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.

feeds | grep links > In Praise of CLIs, ISPs Resisting Mass Copyright Demand Campaign, Recycling Rare Earth Metals, and More

feeds | grep link > Privacy Badges for Mobile Apps, StatusNet’s New iPhone Client, Meego Ported to a Few Android Devices, and More

  • TRUSTe to offer badge for mobile sites, apps
    I may sound cynical for saying so, but does anyone look for verification badge on existing web sites any more? The details at the New York Times are encouraging but I really am curious if TRUSTe’s brand still has cache in this space. Questions of trust and privacy for mobile apps and sites are certainly becoming more and more pressing, both with Apple’s heavy handed curation model and Android’s more liberal one. I just am not sure what stock users will put into the badges.
  • StatusNet releases iPhone client
    I am happy to see Evan and crew thriving. Audrey Watters at ReadWriteWeb has some details of the new app as well as an update on the company’s recent funding. I installed the app on my iPod Touch, it is pretty consistent with the portable desktop application they released earlier. One thing I would like is push support. I am also curious to see how the Android version stacks up once I get a replacement for my iPod.
  • New tablet from RIM reveals what they did with the acquisition of the QNX OS, The Register
  • Mapping the brain on a massive scale, Technology Review
  • Rewiring a damaged brain, Slashdot
  • Meego port for other Android devices
    Make had a story yesterday about a Nexus 1 running Meego, another Linux based OS designed for mobile devices. It makes sense that an Android capable gadget would easily run what could be thought of as a sibling OS. No big surprise, then, that the H expands the story today to point out that Dell’s Streak and HTC’s desire have also been made to run Meego. Sadly, as the H goes on to explain, there are issues with Android’s binary only accelerated graphics drivers for these three devices, so the Meego port is little more than a not very usable proof of concept.

Mozilla’s Experimental Lifestream Application

Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb explores a new Mozilla Labs project, sudoSocial. I’ve experimented with running my own instance of a life streaming application before. I installed and ran sweetcron on my server for a time but soon tired of it as it didn’t really help manage all the social data and interactions in which I am constantly awash and adrift.

I have mixed feelings towards life streaming applications. I desperately want better tools for aggregating and publishing my social messaging and as part of that suite capabilities to better own and manage my social identity. Despite some good independent progress, I don’t feel like sudoSocial or any other recent efforts really advance the state of play.

We have an ever increasing number of open standards from OStatus to PuSH and ActivityStreams. There are a lot of open source projects and services that partly cover the space but none that come anywhere close. The missing puzzle piece is the critical interconnection. With the standards in theory it should be very possible. In practice we need a critical mass that simply has developed yet.

I’ll add this one to the potential list, along with Raindrop, to watch for future development. I am not optimistic but am at a loss as to what might help spark better convergence amongst these different pieces-parts and most critically with the very popular, mostly closed services all the non-techies are using, forming a vast social anchor of combinatorially large dimension.

Yet Another Open Identity Push

At RWW, Marshall Kirkpatrick describes yet another open identity effort, not surprisingly from a coalition reacting to a popular but uncooperative service. And again it is Facebook inspiring this latest competitive, open specification.

I had to visit the specification section of the XAuth site to understand how it differs from OpenID and OAuth. The main difference appears to be that this protocol is designed to allow sharing between multiple social services and multiple third party sites without creating a combinatorial mess of code and behind-the-scenes requests. It takes a page from the PuSH spec, using a third party hub through which “extenders”, or service providers, and “retrievers”, or client sites, communicate. It has similar management capabilities to OpenID but lacks even the simplistic identity sharing capabilities, at least in the spec itself. I find that a bit of a step backwards in terms of more easily distributing and managing my social identity.

I am inferring that XAUth does, or will eventually, provide access to your social graph on an extender service. Kirkpatrick states that it will allow 3rd party sites to request information about you from participating social networks. It is unclear from the spec page how this will work in practice. Unless it is like a combination of OAuth and OpenID such that the authentication both logins in the user and establishes trust between the service provider and the client site. I wish that was made more clear in the project page though going by the examples Kirkpatrick shares, it has to be close to the way things will work.

If my theory is right, the social networks will be responsible for wiring XAuth into their existing account settings. I don’t find that prospective either attractive or confidence inspiring. Sure, if the specification tried to be too pushy about what implementers have to do, it risks sluggish adoption. However, giving the providers a more free hand makes it more confusing to users about what will and will not be shared, or even whether one of their social networks is participating in this system for 3rd party info sharing.

As I always do with these efforts, I have to ask why existing technologies were not deemed good enough for the task. Both OpenID and OAuth have had more time to bake and address not just the privacy issues they concede in talking to Kirkpatrick but the security issues a larval spec like this is inevitably going to exhibit. I get that OpenID and OAuth won’t scale well with a cluster of interacting sites and services but an incremental addition of a central hub would seem less risky than building yet another spec from scratch.

Twitter Doesn’t Love Open Source as Much as StatusNet

Glyn Moody tweeted an analysis by Zonker of Twitter’s recent publication of the open source projects to which the company contribute. In short, Twitter may have done so more as a marketing move and to attract potential developers than as a signal of any deep commitment to being open. Unlike StatusNet, a comparable micro-blogging project and the code that runs Identi.ca, Twitter’s core platform remains closed.

Evan and the fine folks at StatusNet, which is also a for-profit company not just a free software project, set an even higher bar than merely being open. The code is licensed under the Affero GPL license which closes the so-called web service loophole. There are other differentiator’s between the two, most importantly that StatusNet much more actively solicits input from and listens to the criticisms of its users. The commitment to open-ness and this responsiveness probably stem from a deeper set of principles around delivering the most useful and compelling social messaging system possible.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I am an active user of the StatusNet powered Identi.ca and am currently one of its featured users. My admiration of Evan, his team, and the project predates my nomination to that listing, however.)

Google Buzz Launches

I saw folks tweeting about this product launch. Otherwise, I would have missed it, due to being disconnected for the few days leading up to it.

Tim O’Reilly positively gushes about the possibilities. Personally, I see it as yet another silo within which my social messaging and identity will be trapped. Sure, by dint of Google’s position as single dominant search engine and dessert topping/floor wax, the size of that silo is potentially larger than all the other social networks combined. I just read this sort of unchecked optimism about the transformative nature of Buzz and all I can think of is that we are still waiting for Wave to do just about the same thing. Which it still hasn’t.

Skimming through the Twitter and Identi.ca comments, I also predict a rocky start to what amounts to add on features to many of Google’s existing offerings. Open standards are promised but Ryan Paul, a regular contributor at Ars Technica, is skeptical. Not of Google, per se, but rather that the implementation of open standards will be of benefit to anyone looking to integrate with Buzz. Having helped a coworker recently look into OAuth for doing some open integration work at the day job, I tend to think Ryan’s hesitation is credible and warranted.

Many of the journalists attending the press event asked questions that seemed to suggest that Google’s internal project teams are perhaps a bit too autonomous. There is no compelling integration story with Wave and it sounds like there may not be any time soon. I am not so sure I want the sort of intermingling of direct, personal messaging for which I currently use email with the more diffuse, less intimate messaging I conduct on Twitter and Identi.ca. We’ve all seen the direct message fail, lowering that barrier further seems somewhat risky to me. Also consider the rising cost of triaging let alone organizing and responding to message. I suspect this will open a flood gate on the average user which will kill the utility of both types of messaging when they are combined in one place.

ReadWriteWeb frames Buzz even more simply: this is what Google did with its acquisition of FriendFeed. I know people who far preferred FriendFeed to any other social messaging system. I’ll concede it had immense potential to be a truly useful dashboard, an aggregator for the wildly dispart and competing social systems clamoring for our attention. Unfortunately, I think it fell far short of the mark, re-committing many of the same mistakes in terms of actually adding friction to social communications rather than easing it.

I am skeptical but open to being convinced Buzz really is an improvement, even just an incremental one, over what we have seen so far in this space.

Open Government Hack Day in Australia, A Command Line Interface for Twitter, and More

  • Australian hack day, working on open government data
    A good write up, found via Gnat’s four short links on O’Reilly Radar, of one of the first endorsed hack-a-thons. Perhaps a good preview of a similar project that Sunlight has already announced for next month.
  • The case for a command line interface for Twitter
    I would hardly disagree with the case Dave Winer is making here. The cost of plugging in parsers and libraries for yet another RESTful API with either JSON or XML isn’t great but it gets to be a drain. If you think about it, the support for using “d username msg” and at-messages is a toehold into a richer command interface that can be run straight from the text box on Twitter’s site, so we aren’t that far off.
  • How hackers can support resilience in society
    Glyn Moody tweeted the link to this piece. This actually makes a great deal of sense, if you think about it, even if you never though to call such people hackers. I want to draw this into a metaphor about hackers as white blood cells but I think John Robb’s post is more nuanced than that.

TCLP 2009-11-01 News

This is news cast 195.

In the intro, an experiment, playing some CC-licensed and interesting music instead of the usual theme music.

This week’s security alerts are executing attack code via the ldd utility and a former anti-virus research seemingly turning against the industry.

In this week’s news in search of a truly open smart phone, an open protocol for aggregating comments, industry releases its first open source voting system which includes all of the sources for recording and management, and a startup produces the first 100-core processor.

Following up this week Mandelson is still pushing for three strikes in the UK and unlikely opponents, law enforcers.

[display_podcast]

Grab the detailed show notes with time offsets and additional links either as PDF or OPML. You can also grab the flac encoded audio from the Internet Archive.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Programs Fixing Programs, Grand Unified Microblogging, and More

  • Petition to Obama to disclose ACTA negotiations
    KEI who also were instrumental in getting the list of folks who did see the draft under NDA now is organizing a petition to the president. I first saw this when Professor Lessig tweeted about his own signature. Cory shares further details about the petition on Boing Boing.
  • MIT research on program to fix bugs in other programs
    I am pretty sure I’ve read about similar efforts and the appeal of this is obvious. In reading through the linked MIT Technology Review article, I did have a thought in the back of my mind about theory of mind in humans and that this sort of modeling of software’s behavior by software seems to me at least to be eerily similar if incredibly limited.
  • Grand unified theory of microblogging
    Glyn Moody points to this OStatic piece about a D-Bus library, Microfeed, that could make aggregation of social messaging easier for desktops that use that particular inter process messaging system, like most of the Linux desktops. I don’t see the value of running multiple clients as the article suggests but I do see a possible acceleration in features on clients which is even more worthwhile in my view if it gets us to better categorization and management of messages.
  • AZ judge rules metadata on public records are also public records
    The case in question was one brought by a police officer trying to investigate his suspicions about reasons for his demotion. In this Ars piece, Jon Stokes not only relates the excellent news, at least for activists and investigators in Arizona, but puts it into context discussing how metadata has helped and hurt other efforts in public debates.
  • FCC considering more control over electronic media
    This is potentially troubling news and I think signifies an unfortunate expansion of outmoded thinking. Past media regulations were predicated on scarcity, starting with broadcast spectrum. Digital media are antithetical to that, representing abundance based models. This also makes me think of the EFF’s criticisms of the FCC’s move to regulate the internet, the examples of sub-optimal regulations of speech and access they’ve made in the past based on specious assumptions about availability and vague notions of decency.
  • A taxonomy of online security and privacy threats
    The Technology Liberation Points to this useful table put together by PFF. In the preamble, they explain they developed this grid to help balance the discussion around privacy risks, to broaden the focus of potential regulations beyond just behavioral advertising. I still wonder if we can come up with a less prescriptive listing and a more descriptive and predictive model, as challenging as that may be to achieve.