Blog posts tagged "community"

Personal Data Stores and the Network

October 31st, 2007

Thinking about what “personal data stores” are going to look like, how this interacts with decentralized models for community services, (I swear I’ve written something more recent then 2005 on that topic, but can’t find it), mulling models for updating clouds, wondering if projects like G’s OpenSocial, and Portable Social Networks are a step forward or back, speculating that digital curation is a viable near future business model, and that individual curations would work well as shareable social media objects.

Nothing necessarily novel. Just where my head is at.

Interestingness, Community, Infrastructure, and the Academy

October 28th, 2005

In the “few thoughts, loosely joined” school, Anil’s recent post The Interesting Economy, got me revisiting worn grooves, thinking about community.

Anil posits that Flickr’s users, creators of value and “interestingness” are getting short changed, or at least in the future our understanding of Flickr’s value proposition will lead us to conclude their users are being short changed. It’s part of an ongoing struggle to define our norms around participation, community, hosted tools, and ownership. (On a side note, syndication can mix into this explosively, as with this thread last Summer on Meetup and EVDB)

Actually Anil’s point was more interesting and more subtle, and worth reading, but as the signal bounced around the echo chamber, it degraded into “Hey, I make Flickr interesting, pay me!”.

I mean as software tends towards commodification (as t approaches 0), clearly Flickr derives its value from its participants, yes?

No. Quite the opposite.

I could replicate Flickr’s software (call it Flickah, a Boston Flickr derivative), give it away free, and still people would pay to be part of Flickr. And in fact if I ever managed to grow the community to a fraction of Flickr’s size I’d be in trouble. Flickr isn’t a photo hosting site, it’s a salon, and unsurprisingly value accumulates most quickly to the salon owner. Value arises from the centralization.

Community Service Models?

So assuming software, what alternatives models exist for a community to host a service they find useful? How do communities gain and support the values of centralization without handing over control? A Flickr, an Upcoming, or an Audioscrobbler provide value in direct proportion to the size of the community, while the centralization of a Google Maps (or a Geocoder) makes an expensive resource affordable. It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for a while (community+service). And a question I asked at techdinner recently to surprising results.

I expected to hear about grid computing, alternate economic models, p2p, etc. Instead it was suggested that maintaining such a resource, or at least some subset of such community resources is the role of the Academy in the 21st century. (less surprising given the presence of Berkman-ites in the crowd)

Perhaps not a Google Maps, or Flickr but maybe Harvard should be hosting the definitive URI for books? I was intrigued. (not to mention a little appalled given my stint doing tech for Higher Ed.)

Last thought, in the multitude responses to Anil, it was pointed out that interestingness can be gamed, as can most deployed reputation systems. Yet eBay works? How? By making buy in into the system cost real cash, something Flickr print is poised to do. As a print service not terribly exciting, but what a great way to quantify interestingness.

Meditations on a Changing Web: Delocator and Community Annotations

April 5th, 2005

The Starbucks Delocator which flashed across Boing Boing today (not to mention hit my inbox mere minutes later, thanks Steve) embodies in itself an interesting tension I’ve been trying to tease out for a while. Would it be too horribly smug to say it’s a tension between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 and leave it at that? Probably.

What Is It?

In brief it is a website that attempts to offer a national (presumably U.S. national as it asks for zip codes) database of independent coffee shops, in order to support those fine and public places.

Things it gets right (Web 2.0-ish):

  • geographic – the physical was missing from the web for so long, that even though it is becoming standard each new website which can tie the virtual experience to real world location presents a little epiphany.
  • user built – this is an art project so the mail off a stack of phone books to China and pay to have them typed in route was never an option, but still its clueful to see someone make user contributions front and center.
  • its pretty (ok, that might not be Web 2.0-ish)
  • its opensource

Things it gets wrong (Web 1.0-sih):

  • roach motel – why should I contribute to this database when there is no way to get a dump of the data?
  • no maps
  • no user editing – a quick scan of my area shows it is not only sparsely populated, but that of the 3 entries I did find I could add additional info to all of them.
  • no user profile, no community, no reputations – you can see that I added June Bug, but rather then my name being a link to my profile, its a mailto with my address!
  • no permalinks – can’t really expose a database of first class web objects without permalinks
  • a splash screen, with a popup window!?!?! I feel like I’m in a timewarp!

And just to be clear, I’m not attacking Delocator for this, my own minimal attempt at cataloging and promoting independent coffee shops falls down on most of of these points as well. Just talking them through.

A Short Story About Roach Motels

So why would you possibly want to provide a dump of your entire database? Re-use and re-mixing. Projects like delocator, openguides, addyourown, et al. are one facet of how we’re starting to annotate our spaces around us. Projects like mappr are another. THe more we can get the data out of it’s silos, the more we can combine it to interesting effect. (and if we can just get it all into RDF we can sit back and let Jo do the rest)

But a simpler story is, when do you want info like Delocator (or any of these) provide? When you’re out. Not when you’re sitting at home in front of the computer. Opening up your data means you can get someone to help you with a mobility solution, be that a cell phone based interface, an iPod compatible database, or a clever PDF to print out and stick in your pocket.

Two Way Data Interchange

What we really need is a data format for this stuff. I personally I know the website, address, phone number, etc of about 100 independent coffee shops not listed on the Delocator page. (call me obsessed) And I have most of that information stored digitally. If I had a way to send them an XML file of that information we’d both be happier. Similarly I’d be happy to contribute to addyourown, chefmoz, and openguides, and would love to be pulling out the data from those sites to enrich my own listings. But not if I have to re-type it!

State of the Art

I did a brief survey of available formats last Summer, and didn’t come up with anything compelling. The ChefMoz format looked like it might be a decent starting point, I no longer remember what I found so problematic about it. Anyone else interested?

update: a bit more on Delocator

From 3 locations to 7 in a couple of hours is pretty good growth, I’m impressed. And I wouldn’t have thought to add City Feed, which is one of my all time favorite places. (just decided what I’m doing for lunch!) But how do we define non-corporate? In Boston this is particuarily hard where almost everything is part of a mini-chain. I’ll grant you Emack and Bolio’s with its 7 locations in Boston probably makes the cut, but how about ERC, with its 20 locations in 6 states?

Money, Services, and the Changing Nature of Information Consumption

September 20th, 2004

Les is wondering how people are planning to finance and support services like Bloglines, flickr, and It’s a question that can be addressed from two directions, both interesting. You can frame the question as, “What is the business model?”, or you can ask “How does a community support a resource it finds useful?”.

One line that jumped out at me at me was

I do appear to shell out at least $50 per month in internet services beyond my bandwidth bill.

That got me thinking. A few years ago this would have been an unprecedentedly large amount. The idea that we were all going to get rich selling online services was so firmly rejected that it became a commonly accepted truism that “people won’t pay for things online”, and yet, quietly, almost under the radar this seems to be changing.

Looking at my personal expenses online they can be broken down into: paid content, online tools, online services, personal hosting, and net facilitated donations.

Paid content

I maintain a Safari account (which after several years of comp I started paying for last year), I’m a Zmag sustainer, and in the past I’ve subscribed to several premium info sources. 90-95% of my daily information consumption is network mediated — blogs, online newspapers, email newsletters, and radio streams. The bulk of the rest of it comes from magazines. (which I either subscribe to, or pick up on the newsstand depending on whether I want to financially support the publisher).

Monthly cost: ~$15

Online tools

I use a large number of online tools in my daily life, from the ubiquitous Google, to the essential Bloglines. I currently experimenting with using Gmail, having tried nearly all of the webmail products at one point or another over the years. Currently I’m a light weight user of Use Tasks, for online managed tasks, and used to be a regular user of the hosted pim service (I also was an Anyday developer)

For a while I was using All Consuming to facilitate my book reading habit, and in its heyday I was a heavy user of BackFlip, a dotcom era (I feel like I’m forgetting a handful of key tools here, I’ll have to back fill them later)

Beyond my text editor, most of my work (and most of my day) happens within the confines of a Firefox window. Currently the only tool I’m paying for is Use Tasks.

Monthly cost: ~$4

Online services

Hard to split online services from online tools really, but I guess I’m thinking of net facilitated services. Netflix is a good example, as is the iTunes Music Store. Pobox mail forwarding is a slightly murkier one. Automated clipping services like PubSub are largely indistinguishable from tools. You could argue that webmail, or a provider like Fastmail should actually be in this category.

A chunk of the my monthly online spending goes to this category, mostly Netflix, with handful of change going to various more obscure services.

Monthly cost: ~$27

Personal Hosting

The cost of maintaining an online presence. My primary web and email hosting are covered as a side benefit of some of the tech activism I do, but I do pay for a hosted dev box (a VLS really), and have been contemplating setting up a new solution for email.

Monthly cost: $10


I make both regular and irregular donations to a number of online services. Some of the donations are towards tech activist projects like Riseup, or Activista. Some are for funding drives for web commons projects (e.g. Wikipedia, or Mirror Project), or blogger bailouts (e.g. the Daring Fireball pledge drive)

Of all the discussed categories, this is my largest expense.

Monthly cost: ~$35

Running the Numbers

Works out to something like $90/month above basic connectivity. (with the single largest line item being Netflix, so embarrassing, I really need to learn how to use Bittorrent) Might sound like a lot, but if you calculate that I spend anywhere from 10-14 hours a day online, thats about $0.25 an hour for a service that provides personal and work communication, information and professional development, news and entertainment. Its significantly less then I spend monthly on food, rent or transportation, and yet I’d say its at least as fundamental to me as any of those. It’s about what I spend on books (a bit less), but given I’m not in school currently that isn’t a good indicator.

Some obvious places to be spending more

It is odd to want to spend more, and frankly, I don’t. In particular the problem in spending more on services means you need to either figure out how to have services swell, and shrink with changing income, or you get stuck having raised the minimum you can live on, which is a dangerous relationship to get into with capitalism.

Still, I really should be spending another $5-$10/monthly on personal hosting in order to get a more functional email setup, as a person who lives largely online spending so little to maintain the presence seems….off.

I really should be paying more for online tools. Another $5 monthly for Bloglines at least in a no brainer. Some amount of money to a meaningful and useful social software/collaboration tool is burning a hole in my pocket. And a good hosted pim/tasks/reminders service still needs to get (re-)built.

Noticeably absent from the list are any self supporting community or discussion spaces. I’m not sure I believe in virtual communities, which doesn’t seem to stop me from being involved in a ridiculously large number of them. Most exist in a nebulous hybrid mailing list/forum/irc space, none of which ever seems to get paid for, and none of which ever seem to improve and become more useful. I know several people, like my brother, who participate in incredibly specialized and erudite online communities. A way of striking a balance between getting the right people into the community, and supporting growth needs to found.

Lastly independent media is still doing a lousy job of developing models to deliver information both locally and globally using the internet, and doing an even worse job of figuring out how to use the net to engage meaningful participation and support. Right now most of my net mediated media consumption is filtered corporate media, the filters are important, interesting, and useful, to a self sustaining alternative it ain’t.

I’ve totally failed to answer Les’ question, but I thought it might be worth re-examining our received wisdom about people’s online spending habits, or at least mine.

Doing some rough calculations based on current income levels, amount of value I’m deriving or wish to be deriving, and looking at the above list, I’d say there is about $150-$250/monthly that I should be spending in one of these 5 categories that I’m not for lack of a meaningful place to spend it.

That said, as we move towards more and more hosted/online services and tools, its going to become increasingly important to develop new models of engagement, and transparency. What do the ideals of free software mean in the context of a hosted service? How do I fork if I don’t like where things are going? What is the role of collective ownership in these projects, or is it assumed I’m simply a consumer? Thats a whole other essay, and one I’m too tired to start right now.

And TeleDyn has an excellent essay Living with Webservices, which seems to be closely related in ways my brain is totally refusing to articulate right now. Good night.

Community Services

August 31st, 2004

I have had a long blog entry/article perculating around in my head for several months now about the role of services in our personal computing frameworks, and how they’re going to be support and maintained. Services like or audioscrobbler, or flickr for the blogger community, other services like geocoder, for different communities. This is not that article.


There are a number of tensions at play. One of them is the desire for control. Control to ensure that a key piece of personal architecture doesn’t go away, change beyond use, or become unreasonably priced. This is a lesson learned poignantly by anyone who was an active web user through the dotcom era. Control also to have the flexibility to use your data in the ways you want to, in creative collaboration with other tools, including other services, and home rolled solutions. Too many systems choose the roach motel approach.


Tugging against control is the desire to delegate. Life is short, and busy, and the ability to designate expertise to someone else, make it someone elses problem to develop the domain knowledge, and keep the servers up, and replace the disks when they fail, etc.


Also in direct tension to that control is the social aspects of all these services. Frankly I don’t get much value out of the social aspect of, but I could, and we all will, in the future, need this kind of social collaboration to help with data overwhelm.

I don’t know what the answers are, but there is nothing like being offline for most of the day to bring home how much control you’ve delegated. (rafe is feeling the pain as is Michael, also see Simon’s ode), We need to start thinking about alternatives models, and reaffirms for me the descision not to jump to using Flickr to maintain my photos. (and makes me wonder about the wisdom of using the chronically overwhelmed audioscrobbler for even a non-critical piece of my infrastructure, especially as there seems to be no export).

New Problems, New Solutions

May 9th, 2003

If we want our network of ad-hoc access points to ever grow into something more then a quick place to check ones email, then we need a way to communicate between maintainer and user, explain the purpose of the AP, and what services are offered. The current way to do this is with NoCat or something like it, capture the users web traffic the first time they connect, and re-direct to an appropiate landing page. This is a “good enough” solution to me, but it makes Josh (who needs a blog) grumpy, as he is inclined to see slippery slopes in the darndest places.

A Lot Less Slippery?

Rob “Community Wireless” Flickenger has a better solution, use Rendezvous Zeroconf mDNS, and goes on to show how he setup service advertising on his Linux AP.

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Sourceforge, and Community Supported Projects

February 24th, 2003

I wonder what Sourceforge’s cost per project is? Obviously it varies. I’m sure phpMyAdmin or Gaim which have been in the top 10 most active projects for the last few years, have a much high cost associated them my little project, which in turn is much more resource intensive then the hundreds of projects which died stillborn, a name, and a blurb, and nothing else. Still, I think we should be able to calculate some reasonable average, and I would be curious to know what that is.

Because I’ve been noticing that Sourceforge, particularily the CVS server, has been having problems lately, and I, for one, am worried. I think this is the time when we start looking to new models, and stop relying on rich companies’ philanthropic impulses to support our community.

Would $5/year cover it? I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $5 a year to know that I can count on SourceForge sticking around as I start to build a project’s identity around it. I might go up $10. At $15, or $20 I would have to think if it was worth it to me, as I have the ability to provide everything Sourceforge provides trivially, and I use it as a convience to

  • minimize resource consumption on my own boxes
  • because I don’t want to enable pserver, and anonymous CVS on my own boxes
  • because a Sourceforge URL lends a certain credibility, below, but definitely above,

The End of Free

“For free” is a sickness. For free is as damaging, dot-com, and capitalistic, as the ridiculously inflated prices we saw during the boom. It doesn’t respect labor, it cordons off the public into powerless consumers rather then invested users, and it doesn’t build sustainable alternatives. Now I don’t think the people behind SourceForge comes at it with much of a critique, but they’ve built an incredibly useful service that I would like to keep around.

Combatting Beginning of the End.

There are 2 problems that anybody who starts charging for a previously free service are going to encounter.

  • First, some people get huffy when asked to pay for something they had been taking for granted. Ignore them. Its temporary. They’ll adapt.
  • Much more seriously, for those of us who have been living with the web for a long time, moving to a subscription model has the unpleasant sound of a death rattle. Nothing shakes the confidence in a project more then starting to charge. You start thinking,
    “Wow, they must be hurting. If I pay them my $XX and they go out of business in 6 months, then what? I guess I should start looking for alternatives.”
    Salon is a good example of this. This sort of thinking also hurts the ability of projects to solicit donations as well.
    “They are down on their knees begging, and I would be happy to pay $XX to make sure they are here tomorrow. But unless XX,XXX faceless other users to the same, I’ve thrown good money down the drain.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, but at this point we’re skittish.

Financial transparency would help

If, for example, Sourceforge sent a note to each project maintainer saying:
  • Our annual burn rate is: $XX,XXX
  • On operating costs break down like so:
    • bandwidth
    • people
    • hardware
    • support
  • We’re doing what we can to make sure we run a tight ship, but
  • Each project costs on average: $XX.XX
  • If you’re activity profile is about 90% you actually cost more like: $XXX.XX
  • We currently have funding to run for 10 months, and if our current business model goes well, we’ll be fine.
  • But, in acknowledgement that SF has become an important public resource, we’re asking that our community come together to support us.
  • In return, we commit to making sure SF will be here for the long haul.

Some Refinements

It would be up to the folks behind SF to figure out how they need to cover their costs. But I’m inclined to say charge a flat rate per project. More popular projects are clearly serving the community, no reason to punish them for their popularity. Or if that just doesn’t make sense when you look at the numbers, break it into tiers.

Consider charging projects a flat rate for project administration services, but small bandwidth charge for website hosting.

I don’t know. Does that make sense? Am I worried needlessly? (and if so, why does CVS keep timing out?) How much would you pay?

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A Definitive URI for Books?

January 4th, 2003

Books, Conversations and Semantic Web

I like books. Alot. And I think the conversations about books that have arisen on the web are cool. Projects like Bookwatch and All Consuming turn the proliferation of personal reading lists, into a distributed web of collaborative filtering.

But I’ve got a problem. All of these systems require that a book have a uniquely identifying URI (its a sneaky back door application of the semantic web), and the ad-hoc standard that has arisen is Amazon. There are a number of compelling reasons to link to Amazon: decent information, community and proffessional reviews, and of the whole associates thing. And there are reasons not to link to Amazon, primarily I don’t want people buying their books from Amazon but from their local bookstores! Also you are: bombarded with ads for People’s magazine, Epson printers, and clean underwear, tracked and indexed, and have handed over the keys to controlling conversations about books to a single corporation who aspire to be just like Walmart, not the what I look for in a Muse.

Alternatives: In Search of a Definitive URI

Now books do have a unique identifier, their ISBN, so at some level we can be linking them across various URI schemes, and while not ideal it might be a place to start. So what else can we use?

Booksense is a possibility. Booksense is a great idea, its a coalition of independent bookstores that share reccomendations, book certificates, and a website. Unfortunately their website sucks. If I want to link to Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean, a book which is out of print, and no one in my zip code happens to be carrying it, I can’t. Booksense only display information about books in your area in a misbegotten idea to drive people locally. I’ve tried several times to talk to them about this failure of their website, that you don’t get anywhere by slamming shut the door in peoples face, but they are un-interested in listening. That and they expose the implementation of the site in their URLs ($ISBN) which does not reccomend the the longevity of their URIs.

The Library of Congress has potential with a catchy, short URL, besides being logical. But is even worse. Its slow, confusing, and does not, as far as I can tell, I expose any sort of permanent URL.

There have been interesting expirements with setting up book sites based on trackbacks, like the Book Review repository, but I don’t believe these have the potential to be the definitive URIs, more likely they will be consumers of such.

So I’m kind of out of ideas? Anybody else have a reccomendation?

In the short term it would be nice if people writing book crawlers supported Booksense as well, but I understand why they wouldn’t as Booksense is really shooting themselves in the foot. (I mentioned this idea to Bookwatch at one point, not sure what became of it)

I’ve asked Aidan to look into how much it costs to get a digital copy of books in print, but I imagine its prohibitively expensive, and not something that is feasible for a personal hobby project.

Closing Thoughts

The one positive idea I’ve thought about is, if we can come up with something good, then it would be very simple to get great penetration by adding support for it as a macro in Moveable Type, e.g. ISBN:$ISBN and auto-construct the URL.

And a final qualifier, if you see me linking to Amazon in the future, know that it is merely a recognition of their dominant position in the market place as the only decent provider of book meta-data, and not a reccomendation to buy from them.

update: could be a good book namespace, and allcosuming does support booksense, and more. see comments for details.

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