought.

Can you answer my question?

We at the DataPortability project have kick started a research phase, because we’ve realised we need to spend more time consulting with the community working out issues which don’t quite have one answer.

As Chris Saad and myself are also experimenting with a new type of social organisation as we incubate the DataPortability project, which I call wikiocracy (Chris calls it participant democracy), I thought I might post these issues on my blog to keep in line with the decentralised ethos we are encouraging with DataPortability. This is something the entire world should be questioning,

So below are some thoughts I have had. They’ve changed a lot since I first thought about what a users data rights are, and no doubt, they will change again. But hopefully my thoughts can act as a catalyst for what people think data rights really are, and a focus on the issue at stake which I conclude as my question. I think the bill of rights for users on the social web is not quite adequate, and we need a more careful analysis of the issues.

It’s the data, stupid
Data is essentially an object. Standalone it’s useless – take for example the name “Elias”. In the absence of anything else, that piece of datum means nothing. However when you associate that name with my identity (ie, appending my surname Bizannes or linking it to my facebook profile), that suddenly becomes “information”. Data is an object and information is generated when you create linkages between different types of data – the ‘relationships’.

Take this data definition from DMReview which defines data (and information):

Items representing facts, text, graphics, bit-mapped images, sound, analog or digital live-video segments. Data is the raw material of a system supplied by data producers and is used by information consumers to create information.

Data is an object and information is a relationship between data – I’ve studied database theory at university to be authoritative on that! But since I didn’t do philosophy, then what is knowledge?

Knowledge can be considered as the distillation of information that has been collected, classified, organized, integrated, abstracted and value added
(source)

Relationships, facts, assumptions, heuristics and models derived through the formal and informal analysis or interpretation of data
(source)

So in other words, knowledge is the application of information to a scenario. Whilst I apologise if this appears that I am splitting hairs, I think clarifying what these terms are is fundamental to the implementation of DataPortability. Why this is relevant will be seen below, but now we need to move onto what does the second concept mean.

Portability
On first interpretation, portability means the ability to move something – exporting and importing. I think we shouldn’t take the ability to move data around as the sole definition of portability but it should also mean being able to port the context that data is used. After all, information and knowledge is based on the manipulation of data, and you don’t need to move data per se but merely change the context to do that. A vendor can add value to a consumer by building unique relationships between data and giving unique application to other scenarios – where the original data is stored is irrelevant as long as its accessible.

Portability to me means a person needs to have the ability to determine where their data is used. But to do that, they need control over that data – which means determining how it is used. Yet there is little point being able to determine how your data is used, if you can’t determine who can access your data. Therefore, the concept of portability invokes an understanding of what exactly control and accessibility means.

So to discuss portability, requires us to also understand what does data control and data accessibility really mean. You can’t “port” something unless you control it; and you can’t “control” something, if you can’t determine who can “access” it. As I state, as long as the data is accessible, the location of it can be on the moon for all I care: for the concept of portability by context to exist, we must ensure as a condition that the data is open to access.

Ownership
Now here is where it gets complicated: who owns what? Maybe the conversation should come to who owns the information and knowledge generated from that data. Data on its own, potentially doesn’t belong to anyone. My name “Elias” is shared by millions of other people in the world. Whilst I may own my identity, which my name is a representation of that, is it fair to say I own the name “Elias”? On the flip side, if a picture I took is considered data – I think it’s fair to say I “own” that piece of data.

Information on the other hand, requires a bit of work to create. Therefore, the generator of that information should get ownership. However when we start applying this concept to something like a social relationship, it gets a bit tricky. If I add a friend on Facebook, and they accept me, who “owns” that relationship? Effectively both of us – so we become join partners in ownership of that piece of information. If I was to add someone as a friend on MySpace, they don’t necessarily have to reciprocate – therefore it’s a one way relationship. Does that mean, I own that information?

This is when the concept of privacy comes in. If I am generating information about someone, am I entitled to it? If someone owns the underlying data I used to generate that information – then it would be fair to say, I am “licensing” usage of that data to generate information which de-facto is owned by them. But privacy as a concept and in the legislation of many countries doesn’t work like that. Privacy is even a right along side other basic rights like freedom of expression and religion in the constitution of Iraq (Article 17). So what’s privacy in the context of information that relates to someones identity?

Perhaps we should define privacy as the right to control information that represents an entity’s identity (being a person or legal body). Such as definition ties with defamation law for example, and the principle of privacy: you have control over what’s been said about you, as a fundamental human right. But yet again, I’ve just opened up a can of worms: what is “identity”? Maybe the Identity commons people can answer that? Would it be fair to say, that in the context of an “identity”, an entity like a person ‘owns’ that? So when it comes to information relating to someones identity, do we override it with this human right to privacy as to who owns that information, regardless of who generated that information?

This posting is a question, rather than an answer. When we say we want “data portability”, we need to be clear what exactly this means. Companies I believe are slightly afraid of DataPortability, because they think they will lose something, which is not true. Companies commercial interests are something I am very mindful when we have these discussions, and I will ensure with my involvement that DataPortability pioneers not some unrealistic ideal but a genuine move forward in business thinking. It needs to be clear what constitutes ownership and of what so we can design a blueprint that accounts for users’ data rights, without ruining the business models of companies that rely on our data.

Which brings me to my question – “who owns what”?

Control doesn’t necessarily mean access

I was approached by multiple people – PR professionals and journalists alike – after I gave my presentation at the kickstart forum yesterday. Whilst I doubt DataPortability is something they will pick up on for feature stories given the product focus these journalists have, the conversations with them were extremely encouraging and I am thank full to get their feedback.

One conversation particularly stood out for me, which was with John Hepworth – a former engineer whose has been freelance writing for over 20 years, and it was in the context of the ability to port your health information. I’ve been thinking a lot of the scenario whereby consumers can move their health records from clinics, and with Google Health launching and the discussions in the DataPortability forums I am certainly not alone. Something that caught my attention was Deepak Singh who recently posted an interesting perspective: we shouldn’t give users access to their health records, because they will make uninformed judgments if they have control of them. That’s an excellent point, but one which prickles the whole issue of not just who owns your data, but who should have access to it (including yourself).

Hepworth provided a simple but extremely insightful position to this issue: you don’t need to give users the ability to see their data, for them to control it. Brilliant!

The benefits of controlling your data, needs to be looked at not just in the context of the laws of a country, but on the net benefit it provides to an individual. Comments provided by your physicians in your medical history, whilst although they deserve to be given ownership to the individual they are about, they also need to be given access to people who are qualified to make educated judgments. In others words, you should have the right to port your data to another doctor, but you should only have access to it in the presence of a qualified doctor.

DataPortability should not equate in you seeing your data all the time – rather it should be about determining how it gets used by others.

My presentation at Kickstart forum

I’m currently at Kickstart forum (along with the Mickster), and I just gave a presentation on DataPortability to a bunch of Aussie journalists. I didn’t write a speech, but I did jot down some points on paper before I spoke, so I thought I might share them here given I had a good response.

My presentation had three aspects: background, explanation, and implications of DataPortability. Below is a summary of what I said

Background

  • Started by a bunch of Australians and a few other people overseas in November 2007 out of a chatroom. We formed a workgroup to explore the concept of social network data portability
  • In January 2008, Robert Scoble had an incident, which directed a lot of attention to us. As a consequence, we’ve seen major companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Six Apart, LinkedIn, Digg, and a host of others pledge support for the project.
  • We now have over 1000 people contributing, and have the support of a lot of influential people in the industry who want us to succeed.

Explanation

  • The goal is to not invent anything new. Rather, it’s to synthesise existing standards and technologies, into one blueprint – and then we push it out to the world under the DataPortability brand
  • When consumers see the DataPortability brand, they will know it represents certain things – similar to how users recognise the Centrino brand represents Intel, mobility, wireless internet, and a long battary life. The brand is to communicate some fundamental things about a web service, that will allow a user to recognise a supporting site respects it’s users data rights and certain functionality.
  • Analogy of zero-networking: before the zeroconf initiative it was difficult to connect to the internet (wirelessly). Due to the standardisation of policies, we can now connect on the internet wirelessly at the click of a button. The consequence of this is not just a better consumer experience, but the enablement of future opportunities such as what we are seeing with the mobile phone. Likewise, with DataPortability we will be able to connect to new applications and things will just “work” – and it will see new opportunity for us
  • Analogy of the bank: I stated how the attention economy is something we give our attention to ie, we put up with advertising, and in return we get content. And that the currency of the attention economy is data. With DataPortability, we can store our data in a bank, and via “electronic transfer”, we can interact with various services controlling the use of that data in a centralised manner. We update our data at the bank, and it automatically synchronises with the services we use ie, automatically updating your Facebook and MySpace profiles

Implications

  1. Interoperability: When diverse systems and organisations work together. A DataPortability world will allow you to use your data generated from other sites ie, if you buy books on Amazon about penguins, you can get movie recommendations on your pay TV movie catalog for penguins. Things like the ability to log in across the web with one sign-on, creates a self-supporting ecosystem where everyone benefits.
  2. Semantic web: I gave an explanation of the semantic web (which generated a lot of interest afterwards in chats), and then I proceeded to explain that the problem for the semantic web is there hasn’t been this uptake of standards and technologies. I said that when a company adopts the DataPortability blueprint, they will effectively be supporting the semantic web – and hence enabling the next phase of computing history
  3. Data rights: I claimed the DataPortability project is putting data rights in the spotlight, and it’s an issue that has generated interest from other industries like the health and legal sectors, and not just the Internet sector. Things like what is privacy, and what exactly does my “data” mean. DataPortability is creating a discussion on what this actually means
  4. Wikiocracy: I briefly explained how we are doing a social experiment, with a new type of of governance model, which can be regarded as an evolution of the open source model. “Decentralised” and “non-hierarchical”, which with time it will be more evident with what we are trying to do

Something that amused me was in the sessions I had afterwards when the journalists had a one-on-one session with me, one woman asked: “So why are you doing all of this?”. I said it was an amazing opportunity to meet people and build my profile in the tech industry, to which she concluded: “you’re doing this to make history, aren’t you?”. I smiled 🙂