A User Perspective of Free Social Networking

The following was originally posted to the GNU social mailing list on May 2nd, 2010, under the title: A User Perspective of GNU social. How far did we go?

1.0 - Universal Access

1.1 - Device Independent

My account should be accessible via any device I happen to use: my personal computer, a public (insecure) computer, a telephone, etc.

1.2 - Platform Independent

Whether it is from a GNU/Linux OS, an Android, a Mac OS or a Windows, I should be able to access my account.

1.3 - Trust-Based Access Restrictions

When I’m using my personal computer, I expect to have the optimal security features: I know that I’m not spying on my own keystrokes, that I have my personal GPG key or SSL certificate locally and I can trust them. Hence, in that case, I get full access to all my functionalities and data.

But if I’m connecting from a public computer, I cannot give it the same trust: I’m not using my secret keys there, nor do I know if the computer is logging my keystrokes. In that case, I expect the application to ask me for a password, or an out-of-band challenge to grant me potentially harmful functionality (changing password) or data (whole contact list, personal history, etc.).

In that case, I expect the application to grant me a one-time access to the account, maybe using OTP or similar one-time authentication mechanism, that would at least ensure backward and forward secrecy for that account.

2.0 - Seamless Contact List

2.1 - Protocol Independent

When I want to send a message to my Mom, I don’t care if she’s using Facebook or XMPP or IRC or email or her phone. Although it might make sense technically to know what service is used, the user just doesn’t want to know. The application should hide all that and provide a seamless contact list.

2.2 - Support Free

So, if I have “Mom” in my contact list, she would have an email account, an XMPP account and a phone number. Even a snail mail address could work, provided the application is hooked up to a postal mail delivery service.

Imagine I want to send her a message on that video I made last evening. It comes with a comment, and the video file attached. When I hit “send”, the system can match my preferences for that contact (rather xmpp than sms, rather html mail than text, etc.), the perceived urgency for that message (it’s urgent, I need her to approve it before i can propagate it to the rest of the family), and according to my contact’s delivery settings (as I’m her son, my messages are doubled to email and SMS, but as she’s hiking in the mountains, only email delivery is available at that point).

And the message is sent through the different media, according to simple rules: the message being too long for SMS, the title is sent along with a link to the rest of the message, including the video. The email receives the whole thing, except the video, 240MB, is not attached, but linked. Etc.

2.3 - Synchronous And Asynchronous

My contact list should cover both synchronous (e.g. chat) and asynchronous (e.g. email) contacts, with easy merge capability (the machine might not know how to recognize Hellekin from HK or HOW or Hellekin O. Wolf, but the user will know and make the link. So, the contact list would include a unique identifier across the network (what PSYC calls the Uniform Name Location AKA UNL, or UNI, or Uniform), the different associated endpoints (online services, IRC, XMPP, PSYC, email, phone, etc) including sending/receiving rules for that contact, with sensible defaults (huge attachments stripped from emails, no attachment to the phone, “preferred” mean of contact, etc.)

3.0 - Seamless Data

3.1 Local & Remote Are Obsolete

I don’t want to “synchronize” my bookmarks. Instead, I want to access them all at once, from Delicious or from my local browser, from my FTP server and that other app where I share bookmarks with my friends.

I don’t want to “upload” or “download” files. Instead, I want to be able to select files on my local computer and drag’n’drop them to my chat window so that a torrent is automagically created and shared among that group.

3.2 - Raw Data vs. File Formats

People don’t care about the file format, it’s a techie issue. What we want is seamless integration of raw data. If I stumble upon a text online, I want to be able to select part of it, include it in some “box” and share that box with others. For example, that could take the form of an RDF description of all the sources used to compose that new document. But at this point, from the user perspective, the technical implementation doesn’t make sense.

That approach breaks free from a paradigm that has been dominating the computing world so far, that exposes the data type, and especially the file format, which is completely irrelevant to the user: she doesn’t deal with MP3 or OGG, with JPEG or PNG, with MKV or DIVX, but with sound, images and video.

I think the current approach to exposing technical details to the user inherits from the legacy of proprietary software, where a proprietary format appears as a brand, a differentiator on the market. When dealing with free software, the file format is only a technical fact/constraint, and does not bring any value-added to the user.

4.0 - Memory, Intimacy, Privacy

4.1 - The Social Network as Extended Memory

Within the vision of McLuhan that tools are extensions of the human (e.g. a hammer is an extension of the hand, a shoe an extension of the foot), and John Licklider’s (and others) view of the computer as a mind-amplifier tool, we can consider the computer as an extension of the mind. It helps us keep track of a lot of details that our memory would filter out, such as precise dates, re-occurrences of events, etc.

One of the most private things is memory. Humans have a right to keep that to themselves, and in fact, what’s on your mind is inaccessible to anyone else unless you chose to share it.

The explosion of social networking makes available a lot of that to other people, including services that you’re using to distribute your private data to your friends. Until now, the drive to share has got the priority over the drive to keep things private: the tools provided makes it easy to share, and most social networking services rely on the possibility to aggregate data and filter it to expose patterns, and create detailed profiles of a person’s behavior, that has a lot of value for marketers (and intelligence agencies).

4.2 - The Right To, and Necessity of Intimacy

Most people don’t care too much about privacy, as they’re told that if they don’t do anything wrong, they don’t have anything to fear or hide, and that if you have something to hide, it’s probably because it’s wrong. Of course, this is a fallacious argument. If you look at it closely, you’ll find out that the people promoting transparency of your data are the first ones to use secrecy. Transparency of public and market data is important, respectively, for democracy and fair competition. But opacity of private data not only protects the citizens from abusive governments, but also proceed from a natural need for privacy and intimacy (think about toilets.)

4.3 - Building Memory for the Future

When you don’t have control over your data, you take the risk of losing your intimacy, as well as your memory. The time passed in front of a computer, or online, is growing. It’s important to realize that for many, sharing that intimacy online also builds their memory for the future, to share with their grand-kids…

That aspect of social networking, that you open the intimacy of your mind to others, should be emphasized.

1 Like