Joseph Smarr

Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Author: jsmarr (page 5 of 5)

FOAF Workshop Talk

Technical and Privacy Challenges for Integrating FOAF into Existing Applications
FOAF Workshop
Galway, Ireland
September 2, 2004

Full paper (HTML)

Download PPT (2.1MB)

FOAF stands for friend-of-a-friend and it’s an open standard for describing your contact information and who you know. When social networking sites started exploding, many people were annoyed that they had to keep entering this information over and over again, and they also wanted to maintain ownership of their own information. I got excited about the potential for FOAF at Plaxo because we’re always looking for new ways to help users get their data in and out of other applications and services. Unlike most social networks, we don’t benefit from keeping your data trapped in a walled garden–quite the opposite! When I started looking mroe seriously at implementing FOAF in Plaxo, I noticed a number of issues–both technical (e.g. how to handle authentication) and privacy-related (e.g. do I have a right to publish contact info about the people in my address book, or is that their call?) that I thought the FOAF community should be talking about. After writing a blog post for Plaxo about the potential for FOAF and its challenges (which turned out to be our most popular post for quite some time), I expanded it into a full paper, which I presented at the FOAF Workshop in Galway, Ireland. I went to Ireland a few days early and spent them in Dublin, which I absolutely loved. Ireland has this enchanting mix of old- and new-world culture, it’s all iridescently green, and the people were all friendly. I took the train cross-country to Galway, which is also a very cool town.

I haven’t heard much about FOAF lately, though I believe the project is still being worked on by some people. I had high hopes that Marc Canter’s FOAFnet project (a subset of FOAF that lets you import and export your social network data from a web site) would be simple and sexy enough to gain widespread adoption, but it doesn’t look like it ever happened, most people don’t seem to be outraged that they have to maintain separate profiles and contact lists on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on. Maybe one day these sites will all sync with Plaxo, but until then they continue to be separate walled gardens that own your data.

Mashup University Talk

Smarten Up Your Address Book with a Plaxo Mashup
Mashup University (part of Mashup Camp 2)
Mountain View, CA (Computer History Museum)
July 12, 2006

Download PPT (1.7MB)

Watch the complete video of my talk (QT, 78MB)

Plaxo sponsored me to give a talk at the beginning of MashupCamp2 (alongside speakers from Microsoft, AOL, and Intel) during its new “Mashup University” section. I talked about the Plaxo widget and our APIs and why they’re a useful ingredient for many sites. MashupCamp itself was also great fun, and it made me a strong believer in the style of un-conferences (where the schedule is formed ad-hoc by the participants when the conference starts), something I’ve since used at Plaxo to cut down on scheduling meetings. Rather than trying to get on everyone’s calendar, we just reserve Tuesday afternoons for an internal unconference we call Meataxo (yes, the spelling is intentional–we had to do something to make the idea of a meeting marathon sound fun :)).

I’ve covered my talk at MashupU in more detail on Plaxo’s blog, and Joe “Duck” Hunkins also wrote a great summary.

Cross-Site Ajax (OSCON 2006)

Cross-Site Ajax: Challenges and Techniques for Building Rich Web 2.0 Mashups
O’Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) 2006
Portland, OR
July 26, 2006

Download PPT (1.8MB)

This was the first OSCON I ever attended. I had a great time and I met a lot of amazing people. I’m definitely going back next year. Much of what I discussed in the talk came from work I did on the Plaxo widget, and the point of this talk was to share the techniques I’d learned and also to raise awareness and debate of the larger issues and privacy/technology tradeoffs involved. I’ve covered this talk in more detail on Plaxo’s blog (thanks Plaxo for sending me!). Kevin Yank also blogged a summary of the talk.

Joseph, why a blog, and why now?

You know, I used to care about my presence on the web. Or, rather, I used to do actually something about it. In fact, I’ve had a personal web page since 1993, when I was a subfreshman at Uni High in Urbana, IL (the page was called mosaic.home.html, which kinda dates it). Sadly, I can’t seem to find a copy of my website’s earliest incarnation, but I do still have other old versions of my web site from Uni High, NCSA, and Stanford.

After graduating from Stanford in 2003, they promptly took back my Leland account, and my web site went with it (do they really need the extra logins and disk quota that badly?!). [If I’d been a pure CS student, I would have gotten to keep a account, but being in Symbolic Systems—even though I took as many CS classes as most CS students—I was not afforded that luxury.] So my web presence regressed to a collection of google search results, incomplete profile pages, and bylines on blog posts I did for Plaxo.

It’s ironic that my move to becoming a professional web developer coincided with the first time since I was 12 that I didn’t have a personal web page. But honestly, it was just because I was too busy and/or too lazy to find more web space and get started again.

Whilst I was busy working on Plaxo’s web site instead of my own, an additional variable entered the equation: blogs. My first serious exposure to blogs came when Mark Fletcher, who was working at Plaxo in the early days, started talking about how he was going to build a web-based blog aggregator he called Bloglines. I remember at the time thinking to myself, “Mark, you’re a smart guy, and the only time-sink bigger than reading these random geeks’ rants in the first place is actually building a tool to help you read more of them!” Of course, in retrospect, the move was prescient (I shouldn’t be too surprised: Mark has a track record for timing the democratization of geek tools, having done the same during the bubble with mailing lists at ONElist/eGroups) and I now spend more time in Bloglines than any other web site.

Most of the blogs I read are not personal blogs, but rather news about companies I’m interested in (e.g. TiVo, Netflix, Zvents), technical articles about web development (e.g. Ajaxian, A List Apart,, or mentions of Plaxo across the blogosphere (Bloglines search feeds do this well, as does Technorati and Google). Most people I know that have started personal blogs post infrequently, and unless they’re a personal friend of mine, I’m not usually interested in that much of what they’re saying (it’s just not that relevant to my life).

So, why a blog, and why now? The direct reason is that I made a New Year’s resolution (sorry, Rikk, I know you hate those) to do a better job of work-life balance and setting up a personal web site is one of those “life” things I haven’t been spending enough time on lately (spending more time with my wife is another). But I’ve also had more cause to want to put things online lately. I’ve been giving more talks, going to more conferences, and working on more cutting-edge web development that I want to discuss and share with my colleagues across the web. Mainly I’ve done so through Plaxo’s corporate blog, but there’s a lot I want to talk about that’s probably too specific and long for that forum (you may have noticed my inability to keep blog posts short by now). And when Mark Jen (who, I’m happy to say, I helped hire at Plaxo when Google foolishly let him go) told me he could hook me up with space at DreamHost and even set up WordPress for me (Matt, you’ve done a bang-up job with that project!), I decided I really had no excuse not to go for it. So here I am!

I really will try to keep this site fresh and meaningful, and I encourage you to pressure me if I don’t live up to that goal. I started keeping a list of ideas for things to write about and it’s already several pages long, so all I need is the time/discipline to regularly spend some time on it. The few friends of mine that do regularly post about their lives and share photos make me feel much closer and more connected to them than I otherwise would, and I hope I can return the favor. One realization that made me want to start a personal blog even after seeing so many rantings-of-some-random-dude is that just because anyone on the web can read your blog doesn’t mean you have to write for a global audience. If a few people that want to keep in touch with you can do so from your blog, you’ve done them and yourself a service, and if it’s not relevant to everyone else, they can read something else.

That being said, a lot of what I hope to write about is ideas I’ve had about web development, tech, and entrepreneurship in general, which I hope will be of interest even to people that don’t know me personally. I’ll try to do a good job of tagging my posts so you can focus on the ones you care about. Let me know if you have any suggestions about how I can design/run this site better. I hope I can manage it like any good startup project: ship early and often, listen to your users, and rev quickly. :)

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