Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

New members for DataPortability.org

In the aftermath of the Scoble/Facebook scraping brouhaha, DataPortability.org (“sharing is caring”) has announced that individuals from Google, Facebook, and Plaxo have joined their workgroup. There are big names involved: Brad Fitzpatrick is the inventor of LiveJournal and runs Google’s OpenSocial platform, and Benjamin Ling (who recently left Google) now runs Facebook’s platform group. Marshall Kirkpatrick describes as “a bombshell” on ReadWriteWeb and Duncan Riley is even more effusive (“this changes everything”) on TechCrunch; Dennis Howlett has a more skeptical view in his DataPortability.org workgroup is stillborn. It seems to me that while it’s hard to know what if anything the consortium will produce, it seems like at the least a pretty strong signal.

Of what? Well, in a blog post yesterday, workgroup chair Chris Saad said “The question is not if Robert Scoble had a right to get the data and the data of his friends – the question is why Facebook won’t let him.” I’m in the camp with a lot of others who think this takes the real trust issues off the table: Scoble didn’t have the right to the secondary uses of my data he took either according to his TOU or to the permissions I thought I had given him. So hopefully it’s not support of that.

And given how much heat the various companies are taking over privacy issues recently, Saad’s comments in the same post that the top privacy issue in social networks is that “Privacy Concerns are somewhat over-exaggerated” is a sign either of some major upcoming evolution in the group as more responsible businesses get involved — or more fiascos to come under the guise of “helping the user”, with increasing political and legal pressure to follow. Let’s keep fingers crossed for the former. Saad’s comment on Alec Saunders’ Privacy Manifesto for the Web 2.0 Era today is encouraging: Saunders manifesto is based on fair information practices, and characterizes Facebook has having done the right thing in the Scoble scrape-up and describe’s Plaxo’s behavior as “disappointing”; Saad descries the post as fantastic, and asks him to join the standards discussion.

Howlett brings up a very good point about the apparent US-centricity of the effort:

In all the discussions around this topic, I have yet to see cogent description about how this is going to work given the data privacy laws that exist around the world. Once again, we have a US centric view of the so-called flat earth that fails to recognize there are real laws with real force that will almost certainly kill this initiative stone dead.

As to how real the commitment by the various companies is, hard to know; we’ll have to see whether they make meaningful strides towards true openness, try to use it as a mechanism to lock users into their individual sites … or just continue to say the right things while not doing very much.

Update on January 15: an spiffy video by Michael Pick of Smashcut Media describes the problems DataPortability is trying to help with. Unfortunately the code they provide to embed the video on the page messes up the formatting; so please check it out on Marshall Kirkpatrick’s post on ReadWriteWeb, where a commenter usefully points out that despite the calls for participation, there isn’t any kind of “join” button on the DataPortability.org site.

posted by Jon at 5:16 pm  

Monday, January 7, 2008

Wikia’s open-source “social search” alpha is up

Wikia, a for-profit company started by Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame, has gotten a lot of attention both for their open-source focus and for their plans for applying community effort to refine search results, an approach generally known as “social search”. The alpha version of Wikia search was released today, with loads of coverage including the New York Times and Business Week. From Wikia’s “about us” page:

We are aware that the quality of the search results is low.

Wikia’s search engine concept is that of trusted user feedback from a community of users acting together in an open, transparent, public way. Of course, before we start, we have no user feedback data. So the results are pretty bad. But we expect them to improve rapidly in coming weeks, so please bookmark the site and return often….

I believe that search is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet, and that it can and should therefore be done in an open, objective, accountable way. This site, which we have been working on for a long time now, represents the first draft of the future of search.

The initial experience is a combination of a social network (a photo, friends, a “whiteboard” a la Joomla’s chatbox or Facebook’s wall) and search results, very similar to Mahalo Social. From a quick experiment, Mahalo made it much easier for me as a user to contribute: I could just provide my favorite link in response to a search result, along with 100 characters about why I liked it, and a few tags. Wikia, by contrast, invited me to write a “mini-article” on the topic, and when I bring up the page it emphasizes that they want content and not just a link — and warns me four times not to spam or I will be blocked. How inviting. And yeah, the search results are pretty bad. Still, it’s early days yet; wouldn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

Initial reviews are a mixed bag — as somebody said on the Slashdot conversation, “don’t they understand the meaning of ‘alpha’?” Michael Arrington describes it as “a complete letdown” on TechCrunch (in a comment, he defends his views because he’s been using it for four whole days); MG Siegler focuses more on the social aspects and is “more intrigued then I would be.” Wales makes some good points in his responses (summarized nicely on Terrence Russell’s Wired blog) and his comments a week ago in a Slashdot thread, emphasizing that for approaches like social search (or Wikipedia) which rely on “wisdom of the crowds”, rushing to judgment before the crowds are there is ridiculously premature.

Wikia’s well-funded (including $10 million from Amazon), and despite the controversies there’s no question that Wikipedia showed Wales can build a community that can create generally-high-quality results, so we’ll certainly be seeing a lot more about this over the course of the year. In South Korea, Naver dominates the search market with a social search approach; a lot of people are skeptical that a new site can overcome Google’s huge advantages, but if Wikia can get to their goal of 5% market share they’ll be hugely successful. I’ll check back from time to time and perhaps even get up the nerve to do a mini article one of these days.

posted by Jon at 5:11 pm  
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