Are We Really Stuck with Plus-ified Google Reader?

There has been much furor over the deprecation of Google Reader’s built-in social tools, especially the ability to share feed items with comments.

The first problem with forcing Reader users to shift over to Plus is that it brings many more people directly into conflict with the much debated real name policy for the search giant’s shiny new social network. Feed reading and curation is often closely associated with blogging, an activity that has a long and respected tradition (despite the occasional conspicuous failure) of anonymous and pseudonymous authorship. Many such users previously had an easier time following Google’s own advice to not use Plus if they are not in a position to use a real or common name.

This leads to the second problem with Google’s stance on not just this change, but now a couple of recent policies. Namely they have been espousing the view that if you don’t like how they run their services, you can export your data and use some other tool. Richard MacManus at ReadWriteWeb takes a pretty dim view of that recommendation, reasoning that the popularity of Reader has killed off the alternatives.

I agree only in so far as if you want a feed reader that is accessible from multiple machines, remembering the state of what you have or have not read and offers the ability to directly curate items from the reader, as opposed to using a blog or tumblr, then Google’s stance is indeed incredibly disingenuous.

The optimist in me, however, hopes that Google’s ham-fisting of Reader shakes enough free software and open source developers loose from their complacency to quickly spin up some compelling alternatives. I think there is some serious low hanging fruit here in the form of bridging between the feed reading capabilities in Mozilla’s Thunderbird and their Sync service, a secure and extensible means of sharing state between multiple instances.

The Social Gravity Well

I am fascinated by a conversation currently unfolding about the counter-intuitive interplay between shorter and longer form content online.  I became aware of it via Anil Dash’s post extolling a principle I personally take for granted, that your primary site of content creation should be exclusively under your own control.  Reading through this discussion reminded me rather strongly of a monologue I produced a bit over a year ago, on The Social Gravity Well.  I’ve been meaning to convert my more interesting audio pieces into text essays for sharing on this site so this seemed like a perfect opportunity.


In many corners, I’ve been hearing a dichotomy proposed between the web as pages and the web as stream. Jeff Jarvis constantly contrasts the two on This Week in Google, mostly when he is talking about Twitter. It stems from Dave Winer’s notion of the river of news. Rather than browsing to specific destinations a push based, approaching real time web flows information past a passive receiver. There is something to the comparison. You communicate differently through social messaging. You certainly receive information differently. New services entering the space have to understand the difference. I don’t think these two distinct points tell the entire story.

This sounds to me a lot like traditional broadcast. Without a DVR you are subject to the whims of network programming. You could talk about dipping your toe into the stream of broadcast news. The biggest difference between the stream and traditional broadcast is the barrier to entry in participation. The nature of programming is rather different, too. In the stream, content is dictated by your social connections. Even more so than broadcast, every person’s experience will be different. The breadth in that potential difference is immense. The unique character of streams then is a function of possible combinations, of social connections who produce information. The basis of my objection, why I make this comparison, is the implication of passivity. Maybe that is a function of a different scale I haven’t reached in my own utilization of social messaging. Dunbar’s number sets a physiologically rooted limit on meaningful connections. Maybe well past that limit the only useful way to approach information is more with passive immersion than active engagement.

I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on the continuum between the two models of information flow on the web. Streams suggest high volume and low interactivity. Pages suggest lesser volume but greater potential interactivity. In contrasting the two, I think Jarvis makes it sound like one excludes the other. Stop and think about that for a moment. What would Twitter or StatusNet be like without anything longer to link to? It is kind of like the suggestion that SMS will replace phone calls. Or that IM will replace email. As a function of their different qualities different media will operate at different volumes. As an example, I have just over twenty-five hundred posts on my blog (as of writing this post). I have well over ten thousand tweets on my Twitter account. My blog is at least twice as old as my Twitter account. As a writer, I would feel utterly stifled if my micro-blog outright replaced my blog.

I think a gravity well is a more nuanced metaphor than flowing water. Social messaging is a high orbit utilizing higher speeds. Blogs and content sites are low orbits with stronger pull. You could chart any number of media on this hyperbolic curve. I think the metaphor is even richer than that. The tag, tl;dr, becomes a case of failing orbital capture.

Think about clawing out of a particular engaging blog post or even sites that have a strong memetic draw. They could be thought of as singularities. Wikipedia inducing a click trance is like a force of gravity so strong it drags event light past its event horizon. Irregularly read sources form eccentric orbits like comets wandering in from the oort cloud.

There is almost infinite space to explore how content fits into this model, not necessarily limited to low gravity or high gravity, or high orbital speed versus low orbital speed. The well can include related strands, stretching content across orbits, like an orbital tether with masses orbiting at different velocities. Capitalizing on the differential the whole moves together in the well as one construct. Such artifacts becomes useful, like a space elevator, for more easily moving, deeper into a gravity well and back again. Bookmarks are an extremely early construct for this. They allow a reader to drop a tag at high orbit that facilitates returning and falling back into content much more easily, like a pre-plotted trajectory or course. A blog post deep in the well, could be redacted into a status update with an embedded link, forming a natural gravity tether. Each end of that pairing moves at the appropriate speed and readers can move between the two according to the changing availability of their attention. A high speed capture could result in someone sinking into the well. Personally, I use the higher orbits to quickly collect links, then when I have time later, I allow myself to be drawn deeper in.

In the infosphere instead of gravity and the attendant energy burned it is attention cost that differentiates orbits. At higher velocity, each item needs to be cheaper. This maps well with more expensive items sitting deeper in the well. It also matches well with the cost of production.

Higher orbital traffic is the link economy. Readers can speed from well to well without necessarily getting trapped. Social messaging services act as gravitationally driven slingshots. They don’t require stopping rather accelerating the reader as they fly by. It is easier for some kinds of content to be spit out as pithy messages, especially in the form of links to pre-existing items optionally with simple comments for context. Such content speeds up discovery of more interesting items. It is harder to develop an editorial character this way, though it is possible. Doing so relies more on how the acts of selection reveals the character of the curator as the volume of short messages accumulates.

Aggregators like Digg, BoingBoing and MetaFilter already act as ground based orbital catapults, shooting readers all over the infosphere. Older model sites like these have a bit more drag. They offer more of a way station than social messaging. They can track orbits that are more complex though in the form of their ability to show a strong editorial character. They exhibit useful idiosyncracies like the flight capabilities of some bespoke orbital escape craft. The different placement of thrusters along vagaries of the mass and size of the central body lead to a very different ride in, out and around.

I follow very few people who create content that exists solely in high orbit. Usually it is highly original and creative. For example @rstevens posts all kinds of quips and non sequiturs. Shit my dad says is an unique example, hinging on posting short quotes based on a single premise, just enough content to deliver a punch. Other content in this rarified realm relies on the accumulated context, to expand and establish voice. Few if any examples would stand up to sustained attention deeper in the well. Shit my dad says would be far harder to turn into a single page blog post. It would have to change substantially, becoming far more traditional narrative. It would have to operate like a space craft needing to be able to withstand different stresses and to provide different amounts of thrust to maintain higher and lower orbits. Otherwise it would be crushed like an astronaut too long in orbit unaccustomed to the stronger pull so deep in the well.

A good creator will consciously consider the full span of the well. We already have many publishers that excel at going beyond the simpler models, acting as better examples of orbital tethers, catapults, sling shots and the like. Many people already naturally are using plugins, to link blog posts with social messages. Others have explored similar but even more involved models. As an example I received several email newsletters. All of these also have blogs which post the same content. The email digest is a medium velocity vehicle. It offers more than a 140 character social message but still relies on links to the full piece. It is nowhere near as quick to review as social messages but offers more detail at a slightly higher attention cost.

The deeper wells become, the more options authors have. Likewise, the better the technology, the easier to explore the full range the social gravity well has to offer. I don’t think there is any limit, really, other than perhaps shearing force. If orbits are paired that requiring attention that is too different in kind or quantity then the reader may experience too much stress. The burden is on content producers to find the most comfortable and hence useful combinations. The more effective ones will see more readers spending more attention, across the full range of the available space.

Find Me on Diaspora

Back at the start of the Summer, when sentiment against Facebook was at a fever pitch, I pledge support to open source alternative, Diaspora. That contribution has yielded fruit in the form of an invite to the current alpha version. If you came by an invite in the same fashion, you can find me on Diaspora as cmdln@joindiaspora.com. If you are curious about how Diaspora will handle privacy and autonomy better than the dominant closed option, let me know and I’d be happy to send along one of the limited number of invites that came with my alpha account.

I’ll be exploring this very early, rough edition of Diaspora in the coming weeks, hopefully to share a review of how it fulfills the promise of being a more open and distributed social network. By connecting with me and accepting invitations, you’ll help me build enough of a social graph to get a better impression of how well the project has progressed so far.

feeds | grep links > Another Social Browser, Possible Future of Location Apps, Thousands of Stored Body Scans and More

  • Yet another social browser
    Not being a particular fan of Flock, I was going to refrain from comment on RockMelt, a me-too social focused browser-remix. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to link to Glenn Fleishman’s discussion at BoingBoing of the new offering backed by Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame, among others. The over the top opening paragraph alone is worth reading Glenn’s post. He also works in mentions of Freedom, a tool designed to deprive you of network access to encourage real work, if that helps you understand from where his remarks are coming.
  • Possible future for location based apps from PARC
    Richard MacManus at ReadWriteWeb discusses a prototype app that better fits what I discussed as the potential of location applications in the latest podcast. It isn’t surprising that this example of ubiquitous computing comes from PARC, responsible for so many other innovations in the field of computing.
  • Feds admit to storing tens of thousands of body scan images
    Xeni at BoingBoing was one of several folks to link to this story. The CNet article freely mixes and matches information from different sources, exaggerating the situation somewhat. Given the cited releases, this story is also not exactly breaking news though perhaps not common knowledge. It does correctly identify the key concern throughout that the scanners can store and transmit scans opening the door for all kinds of problems beyond the scope of their immediate security applications.
  • Yet another spawn of Java trying to fix its ills is released, Slashdot
  • Self repair manifesto, BoingBoing
  • Crowdsourcing surveillance, Schneier on Security

feeds | grep links > iPhone Apps Leak Personal Data Too, Monitoring Employees Online, Why Comcast Can Read Your Email, and More

  • Many top iPhone apps collect unique device ID
    I wondered about the reality of data leakage on the iPhone after last week’s story about a studio of Android apps that were snarfing up location data and other tidbits. Slashdot links to some research that answers that question, not surprisingly demonstrating that both mobile platforms suffer from these issues.
  • Monitoring employees’ online behavior
    Bruce Schneier links to a piece that I believe made the rounds late last week. It didn’t really catch my eye until you pulled out the two most interesting points. The first is the sort of social data mining being discussed isn’t just for workplace behavior but encroaches into the personal life of employees. The second is the usual fear based rhetoric being used to whip employers into a lather so they’ll more likely buy this load of nonsense instead of trusting and respecting the privacy of their workers.
  • Why Comcast can, but probably won’t, read your email
    Nate Anderson at Ars Technica draws attention to a clause in the cable operators Ts&Cs that shouldn’t be surprising at this point. He goes on, though, to ask them why they need the broad right to monitor customer communications. The answer should resonate with concern over the recent news of a renewed push by US law enforcers to gain broad, new info gathering powers over the net. If you think Comcast is covering its rear, now, imagine how much worse this could get.
  • Free Software Foundation turns 25, Slashdot
  • Malcom Gladwell critical of potential for social media to effect change
    Sara Perez was one of a few folks who linked to a piece by the author at the New Yorker. I cannot say I entirely disagree with Gladwell but I think the tools are immaterial. No new capability is going to spark motivation to act in and of itself or more critically fuel the determination to overcome challenges. That being said, I think he definitely underestimates how social networks and messaging can aid devoted change agents and possibly awake those who don’t realize they have a calling to act.
  • Technology cases on the Supreme Court docket, Wired
  • DC voting systems pwned by UMich researchers, Wired

feeds | grep links > Promiscuous Android Apps, Virgin Media Throttling P2P, Maverick Meerkat Approaches Release, and More

feeds | grep links > More Open Cloud Computing, More API’s for Mozilla JetPack, Diaspora to Release Next Month, and More

Security Alerts for Week Ending 7/25/2010

Malicious Sites Can Identify You from Your Social Groups

According to Technology Review, what is new here isn’t necessarily that salient points in your social footprint can be used to identify you. There has been good research showing just how little correlative data is needed to pull off that trick. Instead, the concern is that a browser flaw that leads to a history stealing attack combined with the permeation of social network services into third party sites is making this attack all too easy to pull off.

The researchers found that a malicious site could “capture” a person’s social networking groups from his browser with a trick known as history stealing. By cross-referencing these groups, they could reveal someone’s social-network profile–and therefore their real-life identity–42 percent of the time. This means that an otherwise anonymous Web user could be identified correctly by a malicious site simply because the user visited that site.

This research was conducted by folks at at the Vienna Institute of Technology, Institut Eurecom and UC Santa Barbara. I feel like my instant unease at seeing Facebook spread its Like button and other features to third party sites has now been fully vindicated.

Sadly, the history stealing issue is a long standing one and difficult to address. As the article notes, some browsers now throttle scripts requests for history information to try to increase the cost of attack. Another good reason to keep your browser as up to date as you can.

Your Groups Tell Hackers Who You Are, MIT Technology Review

Private, Mobile Social Network

MIT Technology Review describe a research effort from Microsoft inspired by the increasing privacy concern in the wake of Facebook’s willful marginalizing of their users’ concerns. Contrail stores all of the information destined for sharing encrypted in the cloud. Everything about it is opt-in rather than the increasingly normal policy of being included in new social network features and having to act to be excluded.

The idea of encrypting user data so an operator couldn’t share their data isn’t new. There are even tools to overlay similar functionality on existing networks. As much as I like the concept, I think it may have unobvious sacrifices in terms of foregoing a certain element of serendipity.

Regardless, I am pleased with the continued interest in alternatives to Facebook. A promising, non-research effort in this vein, Diaspora, just released their one month update. The fact that interested developers have yet to see any code is concerning however that the project is forging ahead rather than petering out after the initial attention dissipated is encouraging. I am optimistic in the face of strong interest in providing better choices beyond the current dominant social network.