The Mine! Project

open source project for online data and relationships logistics

Code Dump – 22 September 2008

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I’ll be honest, this tarball does not do very much that is interesting; it sets out the underlying database management and you can get the form of the object structure – however the feed-management code is yet to go in, after which things will get very interesting.

Nonetheless the code needs to be published sometime, and this seems an appropriate juncture.

Download here ; MD5 checksum 1df80226de53c24df3e837abcb781b12

Truly social software?

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When describing how the Mine! could help me manage my data better than the existing applications I use, one of the examples I describe is uploading photos to Flickr and trying to structure them.

Flickr is a flow of photos and I am not really in charge of how they are organised. For example, I have 100+ wine photos as part of my wine interest. If I upload all of them, that’s what people subscribing to my Flickr will see as they all appear in my Flickr stream. I have a choice of a couple of combinations of friends & family settings but that does not solve my problem: I may want some people to see the wine photos and I may not want others to be bored by a bunch of wine bottle shots. Some people may not be on Flickr, so the privacy settings don’t help.

On another occasion, I needed to share photos with my mother who is not on Flickr. It was a practical need – we went shopping together for items for her apartment and the photo set was meant to help her remember and decide what to buy and exchange notes and comments on the photos. I couldn’t make it work. I tried setting a new account for only those photos but there were too many for a free account and I didn’t feel like paying $24 for this simple use. I tried signing her up to Flickr, as a family contact, and uploading the photos with the family setting. This was awkward as I don’t necessarily want other contacts with the same privacy setting to see those photos or me being forced to change their status permanently…

I needed my own space, not just for communication or publishing but for my own notes for future reference. Then I also wanted to share it with those who might be interested in my wine photos or window-shopping.

I want two basic functionalities from the online tools, which help me organise my life and connect me with people. First, I want to capture and sort out my data, upload photos, take notes, cross-reference information, etc. For that I need applications that are more analytical than the current social media/web tools. Once I organise my stuff, I want to go on sharing it in ways that are more social than the current web 2.0 tools allow me to be.

But isn’t social networking all about being social? Not quite. At the moment, I don’t drive who gets to see what beyond simple decisions about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Social interactions and relationships are far more granular than social networks allow them to be. Usually, this is seen as a privacy issues and results in a complicated access management e.g. Facebook privacy settings.

Why do we have our relationships pre-determined by others such as Facebook, Flickr, Plaxo etc.? Presumably to give us more ‘control’ over our social network and contacts in it. But how is lumping people into categories imposed by an application helping me to be social? By determining the types of relationships I am able to have – business contact or colleague, family or friend, I am not able to reflect relationships I already have. The best social software is not online, it is loaded on to my cortex. And no software can fully map the relationships, let alone replace our natural ability to create and maintain them.

Privacy is merely the other side of the coin of complexity in human relationships. My ‘privacy settings’ are inherent in my behaviour. My privacy policy should not be embedded in any software. In that sense, software cannot be social (or antisocial), though it can help me be more or less social. Software privacy settings limit my ability to be truly social i.e. capable of maintaining complex relationships and interactions with others – arguably the purpose of such tools.

The Mine! needs to satisfy both requirements of my online life – allow its users to organise data differently and support people’s relationships as defined by themselves.

Let’s deal with the data in this posting – I will do the privacy & relationships in a future one.

For some type of data a flow is just fine – e.g. Flickr, FriendFeed, PlaxoPulse, Facebook etc. Structure sometimes emerges – sets, rooms, groups. For other purposes I may need alternate data structures and new functionality to build them. A pool of tagged objects is a good start, it is flexible and not determining how the data is organised. The user who generates the data also owns the actual raw data, as opposed to its formatted representation – e.g. Facebook, Amazon reviews. There will therefore, be many more options how to manipulate them. (For more see Models of Data Imprisonment.)

Various ways of thinking about data structures…

  • created prior to data input as a skeleton for data with known or standard structures to be stored in later – perhaps medical or financial data or other complex data
  • created with input of new data – when you upload photos, you create sets; when you bookmark a link, you add tags and notes etc
  • created on retrieval – the hierarchy or structure emerges at click of button depending on what you are looking and on the flow or the dynamic of the data, e.g. I click on a tag in del.icio.us and get all articles tagged with it
  • shoe-horned into single vision – google reader and del.icio.us, pick your means of rendering – by tag, by who person, date, no tag at all
  • created from a pool of objects, with tags and meta-data, with functionality that helps you create whatever hierarchy you want

The Mine! needs to have a user-driven structure. Once the user has the option of putting the data under his ‘domain’ i.e. in the Mine!, he can create new data or import existing data. The user can then manipulate it; mash it up, trend it, analyse it, collage it. Extra functionality can come from application or plugins which will allow the data in the Mine! to be structured as the user sees fit.

A Mine! plugin would be a package of functionality that enables users to manage a particular topic or format of data. They can create groups or categories of their own, reflecting areas of interest – travel, restaurants, shopping, cars, wine, fashion, cosmetics, sport, etc. This would be not dissimilar to a scrapbook – not a hierarchy or a taxonomy but a patchwork of stuff that the owner of the scrapbook is interested in.

Hierarchy is often synonymous with order. A feature of hierarchy of information (taxonomy) is that it exists outside the user’s mind. The web has driven home the point that taxonomy is by far not the only order possible.

It is all very well to insist on user-driven structure, but where is the convenience if users have to determine not only the data flows but their underlying structure? To flip the way we tend to think – from the user’s point of view, the structure doesn’t have to precede the data. Emergent order is more user-friendly in the long run – think folksonomies and tags vs. directories and folders. In order words, complexity should come from usage, not design.

Why indeed!

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When you want to make a private picture or note available only to your friends, why do you hand it over to a multi-national corporation first?
Danny O’Brien.

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