Social Media

I wanna hold your hand

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Networks of friends, or at least people that know each other, seem to be very popular lately – I had two invitations yesterday to two different ‘friends’ networks. While I appreciate the thought and the invitation – I really do – I declined both; not because I don’t care for the people, but because I don’t care for these networks.

(Not the least of which was because of the increased spam email I started receiving after joining Friendster.)

AKMA also doesn’t care for these networks, but this is primarily because he sees them as a dating service; though I’m sure that Margaret supports his explorations into social software, there is a limit to how far one takes one’s explorations.

(That’s also one of my objections, though I’m not married. Since my experiences with online relationships of a tender nature haven’t been very positive, I’m also not interested in anything to do with meeting people online for purposes of ‘romance’. If I’m going to meet a lemon, I prefer to see the peel upfront.)

AKMA has, however, created his own FOAF file, starting out with people he knows already have a FOAF file of their own, such as my own. I’ve also added AKMA to mine, using the Add a New Friend tool.

FOAF, or Friend-of-a-Friend is an RDF vocabulary that allows you to provide some basic information about yourself, such as a a photo and a primary web site. It also allows you to document who you know, and connect with their FOAF files if they have them, in a loose network of associations.

FOAF is one of the older RDF Vocabularies, but one that the creators have been quietly working with for a couple of years. Now, though, as the creators are finding, there’s a whole new level of interest in FOAF. The spotlight is on, time for FOAF to dance.

What are some of the uses of FOAF? Well, Technorati has recently added the technology to incorporate a FOAF profile for your weblog, as you can see from my Cosmos links. If you look down the list you’ll see photos of some folks – these are photosof people who have claimed their weblogs via the new Technorati profile system. However, the photos are not pulled from the FOAF file but must be uploaded separately, which is why you’ll see my photo linked into my FOAF file, but not into Technorati.

Cool use of technology, but what good will it be? Well, that’s the million dollar question now – what good is all of this going to be?

From a technology perspective, the more that FOAF is used to identify a ‘person’ in all of our technologies and vocabularies, the better we’ll be at pulling together information from various sources. Right now, if we add FOAF author information to syndication feeds, we could tie together the syndication feed information for a person in their profile within Technorati or any other aggregator. If we add FOAF information to a person’s comments, we could then pull together a chain of information such as the following:

Shelley Powers

aka Burningbird


Has linked to the following people in the last 48 hours:
Has written the following entries in the last 48 hours:
Has written the following comments in the last 48 hours:

And the list goes on and on – who do I know? How do I know them? What have I said, and where?

If you’re salivating from a pure information point of view, or from a technology point of view, I would hope at this point that you’re hesitating from a purely social and privacy perspective – because the easier we make this information to access, the less privacy we have. There’s a cost to this information being readily available.

When I added Talkback, the feature that allows you to see what a person has said in previous comments here, there was some discomfort associated with this. Now take this and consider the possibility that all comments you make in all online media – weblogs, usenet, Yahoo Groups, even IRC – can be tracked and gathered back to you, in one little spot. All through the innocent device of putting together a little XML into a FOAF file. Think it won’t happen? The implementation of this is trivial – all it will take is for FOAF to be enabled at each spot, and with the FOAFbot, it already exists for the IRC community.

Perhaps this is a good thing, you say. After all, if a person wants to be anonymous in some comments, they shouldn’t use their real name. The thing, though, is that IP addresses are captured with most of this information. If you comment at this MT weblog using this IP address, and this information is included in a syndication feed, then anywhere else this IP address is used that day will be tracked back to you. There is little anonymity on the Net other than that originally provided by fragmentation. Bring out the glue and kiss your privacy good-bye.

Shadows of Ashcroft and the Patriot Act aside – after all, this only applies in the States, and none of us are very important, so nobody cares about us, right? – there are other social implications.

For instance, FOAF has a verb that defines how you are acquainted with a person – knows. The reason the vocabulary only has the one verb is that there is no ‘value’ judgement attached to this, and hopefully no cause for hurt feelings. But new extensions change all that, and add the nuances that may end up biting us in the butt.

How close am I to these people? Who is a ‘good’ friend’ as compared to an acquaintance? Who do I trust…and why? When I say in my FOAF file that I consider a person a ‘good friend’, how do I feel when I read in their FOAF file that they only consider me an acquaintance?

Add a Friend adds friends, but how do I delete them?

Think you can control the FOAF information? Think again. What happens when someone finds an old photo of me online and attaches it to my ‘knows’ record in their FOAF file? How about if they do the same with my phone numbers? My job? My home address? This is perfectly legitimate – I don’t have to be the one to add the information about myself, others can do this for me, about me, and it validates as ‘good’ FOAF, good RDF/XML.

How about if I had a young daughter who goes online and creates a FOAF file. New extensions being talked about discuss adding in age, movements, clubs, and social organizations – want all this information online about your young, pretty, innocent little girl or boy?

Heck with that – do want this information online about yourself?

Remember that FOAF is nothing more than a vocabulary, serialized in XML. There is no gatekeeper with it. None. Then the question becomes – How do I delete myself from all these systems once my information is dispersed far and wide?

(More at Practical RDF.)

Update: Wanna bet I get a ’stop energy’ label attached because I brought up these questions?

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