The Mine! Project

open source project for online data and relationships logistics

Open, distributed and yours…

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What with FriendFeed selling out to Facebook, the less those of us who have been harping on about user autonomy, self-hosted or user-owned apps and technology look like online equivalent of survivalists.

The prospect of a distributed, interoperable, self-hosted network of publishing, reading and discussion tools is nothing new – but the idea is gaining a lot more support as more people react to recent news like FriendFeed’s sale to Facebook, Tr.im’s up and down and Twitter’s denial of service attacks. The tide may not be turning, but there’s sure to be some new waves of innovation that come out of this period of frustration.

Marshall Kirkpatrick of Read Write Web does a good job of explaining why blogging and a WordPress type platform won’t be enough to replace services like Twitter. Yes, it publishing & distribution vs communication and relationships.

If we all had a little piece of our microblogging network on our own servers and they spoke to each other, that couldn’t happen.

We’d also own our own data, our archives, our interface design and more. It would be like publishing little messages… like grown ups.

Indeed. Identi.ca has been designed to do precisely that – though you don’t get your stuff automatically, unless you federate and use your own server to install Laconica but it’s already a giant leap for microblogging.

There are two more interesting items mentioned in the post – The Push Button Web and the DiSo project. We have looked at both and in short, the first depends too much on an intermediary, namely PubSubHubBub (obviously a lot depends on who can be such a hub and then the reality of who would be) and the other depends too much on a new XML based data standard.

Anyway, what’s worth noting is this conclusion:

Are all of these circumstances and conversations going to push the social web over the edge, toward a more distributed and less centralized model? Probably not in a big way, immediately, but we’re pretty sure that some interesting innovation is going to come out of this. Dissatisfied engineers, working on a problem that a lot of people are interested in, can produce some fun and important work.

Dissatisfied engineers and hopefully growing number of users, might provide momentum for an alternative, distributed approach to online communication and data logistics. This is where Mine! comes in. And although Mine! hasn’t been conceived for communication, it will also serve as a platform that belongs to the user.

Alec often describes Mine! as “asocial” software, not because it cannot be networked and connected to others but because it offers the user the option to withdraw from the network and join on his/her own terms.

It’s the context, stupid

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A bit of context for Mine!:

It comes down to whether you prefer context to be provided by:

1. automated algorithms a la Google and the thousands aggreation sites,
2. trusted sources including vendors, manufacturers, even third parties and intermediaries, or
3. your network of friends aka social network

The answer is obvious.

It depends! We use all three at different points in our information gathering, sharing and exchange and transactions. The challenge for VRM is to understand advantages and disadvantages of all three and encourage development of tools that give me, the individual user or customers, the best of all three.

My bet is on no.3. I want to help individuals to capture both data and context on their own terms. This will give rise to another layer of knowledge that serves both the individual and his network. For example, I want to collect data about my shopping, with my own comments and with sources of information useful to me. I want to have pictures of products I have bought, links to reviews by others and my own, comments by friends in my network, record of interactions with the vendors and third parties etc etc. I want it in a place I can further analyse it and share it based on my privacy requirements.

With time, all this can become a source of better understanding of my own behaviour and preferences, and, with practice, a better negotiating position in future transactions. In other words, I will be the most authoritative source of my own history, with data, information and knowledge about me.

What Mine! is not

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The key to getting people understand Mine! is its relevance to them. Though sometimes it helps to say what Mine! is not.

  • Mine! is NOT a Blog or Blogging Tool
  • Mine! is NOT a Personal Data Store
  • Mine! is NOT a Social Networking Tool
  • Mine! is NOT a Photo Gallery etc

Blog is a publishing platform, one-to-many and although Mine! uses blog-based technologies, it is information management platform, for user’s own benefit and with controlled sharing.

Mine! stores more than mere “personal data”, it stores anything. It can contain and manage static and dynamic data, related to the person by the virtue of being in Mine!. On top of that, Mine! enables tagging, analysing, poking, prodding, collating and mashing up data not just “storage”. And it enables sharing via feeds that can be individual generated and targeted.

Mine! is not a social network a la Facebook, MySpace etc etc. It is meant for individual deployment and use. In some sense it is “antisocial’ software – no walls to write on, zombies to poke, vampires to throw. It is designed to bring control to information sharing.

That said, Mine! can provide valuable functionality for e.g. OpenSocial, federated micro-blogging, friends-lists, contacts, FoaF etc. All in addition to what Mine is designed for and enabled because the user has new capability.

Mine! is not a photo gallery, nor is Mine just a wine-lover’s tool or traveller’s companion,
but these examples will be used often when explaining what Mine! can do for users.

Finally, what does the Mine! give you:

  • a home for storing your data
  • a platform for poking your data
  • a means to share your data
  • in, for, and to establish relationships with others, so you are the definitive source of information about you and have absolute control & revocation of access

From my previous writings about Mine!

Store implies passive and static, with some distribution via feeds, whereas one of the major elements of the Mine! is equipping individuals with analytical and other tools to help them understand themselves better and give them an online spring board to relationships with others (in VRM context this includes vendors).

The personal data store implies that there is no other reason to be using it other than to slave yourself to someone’s CRM system [...] it treats people’s Mines! like a back-end to vendors’ CRM systems. It does not capture using the Mine! to manage relationships [...] the customer being in control of their own data.

… The purpose of the Mine! is not only to put the individual in the centre and align the vendors around him. That is a far more gargantuan effort than what the Mine! is designed to do as the vendors have very little motivation to do that in ways that are useful to the individual. The idea behind the Mine! is to give the individual ability to become the authoritative source of information about him by handling the living breathing data as they go about their life. Taking just the feeds and not groking the autonomous space for my data is like looking at a vast landscape through a key hole, not bothering to open the door.

So once more, with feeling – the feeds and the Mine! feed technology are a subset of the Mine!, which has been conceived as an alternative way to provide data logistics for the individual on the web, one with a higher degree of autonomy and control over one’s preferences that is possible now. It originates from the social web, not from the identity space or any other area. It is a platform for the individual, with the aim to shift the balance of power between individual and platoform (or customers and vendors or other types of locked see-saw). It aspires to be an infrastructure for other solutions but it is not and should not be defined in terms of any of those solutions – identity, VRM, authentication, data portability and hopefully many more.

Feeds, feeds everywhere

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There is lots going on around feeds, flagging up a few here.

Steve Rubell:

…while feed adoption may have crested the idea of online opt-in communications is just getting going. The Facebook newsfeed, Twitter and Friendfeed are perfect examples of opt-in vehichles that bring content you care about to you. In each case, you’re total in control. You can unsubscribe from individuals or groups and tailor the stream so that what you want finds you.

RSS is only one form of opt-in communications. The potential is bigger when you look more broadly to social networking. This larger promise still holds and as the technologies become more invisible the newsfeed could even one day subsume RSS.

I get what Steve is getting at, this feed business is more than RSS. But I don’t think social networks are truly social when it comes to sharing. Newsfeed is but one way of sharing. It is like relationships via hosepipe. I’d like to be able to do more than just just turn on and off the flow. I want to have hot and cold taps and several different water supply requirements.

Marshall Kirkpatrick:

Newsfeeds are everywhere, they are an arguably efficient and pleasing (for some) way to relate to an unending supply of information. Some people find them overwhelming, others say they are a waste of mental energy and surely some will insist they are bad for the human brain’s ability to remember anything from one day to the next.

So it seems newsfeeds (Facebook, Friendfeed and many others) is here to stay but I want individual need-to know briefings too. It’s not an issue of privacy, but my ability to use data-sharing as a social gesture. At the moment, it’s a bear hug or crushing of the hand or a large kumbaya all around, with little ability to elegantly and discreetly tap dance around social nuance and relationship pitfalls. And I am not even talking about the dance of Seven Veils!

Have I mixed enough metaphors to get the point across? I sure hope so.

And John Udell for the other side of the feed divide:

…you need feed aggregators. These proliferate in blogspace but, I argue, are conspicously absent from calendar space. Services like Eventful and Upcoming produce calendar feeds. But because they do not consume them, they don’t encourage individuals and groups to publish feeds, and to think and act in a syndication-oriented way. I’ve prototyped a calendar aggregator at http://elmcity.info/events/, but the category isn’t yet well-established.

If my analysis is correct, one or more well-known services that both consume and produce calendar feeds would unlock the latent potential of iCalendar and help us jumpstart a calendar syndication ecosystem.

Better yet, add this functionality to Mine! or improve existing feed readers. With Mine! we are starting with what’s around now, google reader being a good standard. I am hoping that with more granular and nuanced feeds, it will make sense for feed readers (and other applications) to follow suit and help users find their way around information coming their way.

Streams

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This resonates:

So when you think of digital presence – the online shadow of your physical/spiritual presence – how would you best want to represent that? The emergence of streams in our digital lives is, in many ways, aligning our thinking in a way that we are only subtly appreciating. I see this every time I overhear someone trying to explain Twitter to another. There’s futility in writing straplines and elevator pitches for something that is quite fundamental to the way we experience life.

Greg of Social Twisters then talks of finding the best web services that helps up build and run our own real-time personas online.


* Who – Facebook? LinkedIn?
* What – Twitter? Pownce?
* When – Upcoming? Socializr?
* Where – BrightKite? Dodgeball?
* How – Qik? Seesmic? Blogs?

All those are useful, I use most of them. I want the functionality they provide. But I also want to retain my data and use it in ways that they can’t. In other words, I want somewhere where I keep my data and functionality comes to me, rather then me giving up my data in exchange for functionality. Then I will become the source of the streams that reflect my identity, aspect of life and relationships.

A metaphor for the Mine!

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Revisiting this interview with Ze Frank on The Sound of Young America programme, this bit caught my attention (about 23 minutes into the video). Ze’s quote from the interview:

What’s holding the web back in some sort of way is a metaphor that people use for it, which is as a play space. You go to Flickr to look at your Flickr photos, but the real strength right now is real distribution of media. If you distribute media intensely and fully, then place can’t really be the dominant metaphor anymore. This idea of creating play spaces that are mediated by personalities in some sort of way, that you can move fluidly and play a game inside Google street view and then move out to another space and things like that was an opportunity to play with breaking [the metaphor] down a little bit.

Metaphors are very important and I have used a fair share over the years trying to get people understand the nature of the web, blogging, online communications, social networking, identity, VRM… Now I’d like to find one for the Mine!.

The closest I got so far is describing the Mine! as a car. Your own car on the web, not rented or confined to a parking lot or occasionally let out on a race track. This comes from describing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace as similar to a parking lot at driving school.

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebooks and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

So the Mine! is an attempt to give people their own car, getting them to decide where they go with it, how fast and who they take along as passangers. They will have to look after it a bit and perhaps learn to maintain it but that will be easier with time too. It is an alternative for networked and social existence on the web for those ready and willing to break out of silos.

Live Web revisited

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Let’s go back in history. 5 years ago Doc Searls wrote about the World Live Web. At the time, social web was forming in the hands of bloggers, no social networks, micro-blogging or some such.

…we’ve been limited in our understanding of the Web, and of the Net, by the real estate metaphors we use to make sense of it: site, address, location, home, delivery… Even commons. Those are all necessary yet insufficient to a full understanding of what the Web is for.

Yes, the Web is a place. Sure. But what do we do there? Is it just a place to put up sites? A place where we store and forward messages and publications to each other? Or is it a place where life happens? Is it a place where we can truly live?

I find that our understanding of the web is still limited – we build platforms and silos instead of living of the distributed magic of the net.

I was happy with using social web to describe the blogosphere, wikis, feeds, tagging. And then social networking arrived… Proliferating silos each extracting their pound of flesh from their users in the form of profiles and activities that lock data into a platform or a format and cannot be exported or used elsewhere.

Last time I saw Doc was two weeks in Boston and we talked about Live Web again. Here is what he blogged about it recently:

The Live Web isn’t just built. It grows, adapts and changes. It’s an environment where we text and post and author and update and tweet and syndicate and subscribe and notify and feed and — and yell and fart and say wise things and set off alarms and keep each other scared, safe or both. It’s verbs to the Static Web’s nouns. It is, in a biological word that has since gone technical, generative.

I explained that the Mine! is and has always been predicated on the Live Web. It is where people can be at their most empowered. And it is the best place for tools that would help them bypass platforms and lock-ins. The first time I mentioned this to Doc (and others) was at one of the IIW events in December 2007. I am glad to say we have come a long way since…

VRM brainstorm session at IIW

One of the outcomes of the meeting was connecting with a couple of geeks/coders willing to sit down and help to translate the vision of VRM personal data space into technical specs and hopefully a prototype to demonstrate what we have been trying to describe since the VRM brainstorming session at IIW in Mountain View last December.

Together with Alec we were able to do that with VRM feeds based data sharing, but now we need to move onto the lightweight tools for personal data capture, analysis and management (working name u-spot and after discussions last night likely to change to MINE. :) )

And I hasten to add that “Mine!” has been a much better choice of a name than u-spot. :)

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.

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