Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Thu, 10 Sep 2009

Still waiting for an open semantic social site

Long-term readers (anyone?) would know what I've been interested in the possibilities of the Semantic Web as a way to make some of the data on the web more useful by giving it some context. I've written before about possible semantic social systems utilising the FOAF data model. This is a file format that can store details of a person and their relations to other people. It can link to FOAF files belonging to those other people to allow their net of connections to be explored. One advantage of this over sites like Facebook is that it allows each person to control their own set of data without relying on a third party and another is that the data can be processed by various software or web sites.

What I would like to see is a piece of software, either running on a PC (or other device) or web site that reads my FOAF file and then allows me to do things like viewing the latest updates that my friends have made to whatever sites they use, based on data in their FOAF files. This could be blog posts, music they have listened to, photos they have uploaded or anything else that can have an RSS/ATOM feed. I can do something like that with friendfeed, but that relies on people joining that particular site or me creating profiles for my friends.

FOAF has been around for a while now, but has not really become mainstream. I know that a number of sites can generate FOAF files based on the data they hold, e.g. the identi.ca microblogging service (my data).

I think one reason for the lack of adoption is that it requires a bit of technical experience to get started. There are various sites that can generate a file based on data entered into web forms, but then you have to upload the file to a web server you have some control over. My own file started with one generated by FOAF-a-matic and has since grown as I learnt about more possibilities. I tend to just use a text editor, but the RDF format is very strict about the data structure and mistakes make the file unreadable by software. I think there must be some tools out there by now that make it easier to update a file. What it needs is a button you can click on in your browser that extracts appropriate data from a site belonging to someone you know and inserts that data into your FOAF file.

Another issue with this sort of data sharing is that it does not provide a way for you to limit exposure of certain data to selected people. I don't include things like my date of birth, address and phone number in my file as they could be misused by some of the less desirable abusers of the internet. I have thought that I could have something on my server that allows friends to access certain data using their email address as a key. Email addresses can be stored in the file in hashed form to make it easy to check for a match without giving too much away. I realise that it may be fairly simple to guess an email address if you know a person's name and web site, but I don't know if the bad guys are doing that. In any case you could email a security key back to the given address to permit access. I don't have enough experience of web programming to know exactly how this would work.

Obviously many people do not have their own web server where they can upload arbitrary data, although many may have some web space provided by their ISP. Ideally we would all have our own domains to prevent issues with details changing when you move to a different provider.

I just felt the need to get this stuff down after thinking about it today. I know there are some projects out there that are working on stuff like this, but I'm not aware of any that past the alpha stage. I'll be happy to be told otherwise. I still harbour a desire to do some programming in this area myself, but have not found the time. Foaflib looks like the Python library I wanted when I looked into this a while back. I'll try to have a look at it. It may allow me to achieve my aim of generating the root page of this site from my FOAF file.

I like to think that Facebook is not the future of the web. Is there hope or has Tim Berners-Lee's vision been forgotten in the gold-rush?

[22:16] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 16 Mar 2009

A better RSS reader

I came fairly late to the wonders of RSS and Atom. I think I first used them in a limited way on NewsIsFree and then to full effect on Bloglines. That worked pretty well for me. I looked at Google Reader when it first appeared, but it was slow and awkward. Once they had got it working properly I imported my feeds and have not looked back.

I subscribe to over 100 feeds. Most of these update infrequently. I see that as the real value of the technology as you can keep up with certain sites without having to keep checking on them. I've stopped following some of the busier sites as I can just visit them when I have time to see what's new. I'm using Postrank on one feed to filter it a bit. It's supposed to just give me the most popular posts, but you pay a penalty in getting them a bit later. I can live with that.

One of the things I feel that I miss using this sort of application is the comments. If you see each post as it appears then there unlikely to be many comment then and Reader does not make it obvious when there are some. Some feeds do include a comment count, but I think that's just part of the original post. I do click through to the original site when I feel the need to post a comment, but otherwise I might not see the responses.

Some sites offer one of a couple of ways to follow the comments. You can either check a box to opt for emails as comments come in or subscribe to a further feed of the comments. The emails can be overwhelming on a busy site and having lots of extra feeds to manage is a pain. What I'd like to see is an extra button in Reader that allows subscribing to comments on a particular post, but as a sub-feed of the main one. I don't know if RSS or Atom have anything to support this directly, but it should be possible to automate if there is either a feed for each post's comments or for all comments on the site. So has this been implemented anywhere?

A case in point is Steve Lawson's post about Twitter. It has gained over 50 comments today. I'm getting emails, but at one per comments it's a bit too much of a good thing.

I suspect that some people will watch the comments on a post for a while and then unsubscribe from the email or feed. If anyone happens to come along months later and add something useful to the discussion then it's unlikely to be read by many. I'm sure I've read something by Jeff Atwood on this, but can't find the appropriate post.

On the subject of Twitter, I gave a talk at Herts LUG about microblogging. I tried to explain what it offers as I know very few members who use it. Rob did a counter-talk where he ran through some of the issues with Twitter. These included those of security and identity. I've probably already overexposed myself on-line. It's probably possible to pull together all sorts of information about me from my various on-line identities. I've not noticed any problems with this so far and am wary of exposing details of my family or certain personal information. Other are less wary. You only have to browse Facebook to see examples.

That's enough of my waffling. Time for some guitar practice. I'm always happy to see comments on this site, apart from spam, but I don't get many. As I only have a few readers according to Google and Bloglines that's not too surprising.

[21:15] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 26 Feb 2009

Gmailing

I've been considering recently whether I should use Gmail as my primary email application. I've used other web mail in the past, starting with Rocketmail that, I think, was taken over by Yahoo. I still have a Yahoo account, but only really use it for their Groups, especially Freecycle. I managed to get a Gmail invitation soon after it started via a site where people were passing on their spare invitations and was able to get my standard user name. The service was innovative when it started and has gained many features. I've not exploited all of them, but then I've been using it as a secondary account.

My main account is on this domain. I use Kontact to access it, but have used Thunderbird in the past. There is web access via SquirrelMail, but it's clunky compared to Gmail. I set up Gmail to access this account and it works quite well for that. I can make it use my mail address for outgoing email too, so my Gmail address is almost redundant. This is how I handle email when not at home. The down sides are that my outgoing emails are only on the originating system and there can be a delay before Gmail picks up new mail. There also might be issues with handling encrypted email on Gmail, whereas Kontact does GPG nicely. Not that I'm doing much encryption as few of my contacts use it.

Of course Gmail is not totally reliable. It was down for a couple of hours this week. That's not a big issue with my low volume of email and my own server has been down on occasion. Generally I would expect Google to maintain pretty high reliability. They can afford massive redundancy in hardware. They also do pretty good spam filtering.

When I got my new phone I was wondering how to synchronise my calendar and contacts with either my PC or Google. This was just as Google announced Activesync functionality. I've used that and it generally works. I had been using their calendar for a while so that I could see it from work.

So what reasons are there to not use Gmail and how do I make the most of it?

[22:07] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 13 Jan 2009

Compromising freedom

I try to use open source software and open standards as much as I can. I try to persuade others to do likewise, but I end up using various proprietary systems anyway. I think that nearly all of those are so that I can participate in social networks.

I use Skype to communicate with family and colleagues because it has become the default for VOIP. I know there are open VOIP platforms, but I don't have time to support family in setting them up and my work colleagues are unlikely to change.

Can we expect sites like last.fm to go open source? Others, such as Facebook, are even less likely to as it would enable others to compete on features.

This post was inspired by this article about using identi.ca rather than Twitter. The quote from ESR is choice. I'm on both because some people I want to follow are only on Twitter. identi.ca only has a small fraction of the Twitter user base. That doesn't stop me having some great discussions there. I'd love to drop Twitter, but don't want to lose that part of my social network. So practicality triumphs over principle again.

[21:02] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 13 Dec 2008

Being social

A couple of months back I write a couple of posts trying to express what I thought about some of the social networks out there. As I am likely to keep using some of them for a while I thought I would write up how I was using them.

Facebook seems to be the hot place these days, but I still don't like it much. It's tricky to link into from the rest of the web and does a poor job of telling you what has been updated on the groups you are in. I have 26 contacts there. All are people I know well. I don't post much there directly. It comes from feeds on other sites. I do play around with some of the applications such as Blog Networks and Visual Bookshelf.

My preferred site for sharing with friends is still Multiply. As most of the family on there I can share pictures with them safely. Most of them rarely post anything. I post stuff several times each month. I've got 23 contacts there, all friends and family.

Several people at work were on LinkedIn, so I joined that. It has my career details, but I'm not seeing any benefit for now. It has groups and Q&A sections that I don't really use. Perhaps it will be useful the next time I'm looking for a job. I have 50 contacts. Almost all are with my current employer.

One of the phenomena of the last year or so has been microblogging. Basically it's about posting short messages about what you are currently doing, but has been expanded to allow for sending replies and direct messages to people. I played with Twitter and gained a few friends as contacts. I also followed a few of the on-line celebrities. I've since trimmed my list to 10, but am followed by 45. Some of those are bots or people just trying to boost their numbers. Putting the word 'guitar' in my profile seemed to attract several in that area. I've blocked some of the more extreme marketeers.

Fairly soon after joining Twitter I heard about Identi.ca that was doing similar things, but in a much more open form with open-source software and open protocols. I've met lots of interesting people there and had some good discussions. I subscribe to 35 and have 46 subscribers. They have just introduced the ability to block, but I've had a lot less marketeers there than on Twitter.

For music I love last.fm for recommending me bands and supplying great streaming in whatever genre suits my mood. I've got 11 friends there that include a couple I have never met. There's not much communication going on there. There used to be a way to see when friends had posted, but I can't find an equivalent in the latest version.

For a few years I've been logging sites I'm interested in on del.icio.us (I don't approve in the change of URL). I keep an eye on what my contacts are bookmarking and that often leads to interesting stuff. I follow 9 and have 11 'fans'. 5 fall into both camps. I'm up to well over 3000 links now.

I've looked at various sites for aggregating feeds to allow me to track what friends are up to on sites I don't use. Friendfeed is pretty good and allows for commenting, but I don't get many of those. I follow 5 and have 7 subscribers (2 mutual). whoisi is an alternative for those who don't like having to create accounts. I use it to follow 9 people, but can't see how many subscribe to my stuff. There is some duplication from Friendfeed, so I may drop some to keep things manageable.

There are a few other social sites I use where I have a few contacts, but don't gain much from doing so including Slashdot and Youtube.

I don't have massed of friends to connect with on-line and a lot of my friends are not interested in doing so. I also am not into mass-friending strangers just to get the numbers up. I use these sites to get some real benefits in keeping up with friends and gaining useful news and information. The most useful sites are Multiply, Identi.ca, last.fm and del.icio.us.

[15:56] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 24 Oct 2008

More socialising

Perhaps my last post didn't get across what I really think about the social network sites. I want to keep control of what I write rather than relying on some corporation to keep all the old stuff and not surround it with ads that I have no interest in. That's why I maintain this blog as my primary means of expression.

Blogs used to be a bigger part of the web, but have been drowned out by the big networks. This has been a hot topic this week on Wired that drew responses on other sites.

It's actually never been easier to find and follow blogs with services like Google Reader. You can see immediately when a new post comes in. The danger is getting overwhelmed. I have to keep cutting back on feeds. There are still issues with comments. You don't see them in Reader unless you click through to the original article and even then most people will not plough through hundreds of comments. If there are more than a couple of screens' worth I expect most people will just move on after reading the article. Even if they want to comment they will fear being lost in the flood. Not a problem on this site.

Perhaps more people would run a blog if they knew that there are some fairly easy to use ways to do it, e.g. on Wordpress or Blogger. Those sites may offer some social features, but only within their own systems. What's needed are open standards for cross-blog communication. I think that some exist already. There are certainly ways to link to friends such as FOAF and XFN that I have tried to use. It seems that Google is now reading these.

The other thing that is missing from blogs is a standard way to restrict access to certain items. I don't want to put photos of my kids on my site for the world to see. That's why they go on Multiply. Perhaps something could be done using OpenID. I like the idea of linking that in with people I have in my FOAF file to automatically allocate access rights, but don't know how to implement it.

I need to do yet more reading to work out what is possible and backed up by standards to make my site more useful. Suggestions welcome.

[22:46] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 18 Oct 2008

Socialising

I've been doing some thinking about social networks on the net and what they provide. People like to communicate and share opinions, tips, pictures, gossip and other nuggets of information. Before the internet most of us were limited in how many people we could reach, but now you have the potential to reach anyone with internet access. Inevitably this has led to a glut of junk out there, but there is gold to be found too. Professional writers are likely to be more consistent in their output, but they can't cover everything.

Those of us with the technical aptitude can host our own web site with complete control. Most people will prefer to use a hosted service that does the hard work for them so that they can concentrate on the content. The other thing these services can provide is the ability to connect to other people, but generally only those who are also registered with that service. In order to reach some of my friends I have joined some of these services with varying degrees of success.

There are lots of sites that allow people to link up, but provide limited options on communication. Slashdot lets you link to people, but only to see what comments and posts they have and with no way to know when there are updates. delicious lets you track other peoples' bookmarks, but there is no way to post other content.

Twitter offers a minimal system of short messages, with the option to follow any other member without the need for them to reciprocate, unless you decide that you only want friends to read what you like. identi.ca is a promising open source alternative that I'm finding useful.

Of the sites that provide a wide range of social options my favourite is still Multiply. From the start it has been about keeping in touch with people you know rather than building a huge network of strangers. You can post text, images, video and audio with complete control over who can access it. I use it to post pictures for friends and family with the option to restrict access. They get an email when I do so. It has worked well for me for a few years, but I find the others less enthusiastic about posting stuff themselves. The site recently announced reaching the ten million member mark.

Facebook has been getting lots of attention in the media and is growing at an incredible rate. I joined because some friends were there, but have found it disappointing. It aims to create a 'walled garden' subset of the internet. I guess it is safe in that you don't have to tell anyone your email address and can block anyone from your profile. But it is so shut down that you can't see anything there without joining. Allowing access to any aspect of your profile seems to be limited to all friends or everyone and tracking what has been updated is difficult.

Some people consider some of these sites to be evil for various reasons. I accept that they can abuse your data to feed you with advertising, but that's how they make a living and it's not much different to what various other businesses do. I accept some loss of privacy in exchange for the benefits of loyalty cards and gain from recommendations on various shopping sites based on previous purchases. Some of the methods these sites use may also be suspect, but I'm not sure if they are interesting in anything beyond making money.

Some people are trying to exploit the social sites as ways of reaching an audience for their art. They can provide a direct link between artist and fans. Steve Lawson is a good example of this. He is now passing on his experience to others.

Personally I'd like to see better ways for us all to be able to manage our own data, but still have the benefits of networking. Simple options exist such as RSS feeds to track blog updates and comment systems. I ought to investigate things like trackback that give feedback of cross-blog comments. I would like to be able to post comments on other blogs and get updates on follow-ups without having to subscribe to lots of feeds or rely on emails. Are there standards for this that I am missing out on? I realise that my blogging platform is not the most advanced, but I don't intend to change that any time soon.

For now I will deal with the frustrations of the big social networks as a way to track others and make them aware of my blog posts, which will remain my primary means of self-expression. My hope it to reach a small audience who may be able to help me to reach more people, including the non-techies, using open standards. Thanks for reading.

[21:31] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 29 Aug 2008

MicroID bad for your health?

Slashdot can be prone to scaremongering as much as the tabloids. This article is about someone who has found a way to extract email addresses from MicroID hashes on some sites. The idea of Micro ID is that it allows you to associate a user account on a site with an email address without revealing that address. Then sites like ClaimID can verify that you own a given account, as I have done for several. The idea has been criticised, but I think it is useful in a limited way. It is vulnerable to people working out what the email address was if they know your name and can guess what domain it is on. Not too hard in my case as my email is hosted on my own site that I publish in my account profiles. I'm not too bothered about this account as my email address has been heavily spammed anyway for ages. I suspect it may have been harvested from a key server as those publish all email addresses without obfuscation. I would prefer to share my email address openly so that people can easily contact me, but it seems that is not advisable due to others abusing it. As they already do should I be worried?

It seems that others take this threat more seriously as last.fm and digg have stopped using MicroID. This is a shame. identi.ca have handled it better by giving you an option of whether to have a MicroID on your profile page. Perhaps someone can come up with a more secure protocol that does not reveal private information. This is a complex field in which I am not qualified to dabble. Security and encryption are very easy to get wrong.

Whilst looking into this I found that ClaimID was down. This could be a problem for me as I use them for OpenID on a few sites. I wouldn't use it for anything critical or financial, but it saves me having to come up with passwords for every site. As I let Firefox save my OpenID password I rarely have to enter it. This makes me slightly more secure if some site tries to redirect me to a clone of the log-in screen as that would not have my details.

I've had a GPG public key for years, but have not used it for much. Very few people I know will send me encrypted emails. I keep expecting spammers to start doing that as a way around spam filters. I'm not sure it is a big enough target for them. The only site that has used my public key to verify my identity is Biglumber that deals with that topic anyway.

I'm generally interested in ways that we can publish personal information so that people can use it to contact us, but still protect our privacy. Is there an answer? Perhaps email is too broken to be of use. Closed systems like Facebook allow messages to be sent with options to block those you don't know, but are not open enough for general usage.

[21:09] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 21 Aug 2008

My Stack Overfloweth

In my quest to learn more about the art of programming I have been listening to the Stack Overflow podcast by Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood. These two seem to have a lot of experience between them and are applying it to developing a new Q&A site for developers. They are both entertaining talkers as well.

The Stack Overflow site is still in closed beta, but I managed to get in on it. It's simple, but impressive. It uses cool technology like OpenID, but can be used without registering. Users can allocate ratings to all questions and answers, so the good stuff should be easy to find. There is a complex reputation system, with badges, to encourage people to participate. So far I have submitted a couple of questions about use of wiki and email to manage information and received lots of good responses. It will be interesting to see how it evolves when opened up to the world.

I'll be interested in hearing about other good podcasts on programming and other technical subjects. I enjoy listening to them when driving to work. I still need to get myself a car radio that can play from flash media. I still have to burn an audio CD, which limits the duration of what I can listen to and sometimes plays up. I don't think I can bring myself to buy anything that does not support Ogg Vorbis. I'm not as principled as some people I know when it comes to only using open formats, but I still like to support them.

[21:18] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 07 Jul 2008

Close to home

Being a fan of web sites with a physical location I've felt the need for something that would tell you what sites relate to your local area. Groups Near You does this fairly well. You can add sites and match them up to an area on a Google map. There's no log-in, but it uses your email address to confirm changes and then that site is restricted to that email account. Some real potential if people add enough sites. I did a couple. It's a shame they don't make use of GeoURL to pick up the location of a site and then publish that data on their pages. Maybe I should mail them.

My other toy of the last few days was MyBlogLog. It's a Yahoo service that gives you some nice visitor tracking features for your site and lets you build a 'community' around it. The stats are nice, but I'm not totally convinced yet. I mainly joined in order to check out how their FOAF data appeared on the FOAFster visualisation tool.

identi.ca has been much improved by allowing you to see all your replies in one place. People had replied to some of my 'dents', but I had missed them. I've picked up a few followers who share my interests. These spontaneous communities are fun.

[22:06] | [] | Comments | G

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