Joseph Smarr

Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Category: Open Social Web (page 4 of 4)

Tim Berners-Lee groks the social graph

I guess I missed it with the Thanksgiving break, but Tim Berners-Lee recently wrote a thoughtful and compelling essay on the Social Graph, and how it fits in to the evolution of the net and the web so far. Definitely worth a read!

I was pleasantly surprised to see that he references the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web that I co-authored, as evidence of recent “cries from the heart for my friendship, that relationship to another person, to transcend documents and sites.” He echoes “the frustration that, when you join a photo site or a movie site or a travel site, you name it, you have to tell it who your friends are all over again,” and points out that “The separate web sites, separate documents, are in fact about the same thing–but the system doesn’t know it.”

I can’t think of a more eloquent way to describe the work I’m doing at Plaxo these days on opening up the social web and enabling true friends-list portability, and it’s certainly inspiring to hear it placed in the context of the larger vision for the Semantic Web by someone who’s already had such an impact on fundamentally improving the ways computers and people can interact online.

Onward, ho!

I’m speaking at SiliconValley NewTech tonight

meetup Short notice, but I’m speaking tonight at the SiliconValley NewTech November Meetup in Palo Alto, and I’ll be giving a demo of OpenSocial apps running inside Plaxo Pulse. Stop by and say hi if you get the chance!

OpenSocial and Plaxo: What a week!

Wow, I’m exhausted, but incredibly happy! I’ve been working insane hours all week to get Google’s just-announced OpenSocial APIs implemented in Plaxo Pulse and launched live by the time of their announcement. And we did it! We released full support Thursday night, making Plaxo the first site to publicly implement OpenSocial. Yay!

I only found out about OpenSocial less than a month ago (I was on vacation in France when the initial disclosure event took place, but Marc Canter brokered an introduction when I got back; Thanks, Marc!). And the project inside Google was being developed fast and furious the whole time, which meant the specs were in a constant state of flux and there wasn’t a lot of time for such frivolities as “documentation” or “Q&A sessions”.

Actually I think it was a wise and bold choice by Google to run so fast and loose, rather than doing a more traditional big consortium with frozen specs and tons of details that would never have hit the mark in time. But it made the race to get things working in Plaxo all the more chaotic and exciting. The good news is when you’re dealing with known open standards like JavaScript and HTTP, you can pretty much always figure out what’s going on and devise some working solution, even if it involves some judicious use of proxies, mod_rewrite, and regular expressions (which, trust me, it did).

The launch of OpenSocial itself went better than anyone could have possibly planned. After spending several weeks under strict NDA and not even being able to know who the other container or gadget developers were, we were all a bit dismayed when a New York Times writer did enough digging to leak most of the story a few days early. Google decided that rather than try to keep the lid on any longer, they would release the embargoes early, so starting Tuesday night there was an explosion of public excitement in the press and blogosphere. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and by the next day the story got even more exciting: MySpace, Bebo, and SixApart joined as last-minute partners (previously there were several social networks agreeing to support OpenSocial, but none as big as these new entrants). Suddenly it looked like the whole world was going open (save, of course, for Facebook). This led to yet another round of frenzied reporting, which in turn made the OpenSocial announcement even bigger.

Since Plaxo was listed as one of the original supporting partner sites, all of these stories mentioned Plaxo, which means I could track them all in Bloglines via the Plaxo keyword search feed. This was like having a little web beacon plugged into all the stories posted everywhere, and it was just amazing to see how many different publications wanted to cover it. Bloglines (which I love) has this annoying feature that it won’t keep more than 200 unread items per feed. Normally the Plaxo feed gets 10-20 hits per day. Since Tuesday night, I had to check it every couple of hours or it passed the 200 mark. And, perhaps not surprisingly, our traffic at Plaxo also shot through the roof after the announcement went out.

Despite the early leak, Google kept its internal launch schedule the same. On Thursday night, I was invited to Campfire One: a small, invite-only gathering of some of the key developers participating in the launch. They actually built a campfire in the middle of Google’s campus and gave us all folding chairs, blankets, mugs of hot cocoa, and long marshmallow roasting forks to make s’mores with. They made a series of presentations on OpenSocial, showed demos of it working in sites like Hi5 and LinkedIn, and showed off popular gadgets like iLike and Flixster. Then they told everyone to roast marshmallows and mingle. To my surprise, I ended up next to Larry Page and Eric Schmidt standing around one of the fires. I was very impressed that not only had they showed up to this event, they totally got the vision for the open social web and were excited about seeing it develop further!

This was the first time I’d met many of the other participants in the OpenSocial project, so it was great to finally “step out of the dark” and be able to talk openly with them all about working together. I told everyone that Plaxo was planning to launch our OpenSocial support live right after the campfire ended, which became a source of much talk and excitement. Apparently all the other sites had just gotten internal demos running, but none of them had plans to go live until things settled down a bit and got more stable, say late ’07 or early ’08. The Google team said they had a spreadsheet a mile long of changes they planned to make in the short term, but if I didn’t mind fixing things as they broke, they were thrilled to have a real implementation available for people to play with. When Larry brought his marshmallows over share with some of the other Googlers (including Sergey Brin, whom I also hadn’t seen earlier), he exclaimed “hey, those Plaxo guys are launching OpenSocial support tonight!,” so I felt confident that the extra work required to launch support so early was well worth it.

The official launch of OpenSocial brought yet another round of press frenzy, and the fact that Plaxo was the first site to go live with support became a story itself. We were already planning to have a party on Friday afternoon to celebrate getting the code live, but we decided at the last minute to open the party to the public and use it to give a public demo of OpenSocial running live in Plaxo. We posted the invitation to our OpenSocial “Open Social” on Thursday afternoon and on Friday at 4pm we had about 100 guests at Plaxo HQ with whom to share some pizza, beer, and talk of the open social web.

I talked a bit about Plaxo’s commitment to helping open up the social web in general (such as our support of OpenID and microformats, our Online Identity Consolidator, the Bill of Rights I co-authored, and plans for enabling friends-list portability) and then dove into a demo of OpenSocial gadgets running in Pulse. The first thing everybody saw was a bunch of RockYou emotes in the normal pulse stream–they were generated by the OpenSocial gadget, posted through the standard APIs, and then translated by Plaxo into a pulse feed and shared out just like you would with photos, your blog, or anything else that came from a social web site. (Raymond and Jia from RockYou both came over to Plaxo and stayed up late to make sure our container implementation was solid and that their apps ran well on Plaxo. Thanks guys, that was a huge help, and everyone in the office can’t stop playing with emote now, heh!)

opensocial-topfriends-in-plaxo-pulseI then showed a bunch of gadgets running in my Pulse profile page, including horoscope, iLike, and Slide’s FunWall and TopFriends, both of which are impressively sophisticated apps, and among the most popular apps on Facebook. I met Slide’s CTO Jeremiah Robinson at the campfire, and he was eager to make sure his apps ran well on Plaxo. After a bit of back-and-forth IMing and tweaking on Friday, they all ran beautifully–a testament to the well-executed design of OpenSocial!

It’s amazing to think that less than 24 hours after launching this major new platform, not only is it running live in Plaxo, we already have several first-class gadgets from top developers like RockYou and Slide. If Plaxo had tried to build our own proprietary platform, we could never have successfully wooed these developers to build exclusively for us, let alone had things up and running this quickly. That’s why open always wins, and that’s why we love open standards at Plaxo.

This is just the beginning–there’s so much more to do to truly open up the social web. But OpenSocial is a huge milestone, not only because so many large players are now supporting the open social web, but also because the launch was so large and successful that it introduced a ton of people to the concept of open and got them thinking about what more could be done here. It’s an incredibly exciting time, and you can bet I’m going to keep driving things the best way I know how: by talking about the vision, and then backing it up by shipping real code.

P.S.: Here’s a video I recorded earlier this week at Google talking about Plaxo’s involvement in OpenSocial.

P.P.S.: Here’s a video of the demo I gave on Friday, captured by Chris Heuer.

Open Social Web was all the talk at Graphing Social Patterns

I just got back from two awesome days at the Graphing Social Patterns conference (BTW, as a south bay resident, I loved that it was NOT in SF like so many of these events are!). While the conference was ostensibly focused on Facebook and its platform, I was surprised and delighted to see that almost everyone wanted to talk about the Open Social Web–how there won’t and shouldn’t be just one company owning the social graph, how sites need to be able to inter-operate, how users need more control, and how this is a real and practical problem today. People really got it, and they want to see open prevail.

Both keynotes covered these issues as major themes. Reid Hoffman said there will continue to be multiple social graphs, and that that’s a good thing. And Tim O’Reilly gave an amazing pitch for how the open social web can fix the problems with social networking today–Why can’t a site like facebook defer to a site like geni to know who’s in my family? Why can’t you use the social information inherent in my email? In my cell phone? Why can’t I have different types of relationships with different people? And his answer was “openness is good for you; all these tools will get better when they inter-operate”.

This afternoon, I participated in a panel called “Opening up the Social Graph” along with Tantek, David Recordon, Ted Grubb, and Chamath Palihapitiya (who interestingly enough also worked with Plaxo at AOL when we did our Universal Address Book integration with AIM). We had a packed house, a great discussion, and got lots of questions from the audience–people were really paying attention. At one point, Tantek asked the audience how many people out there wanted Facebook to support open standards like OpenID and microformats. The entire room raised their hands. It was a poignant moment.

And, as with most events like this, I also got a lot of opportunity to meet people in the hallways and got into a lot of great discussions. It didn’t hurt that we were giving away a bunch of “Yeah, I’d sync that.” Plaxo t-shirts, which seemed to be quite a hit. My conversation with Jason and Teresa from Web Community Forum turned into a video interview that I think nicely captured the current issues with walled gardens vs. the open social web.

Congrats to Dave McClure for pulling off such a high-impact event!

Update: The video of our panel discussion is now available.

Robert Scoble interviews me on video

Alpha blogger and avant-garde digital media journalist Robert Scoble came over to Plaxo yesterday to talk with me and John McCrea about the Online Identity Consolidator I wrote that Plaxo launched today and open-sourced. He posted a 30-minute video of the interview with his analysis on Scobleizer, and I’ve included the video below as well.

Scoble’s interview style is always a great mix of technical deep dives interspersed with questions that ask to “explain this in terms that anyone could understand”. He’s both passionate and skeptical of new technology, and it’s an effective way of teasing apart the hype and substance surrounding the announcements he covers. He also immerses himself in the technology he discusses, and thus develops deeper and more personal opinions about it (e.g. he’s an active Plaxo Pulse user), which in this age of sound bytes and talking points is something we sorely need more of.

Anyway, enjoy the video, and I hope it helps get you as passionate about the open social web as I am!

BarCampBlock exemplifies Silicon Valley

I love living here in Silicon Valley. I’m surrounded by smart, passionate people who don’t feel they need permission to make a difference.

BarCampBlockCase in point was BarCampBlock this weekend–a spontaneous un-conference-style gathering of 900+ hackers and other valleyites sprawled across the streets of Palo Alto, as well as inside the offices of several host startups. The basic idea is that when we go to conferences and events, the major benefit is the chance to meet and talk with other like-minded people, so why do we need the conference at all? Just organize an open event where people will show up and figure out how to spend their time together.

BarCampBlock organizersIt was organized by a few people (mainly Chris Messina, Tara Hunt, and Tantek Çelik) in a short amount of time, and with essentially no budget. It was promoted purely by word of mouth and blogging, and yet not only was there an amazing turnout, nearly 100 companies stepped up to help show their support and sponsor the event. Even Plaxo kicked in a sponsorship, which was a no-brainer since they cleverly set the max contribution at $300 to prevent the possibility of an arms race. And then, like magic, people showed up, organized, and we had a productive and fun weekend figuring out the future.

I just have to stop and reflect on how unusual and awesome it is that events like this can and do take place here with relative ease here. It’s only possible because of the combination of (a) ambitious would-be organizers, (b) a community of people who care enough about what they’re doing to spend a perfectly good weekend networking and nerding with their cohort, and (c) a plethora of companies that care enough about being a part of the community to pool their resources and make events like this possible.

Social network portability sessionIt also requires the flat, meritocratic, egalitarian cultural norms of the area. The important people show up and hang out like everyone else; they’re not hard to find. In my own sphere of opening up the social web, the big deal recently was Brad Fitzpatrick’s (founder of LiveJournal, creator of OpenID, now at Google) new manifesto on how to do an end-run around uncooperative companies and get the ball rolling now. It had already spurred a hot conversation, and yet the next morning there he was (down from SF, mind you), talking to whomever was interested.

John McCrea engages in 'grass-roots marketing'We ended up hosting a session together on social network portability, and it was packed. It must have gone well, because the rest of the evening people kept coming up to me to express their shared passion for what we’re doing. In fact, enough people gave me their free drink tickets out of tribute that I couldn’t finish them all! Now that’s what I call “work hard, play hard”. :)

In a funny way, BarCamp shares the same spirit (and initial impetus) as Lunch 2.0–we’re all living here to be a part of this community, so let’s get together. The cost is small and readily obtainable, and the results of meeting up are never predictable but always valuable.

Anyway, congratz to the organizers, you did an amazing job! And congratz to us all for taking advantage of opportunities like this and not waiting to be told what to work on. As usual, there are plenty of photos from me and others.

More on my new role at Plaxo

I just posted some thoughts on my new role at Plaxo as their Chief Platform Architect. Like my previous roles at Plaxo, this is both a formalization of something I was already doing and a decision to focus more intensely on it. In this case, it’s because Plaxo has ended up in a potentially pivotal position to help keep track of who you know and what they’re doing across all the various sites and services you and your contacts use.

So many services these days are driven by sharing content with your friends/contacts/etc. and yet the problem of wiring up who you know on each of these services and keeping that up-to-date is as unsolved as ever. At best you get a one-time auto-import from webmail providers, but if we’ve learned anything at Plaxo, it’s that persistent sync with your existing address book(s) is the real ticket, and everything else falls short of what users really want–that any time I meet someone new or they join a new service, I can automatically find out about it and stay in touch with them without leaving my existing tools. It’s a hard problem, and one that’s not core to most companies, but it’s Plaxo’s bread-and-butter so we’re eager to dive in.

Actually, It’s kind of funny in retrospect that Plaxo launched in 2002–before Friendster, before flickr, before LinkedIn, before MySpace, before Facebook, etc. Even way back then (heh), we thought the problem of staying connected to the people you know was hard enough to warrant starting a company. The initial pitch pointed out that the “explosion of communication tools” (meaning, at the time, email, IM, and cell phones) was actually making it harder to stay in touch, because there were so many channels to keep track of now, and they all tended to be incomplete and out-of-date. Boy is that ever more true today than it was five years ago! Just like before, all these new tools ostensibly aim to help you stay more connected, but they can only truly deliver in conjunction with a service like Plaxo to help you manage it all.

The good news is that these days we’re in the best position yet to make a difference in this new social web. We have 15+ Million people already using Plaxo, we have 2-way sync with most of the major address books and calendars out there, and most importantly we have built our service on open standards like SyncML, vCard, iCal, etc. that will enable others to pick up where we’ve left off.
This last point is really the starting place for my new role as Chief Platform Architect. We are fortunate to be part of a community of developers and evangelists that cares deeply about keeping the social web open–and thus interoperable. I’ve spent the last few years participating in events like the FOAF Workshop, MashupCamp, Internet Identity Workshop, OSCON, and others, trying to figure out how the community envisions building a user-centric social web and how I and Plaxo can best help. It’s exciting to see the fruits of these events start to ripen–things like OpenID, microformats, cross-site mashups, standards-based identity agents–and even more exciting to get to spend my days figuring out how Plaxo can continue to embrace them, help them continue to develop and flourish, and use our technology and resources to help get them deployed at web-scale.

The company is firmly behind this effort and everyone here gets why open is the way to go. In fact, it’s really the only way to go for us–if you believe (as we do) that people will continue to use multiple tools and services and that no single site will own everything (i.e. if you believe that “the web will continue to be the web”) then you can’t wire everything up in a top-down fashion. You have to agree on standards, keep users in control, and empower them to let their data follow them around wherever they go and share it with whomever they want. There’s still a hard problem to solve in the implementation and operation of such a system, and that’s where Plaxo (and others) will be able to run a thriving business. But believe me, we’ve already written one-too-many custom authentication and sync conduits and we long for the day when a new service can just point their standard sync endpoint at us and the rest is done automagically. The day where I can join a new service and instantly find out everyone I know there–including people that I meet or that join later on. That’s the goal, that’s what I’m working on. Let me know what you think!

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