UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Archive for January, 2008

IWMW 2007 – Call For Proposals

Posted by Brian Kelly on 28 January 2008

This year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW 2008) will be held at the University of Aberdeen on 22-24th July 2008.

The theme of this year’s event is “The Great Debate“. The event will provide an opportunity for members of the institutional Web management community to engage in discussions regarding the future of institutional Web services, particularly in a Web 2.0 environment. Can externally hosted services, as some suggest, replace some of the services currently provided in-house or is such out-sourcing dangerous for institutions, placing a reliance on unproven technologies and unsustainable business models?

As well as the lively debates on the role of Web 2.0, the IWMW 2008 event will also provide an opportunity to reflect on the formative years of the institutional Web management community and to discuss how the community sees itself developing during its teenage years.

The call for speakers and workshop facilitators for IWMW 2008 is now open. We encourage submissions which will contribute to the debates of the future of our Web services, including plenary talks (perhaps providing institutional case studies which describe changing approaches to the provision of Web services) and workshop sessions which provide an opportunity for more interactive and participative activities. And, as always, we also welcome proposals on other topics which may be of interest to or relevant to members of institutional Web management teams and facilitate sharing of best practices.

Details of the call are available on the IWMW 2008 Web site. Note that the deadline for submissions is 29th February 2008.

Posted in Events, iwmw2008 | 1 Comment »

Who Should Own The Social Networks?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 23 January 2008

“With friends like these …”

The Guardian recently featured an article entitled With friends like these … which Josie Fraser described as “a blistering critique of Facebook“. The article not only laid into Facebook but also social networks and communications technologies more generally. And, as can be seen from the concluding paragraph: “I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It’s free, it’s easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it’s called talking.” the author also seems to want to reject a whole raft of technologies including the telephone and letter-writing!

Josie has written a critique of the article entitled Facebook: Neo-con social experiment? in which she responds to each of the points Tom Hodgkinson made in his article. I would very much agree with Joan Vinall-Cox‘s comment: “Thanks so much for your rebuttal of Hodgkinson’s points“.

Rather than revisiting this particular debate, however, I would like to pick up on a point made by Frances Bell in her post on Tom Hodgkinson’s rant on (or should I say about?) Facebook. Frances commented that she “found Tom’s article to be quite informative in parts but tiresomely Luddite in other part“. Frances main point was that the issue that needs to be debated was the ownership of social networks and the related privacy issues. She picked up on the comment that “By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States .. [which may be shared] with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies“.

I feel that, along with Josie and Frances, social networks can be beneficial to our social, work and learning activities. And I would agree that there is a need to address these issues of ownership. Indeed I feel that this topics should be included as one of the topics in my recent call for a Web 2.0 debate.

Who should own the social networks?

So who should own the social networks which large numbers of our society are now using? Currently the popular social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace are commercial services with, put simply, a remit to make money for the owners. And it is this commercial aspect which is causing concerns for many in the educational and wider public sector – and not just those who have doubts concerning the benefits of social networks, but also those who feel social networks can be beneficial to society in a variety of ways.

But if we have concerns that such services may be owned by large companies (such as, in MySpace’s case, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp or, with Facebook, part ownership by Microsoft) or the uncertainties or private ownership (with Tom Hodgkinson’s article pointing out the links the venture capitalists have with the Republican party and the CIA), who should own the social networks? And as a follow-up, how realistic may such hopes be and how would a transition from private ownership actually occur?

The initial response may be that the government should own social networks. But (a) is this really desirable and (b) is it realistic? I would suggest that if social networks were provided by a government agency that the concerns over links with security forces would be of greater concern than they are at present. And can we really envisage, in the UK, a Gordon Brown government nationalising social networks? It’s not going to happen, is it?

Perhaps our organisations should run social networks for the employees? But surely an important aspect of social networks are the communications with people outside one’s host institution? And the notion that JISC could provide a social network for the higher and further education community could be difficult in working with groups outside that community and would probably fail to address the informal aspects of social networks which, it has to be admitted, have proved popular (although I’ve not played Scrabulous on Facebook, I know many people who have).

And we also have to ask ourselves whether the user community would actually be willing to use social networks which are provided by our organisations. How easy, for example, might it be to be critical of the organisation if the organisation owns the communications channels and is responsible for the rules and policing such rules?

The OCLC report on Sharing, Privacy and Trust in our Networked World, which I posted about recently, provided some interesting data which suggested that end users aren’t as concerned about privacy as we professionals think they should be (no surprise there) but, more surprisingly, they seem to be more willing to make their personal data available on commercial services (they understand that such data is needed to provide the services they find useful and, perhaps, younger people are more accepting of capitalist motivations than those of us who remember when the word ‘socialism’ was used at Labour Party conferences and can complete the phrase “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, …”).

The need for realism

It’s nice to be in opposition – all you need to do is to complain about things and suggested uncosted solutions, with no need to develop deployment strategies. But I think we need away from our comfort zone.

In particular we need to ask how social networks will be funded – such issues are raised in the context of commercial services, with some people suggesting that Facebook isn’t economically sustainable in the long term. But, if they’re not provided by the commercial sector, how would they be funded? And this question has particular relevance in light of the announcement made shortly before Christmas that Curverider were closing the Eduspace social networking service as ”Running a community takes a lot of time and hard work, which we have no longer been able to give EduSpaces, and in that light, it seems both unfair and unwise to keep the site going” (although subsequently a Canadian not for profit company has announced that it will now host the service).

Calling for the government funding (which really means calling for extra taxes) is unlikely not only for political reasons, but also in light of the recent shocks in the global financial markets, as described on the BBC News site:

… huge declines in shares across Asia and Europe on Monday, with London’s benchmark FTSE 100 suffering its biggest one day fall since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, gripped by fears of a US recession.

To revisit the questions which I feel need to be answered:

  • Who should own the social networks?
  • Should ownership of social networks be any different from other software services we use in our institutions (including VLEs such as Blackboard, Web 2.0 services such as Flickr or  blogging services such as Edublogs Campus)
  • How should a transition to a change of ownership take place?
  • How realistic is the transition strategy?
  • How do you know what this is what the users actually want?
  • How will social networking services be funded under alternative ownership resources? And if the answer is increased taxes, how will you get that past the Daily Mail readership which seem to be influential in informing policy discussions for both the Labour and Conservative parties?

And if you manage to solve this issue, perhaps you could suggest how we could reclaim our football teams from ownership of billionaires from the US, Russia and Thailand whilst, of course, still ensuring that you team gets into the Champions League (local self-made billionaires are probably acceptable).

Posted in Social Networking | 13 Comments »

Is Pownce The Answer?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 22 January 2008

In the recent discussion about Twitter there was a feeling, from some, that it wasn’t well-suited for discussions. Indeed Andy Powell commented:

i think you are right to question whether using Twitter for one-to-one or few-to-few conversations is the right approach. i (eventually) stopped Twittering on Friday cos it felt like we were mis-using it.

And yet a few minutes ago I smiled at the following comments from Andy, Paul Miller and Pete Johnston:

andypowe11 The moment i wake up / before i put on my makeup / i tweet a little tweet for you … from im Icon_star_empty

paulmiller @andypowe11 – makeup?

PeteJ @paulmiller: (senior staff)

Brilliant! I have to admit, I enjoy Pete’s witticisms. But if on Twitter you follow Pete or Paul but not Andy, you’ll miss the context and just get the two of them talking about make-up with the reference ot the Aretha Franklin song.

The pithy one-liners are useful, I feel, but I’m not convinced that Twitter is the best tool for this.

But also on today’s Twitter feed I received an announcement from TechCrunch saying that Pownce is now open to subscription, after a closed testing period. The Pownce About me page states that:

Pownce is a way to send stuff to your friends. What kind of stuff? You can send just about anything: music, photos, messages, links, events, and more. You can do it all on our web site, or install our lightweight desktop software that lets you get out of the browser.

Now isn’t our requirement to send stuff (witticisms, jokes and useful snippets of information)? Time for experimentation, I think. And it might be useful to subscribe quickly – before your preferred user id is taken.

Posted in Twitter | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Twitter Friday

Posted by Brian Kelly on 21 January 2008

The Background

Friday turned out to be a day of experimentation with Twitter for myself and some of my Twitter friends including Andy Powell, Pete Johnston, Paul Miller, Owen Stephens and Josie Fraser.

Friday actually began with an email discussion with fellow members of the Internet Librarian International advisory group over the theme for the conference. I expressed some reservations that the suggestions, which focussed on tangible benefits and return on investment, although important, could detract from the needs for experimentation and intangible benefits. I feel these points were accepted, and the conference organisers will shortly be announcing details of this year’s conference.

In contrast, the discussions held on the Twitter micro-blogging service appeared to cast me in an alternative role in which I argued the need for guidelines on best practices to support use of Twitter. In response I received tweets (Twitter posts) along the lines of “The day we have best practice for Twitter will be the day I stop using it!” and “Global order is …boring. And massively unhelpful, sometimes“. So is it time to start developing guidelines or is it too early and will such attempts stifle innovation?

Facebook Status DisplayI feel that there are some areas in which mistakes can easily be made and everyone would benefit from understanding the problems and solutions. One good example comes from Owen Stephens’ recent experiences in trying to integrate his Facebook statuses with his Tweeter posts. As Owen describes on his blogWhat I actually wanted was to allow Twitter to update Facebook AND Facebook to update Twitter“. As can be seen from the image, this had an unfortunate side-effect – if you try and do this in both direction, you get a loop.

Architectural Issues

That was a simple and easily understood and easily resolved problem. But on Friday the Twitter discussions led to aspects of the Twitter architecture which may be more difficult to resolve. Although a tweet may be a very simple resource, based on up to 140 characters, possibly including a hyperlink, tweets may have dependencies now only on the Twitter service, but also on the service used to provide the short force of URLs which are often needed to keep to the 140 character limit. So an individual tweet may have a dependency on two services, and if the TinyURL service is not as sustainable as Twitter in the long run, it may not be possible to resolve the hyperlinks. A problem, then, if future generations feel that Twitter records provide useful information on the topics we are talking about today. This is an area of concern which has already been identified in the blogging community, with one blogger having posted on URL Shorteners List and Why It’s a Mistake for Twitter.

And as we look at the different ways in which Twitter can be used, we can spot other limitations in its architecture. Most tweets I have encountered use the Tinyurl.com service but the client I use, Twitteroo, uses the Rurl service: multiple dependencies on URL resolutions, then.

Such concerns may be legitimate, but they are not specific to Twitter: these issues simply reflect the complexities of a Web 2.0 environment. Perhaps of greater interest to the majority of Twitter users and potential users are the ways in which Twitter is being used.

Twitter Usage

Andy Powell recently drew attention to his Twitter followers in a tweet which pointed out that the emerging usage pattern amongst his Twitter friendswas infringing the Twitter Ten Commandments. In particular I think it’s fair to say that we were using Twitter like a private chat room. As I have 80 followers and follow 38 others (Andy has 92 followers and is following 120, Pete has 21 followers and is following 24, Paul has 186 followers and is following 182, Josie has 227 followers and is following 128 and Twitter newcomer Owen Stephens has 9 followers and is following 10 others) I would question the value of our use of Twitter for public messaging especially when most of the followers are likely to see only half of the conversation or when the messages are based on in-jokes.

I do feel that we need to start to discuss the patterns of usage, why Twitter fans find it so useful and to be able to identify potential problem which may lead to Twitter failing to be sustainable in the long term. But I also realise that it is very early days for Twitter and attempting to mandate particular ways of working may stifle innovation. And there’s a denager that focussing on Twitter’s potential in a work capacity could lead to missing out on the informal banter, jokes and discussions which can improve the quality of the work place – for example, the tweet I’ve just received from my colleague Paul Walk “off to Nottingham. No.1 Son is concerned that I don’t run into that old Sheriff….” made me smile.

I feel that the compromise position is to document experiences and encourage debate – as this post aims to do.  I also feel that it would be useful to explore ways in which Twitter can support our professional activities.

One area  in which Twitter experimentation is taking place is to support conferences. Indeed Robert HC has blogged about JISC’s plans to use Twitter to support their conference. As he describes “so that we don’t all feel mega stupid about it, the Comms team is slowly turning into Twitterers (sigh) – with the fabulous results of us now knowing if we’re sitting on trains, waiting for offspring or having slugs creep under our kitchen doors – no doubt this will all be a prelude to something more useful and productive and we are just getting used to how it works…

I think encouraging members of the organisation to use Twitter in this way is useful. It can help to gain an understanding of the issues and also of the things that can go wrong, prior to more formal use. From my experimentation, for example, I know that delivery of tweets via SMS can cause problems if there’s a lively Twitter discussion. On Friday evening, for example, I received an influx of 35 text messages – too many!

But perhaps delivery of tweets to conference delegates via SMS can be a useful  application for Twitter. In previous IWMW events we have invited delegates to provide their mobile phone numbers on the booking form, for use in case of emergencies (this decision was made after the London bombings on 7/7, which took place midway through the IWMW 2005 event). Might Twitter have a role to play as the delivery channel, I wonder?  And could this be used for other purposes (e.g. notification of changes to the programme). And I think it would be fun, after the welcoming talk which asked everyone to set their mobile phones to silent mode, to send a tweet to check that everyone has done so :-)

Your Thoughts

I’ve given some suggestions for use of Twitter in one particular context. And I’ve suggested that Twitter users need to reflect on the strengths and weakness of Twitter, but that we need to have an open debate before rolling out rules for use of Twitter – and, like others, I would be worried if organisations required editorial approval before tweets could be sent.

But we need to have the discussions.  What are your thoughts?

Posted in Twitter | 20 Comments »

Facebook Is So Last Year

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 January 2008

The Guardian’s Predictions For 2008

Facebook is so last year. It’s official – it was in the Guardian. It was back in May (2007) when John Kirriemuir picked up on the buzz which Facebook was generating, with his post Facebook: Social Networking grows up? describing how

there is now a social networking site that: (1) is based around people and their real social networks’ (2) looks quite good’ (3) isn’t full of inane people spouting inane conversation’ (4) is very easy to use and configure’ (5) has a growing number of add-ons, some with potential educational uses and (6) is expanding in terms of who is using it“.

Well with the possible exception of (3) I feel John’s predictions for Facebook were true. But Facebook is now suffering from over-exposure – there are now tutorials on use of Facebook in a library context, which illustrates how mainstream Facebook has become. The cool guys are becoming excited by a number of emerging technologies. But what are they?

The Cool New Services For 2008

The Guardian suggests Twitter will be big in 2008. I recently echoed this sentiment and I’ve also noticed that JISC are making use of Twitter and intend to use it to support the JISC 2008 conference (but note that other micro-blogging tools such as Jaiku have their fans).

Dopplr, which is also mentioned in the Guardian article, is another service I’ve been using for some time, to record details of my trips and to share this information with my contacts.

Excluding Web sites aimed at kids, the other service mentioned in the Guardian article is Seesmic.com. I’ve not yet got an account for this service, but a Techcrunch article describes how this video-like Twitter service service: “Users can upload video directly from their webcam and post it to a personal page like with Twitter. They can also grab content from other sites such as YouTube by copying a video’s url and placing it in their stream. Additionally, videos that users create can be automatically linked to in twitter (potentially other platforms) and uploaded to YouTube.

Whither Facebook?

So there are several new services to excite the early adopters. But what does this mean for Facebook? Will it face a gradual, or even sudden, demise? I would suggest that this will not be the case. Rather, like Microsoft’s operating system, office suite and Web browser, it will be a part of the infrastructure, widely used by many and having a significant role to play within organisations. But it will not be sexy. And, just like Microsoft products, it will have flaws (the annoying email messages which some Facebook apps send out seems to have parallels with Microsoft’s little-lamented dancing paper clip)  – such flaws do not necessarily lead to a downturn in a product’s usage.

So the early adopters will be excited by the new generation of micro-blogging and multi-media blogging tools. But when people start to question Twitter’s financial viability and the mass media start to speculate on how it can be misused (being used by paedophiles, perhaps) or the services which make it easy to share travel information are  used by burglars to target their house-breaking activities, it will be time for the early adopters to move on to the next generation of tools.

Or to put it another way, when the early adopters begin to distance themselves from a tool, this may be when it has progressed on the Gartner curve from the early adopters to mainstream usage.   And, for me, the mainstream usage of services is something to be welcome.

Posted in Web2.0 | 2 Comments »

UCISA Award for UK Web Focus Blog

Posted by Brian Kelly on 16 January 2008

I’m pleased to report that the UK Web Focus blog was awarded a prize by UCISA (Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association). This blog will feature as a case study which will appear in a forthcoming UCISA Innovation and Communication best practice guide to be published by the Communications, Liaison and Information Working Group of TLIG (the UCISA Teaching Learning and Information Group).

As well as the publication, UCISA is also organising an Innovation and Communication event which will feature the selected case studies. The event, which will be held on 14 February 2008 at the Coventry TechnoCentre, will also include presentations on A Blended Communication Approach (Nici Cooper, University of Wolverhampton), Hi Applicant Community website(Alison Wildish, Edge Hill University – but now based at Bath University), IT Communications (Derek Norris, University of the West of England) and The Teaching and Learning Network (Phil Riding, UCL) .

I am particularly interested in the potential of blogs for staff in IT Service departments to both engage with their user communities and for communicating with their peers in IT Service departments in other institutions. The early adopters in IT Service departments include blogs from several senior managers (Michael Webb, University of Wales, Newport, John Dale, University of Warwick and, more recently, Chris Sexton, Sheffield University) with Mark Sammons (whose In-Cider Knowledge blog was established in 2004, and has migrated to WordPress recently) providing the perspective from a member of IT Services support staff.

Last May I published a post on The First IT Services Blog? which suggested that the Core Services departtment at Edge Hill Univrersity might be the best IT Service department to have launched a blogging service. But are there now more IT Service departments who are making use of blogs to reach out to their users? And have blog policies and Web practices been established? I’d welcome feedback which I can make use of when I give my talk at the UCISA event.

Posted in Blog, Events | 8 Comments »

Is Second Life Accessible?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 14 January 2008

Is Second Life accessible to users with disabilities?  If your views on accessibility are based on compliance with guidelines (especially WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and you feel that all digital resources must be universally accessible to everyone, you may feel that an inherently graphical and interactive  environment such as Second Life is unlikely to be accessible.

Use of Second Life by user with disabilitiesIf you share such views I would strongly recommend that you watch the Wheeling in Second Life video clip which is available on YouTube (or, if you cannot access YouTube on the Tips Dr.com or DotSub services).

This video clip shows a user with cerebral palsy, Judith, using Second Life with a headwand. As Judith explains (which you can read on the transcript):

I’ve got a wheelchair in Second Life also. You can choose whether you want to be in a chair or not. You can have crutches, you can have whatever disability you have in real life in Second Life“.

In response to the question “Do you think that this will be a really useful tool for people who are unable to get around, who have problems of mobility in real life?” Judith feels that “Yes, because you can have friends without having to go out and physically find them“.

Should institutions really be developing policies which prevent use of services such as Second Life on grounds of inaccessibility?  And who will explain the reasons for such decisions to users such as Judith?

Posted in Accessibility | 11 Comments »

Standards For Data Portability

Posted by Brian Kelly on 11 January 2008

In a recent post on Should Personal Data In Facebook Be Exportable I pointed out the potential dangers of allowing data to be exported out of an environment in which access control can be managed. I have previously suggested that in 30 years time potential new leaders of political parties will have their Facebook entries trawled by the tabloid press – I didn’t expect this to happen quite so quickly, but an Australian news site has the headline Benazir Bhutto’s son targeted on Facebook and the Guardian newspaper recently discussed the ethics of using data published on Facebook to support a news story.

It is quite clear to me that the ‘data must be free and open’ line is too simplistic. And we are not in a position in which it is a simple question of social networking service providers supporting open standards. There are many important issues of gathering requirements, exploring use cases, discussing and arguing solutions, etc. which we now have a need to address. And these aren’t just issues for services such as Facebook to address – institutions be facing similar questions, especially if they provide social networking services (such as Elgg) within their institution.

So it is good to hear that there are a number of new initiatives which have been announced recently. There is the Data Portability group which, as announced on Techcrunch, Facebook, Google and Plaxo have joined recently. And, via a comment on my blog, I discovered John Breslin’s blog, in which he recently posted on DataPortability.org, web standards, SIOC and FOAF. FOAF I’m familiar with, but SIOC is new to me. SIOC (Semantically-Interlinked Online Communities Project, but also the Gaelic word for frost – there’s a convoluted explanation on the SICOC Web site) does seem interested and there a SIOC tutorial has been accepted for the WWW2008 conference.

John’s post concludes:

It’d be great if we can get some of the DataPortability.org people to come to the WebCamp workshop on Social Network Portability in Cork in March.

I do feel there is a pressing need for institutions to engage in the development of approaches for data portability. The relevant open standards aren’t available yet and, as many have argued, we will face difficulties in the future if we continue to grow large-scale walled gardens. Are there any readers of this blog who are planning on attending this event?

Posted in Social Networking | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Tower of WS-Babel

Posted by Brian Kelly on 8 January 2008

You know where you are with standards, right?

But who remembers OSI Networking Protocols? And whatever happened to Corba?

Towers of WS-BabelAnd what is happening to Web Service standards? There was a panel session at a WWW conference a few years ago entitled “Web Services Considered Harmful” which argued that Web Service standards were too complex to be successful.

Interestingly in a recent post on Not a unicorn, nor Switzerland neither by my colleague Paul Walk he mentions that in Rail 2.0 “Significantly, the ActiveResource plugin which drops a full ReST framework into Rails is in, while the ActiveWebService functionality to support SOAP is out“.

Will then, the Web Services stack be the next attempt at standardisation which fails by striving too hard to be too clever, eventually succumbing to a babble of conflicting opinions of the next steps?

The accompanying image is available on Flickr. Is is taken from a set of images entitled The Web is Agreement. It was put together on behalf of Osmosoft for a BT Open Source Awareness Event to promote discussion on Open Source and standards.

Towers of WS-Babel by psd, Some Rights Reserved

Posted in Web Services | 2 Comments »

Should Personal Data In Facebook Be Exportable?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 7 January 2008

On 2nd January 2008 I described various recent improvements to Facebook. I also pointed out that the research community has been developing tools for exporting data from Facebook for use in other applications. However my post added a note of caution:

Has the problem of data being trapped within Facebook now been solved? I don’t think so – remember that this is an experimental prototype … Perhaps more interestingly, though, are the ethics of exporting personal data to other applications.  The data I have received from my friends (their photos, contact details, interests, etc.)  has only been made available once we have mutually accepted friendship invitations.

Coincidentally the next day the blogosphere was full of discussions on this very topic, following an announcement (made initially on Twitter) that Robert Scoble had been banned from Facebook for using a scraping tool for exporting data from his Facebook account (“I got kicked off of Facebook because I was running a naughty script trying to get my friends info off of Facebook“).

Paul Miller and Nick Carr (“Scoble: freedom fighter or data thief?“) were amongst many bloggers who expressed their views on this incident in the immediate aftermath of this announcement.

My view if that it would be a mistake to portray this incident as a freedom fighter taking on the big evil corporate monster. I would also question the automatic assumption that people may have that they should be able to get out and reuse data they can access in networked services.  I feel that the nature of social networking services needs us to rethink assumptions which may have been valid in self-contained systems.

For example my email address and work details are freely available (on my Web site, my email signature, my business card, etc.)  However I took a deliberate decision not to publish my Skype and my MSN IDs and my mobile phone number in order to avoid both dangers of misuse (spam) and inappropriate use (being contacted out of work hours or being inundated with messages). 

But sometimes it would be useful to provide such information to others, but in a managed fashion. I do this from time to time, giving out my mobile phone number when I’m organising events (and am speaking at an event) so that conact can be made in case of problems, In such cases there may be an implied understanding that the information is provided only on a short term basis. However such understandings which may be reached by humans will not necessarily be the case in the networked world.

On Facebook when I befriend an individual this provides us with a mechanism for sharing information, which will include contact details as well as a wide range of other information.  But, whilst this information is managed in a Facebook environment I maintain control over this information, and can change the access conditions or even, by defriending people, withdraw access to my data.  And this is an important aspect of effective social networks. 

Circumventing such access control is therefore problematic, I feel. And this was the reason why I did not publish the FOAF file containing details of my Facebook friends.

Of course there are dangers of data lock-in if data cannot be exported from systems.  And if Facebook goes out of business there will be a lot of annoyed individuals if they cannot lose functionality and services they find useful.

It needs to be acknowledged that there does need to be a debate on how we should best proceed in addressing such tensions.  But this debate does need to be informed by an understanding of the diversity of requirements.

I was very pleased, therefore, to see a news item in Facebook from Dan Brickley about a WebCamp: SocialNetworkPortability event to be held in Cork on 2nd March 2008. The event will look at “abstract approaches for social network portability”, “authentication methods for cross-SNS usage” and “giving permission for profile discovery on different social networks”.

These are some of the important issues which need to be thrashed out. And Robert Scoble’s approach of simply running a screenscraper to extract personal data ignores these important issues.  So Facebook should be applauded, IMHO, for stopping Robert from infringing Facebooks’ terms and conditions. And note that there is a Facebook aplication – Friendscsv- which allows contact details to be exported from Facebook. Aparently:

This application has been created in accordance with the terms and condition outlined in the Facebook Terms of Use (May 24, 2007), Facebook Privacy Policy (Sept 12, 2007), and the Facebook Platform Terms of Service and Platform Documentation (July 25, 2007). The data exported from your cadre of friends is obtained in accordance with their Privacy Settings and does not contain any contact information.

That sounds good. But: 

By using this application, you consent to allow the developers to create a basic entry for you on bigsight.org, a site they also own and maintain. Your use of this application represents your consent to the privacy policies laid out on bigsight.org. The developers of this application do not store any information (encrypted or otherwise) about your friends.

So a company (Bigsight) has already been set up which allows your contact data to be exported, provided the data is also uploaded to their social network. Now Bigsight is currently in beta and, according to their directory, there are only nine people from London registered.

But if a Facebook friend of mine uses this tool, will I find my personal details held on this service?  Is this something to be welcomed?  Or, to revisit the title of this post, should personal data in Facebook be exportable?

Posted in Facebook | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

When Web Sites Go Down

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 January 2008

A colleague of mine has just alerted me to the fact that the University of Southampton Web site is down for scheduled maintenance from 2-4th January 2008. She had noticed this as she regularly visits the Web site to access the wide range of resources it provides on institutional repositories (note added on 4 Jan 2008 – the Web site is now available, ahead of schedule!).

University of Southampton Web site downtime announcementThat’s no big deal, you may think, servers do need maintenance and the first few days after the Christmas break is probably the best time,with students still away and many researchers likely to take an additional few days holiday.

I’d be in broad agreement with such sentiments (I used to work in IT Services, after all, and I’m aware of the complexities of managing IT systems). But have our expectations changed, I wonder? And rather than taking time off at this time of year, what if users have imminent deadline for papers and need to access such services? And who are the users of the University of Southampton Web site – no longer just staff and students at Southampton, I would argue’ rather at prestigious institutions such as the University of Southampton there is likely to be a significant national (and indeed international) user community.

But how should we establish what reasonable practices may be in addressing user expectations of a 24×7 service availability, but without the business models to fund such requirements. Perhaps the debate can be helped by initially monitoring best practices within the community and making comparisons with other communities.

In this respect the Netcraft service can be useful, as it provides automated analyses on public Web services, including profiles on Web server software usage and server uptime data.

As can be seen from the graph, the main Web server at Southampton University has had an average uptime (based on a 90-day moving average) of 405 days. And this data compare very favourably with Sun’s data for which the equivalent figure is 34 days.

Netcraft server uptime graph for Southampton University

I suspect the University of Southampton will have a high rating with the UK HE sector for its server uptime. But, of course, that will probably not be appreciated by the user who tries to access the site on day 406 to gather data for a paper which needs to be submitted by day 407!

Is it possible (or, rather, realistic) to improve the server availability for institutional services? Should we be replicating our servers (or our data)? Should we outsource the management of our services to companies such as Amazon, as an international company such as Amazon (with their data hosting S3 service) may be better positioned to provide 24x7x365 availability?

But before responding to such questions I feel that institutions may need to ask themselves to whom they should be accountable. If institutional Web sites are now providing significant services to a global audience, how can we ensure that that global community is being provided with acceptable levels of service? After all, we ask these questions of externally-hosted Web services. But don’t we all act as externally hosted Web services to others outside our institution?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have server uptime data across all our institutions? And if the data for sector compares favourably with the commercial sector, then we will have something to be pleased with. And if the comparison is unfavourable, then this should help to inform our planning – and provide objective data to inform discussions on the relevance to our sector on services such as Amazon S3.

Posted in General | 3 Comments »

Will Twitter Be Big In 2008?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 3 January 2008

Something IS Going On With Facebook! I said back in May 2007, in response to a comment made by John Kirriemuir, after he received a sudden influx of Facebook befriending messages. That was my first inkling that what had previously been a rather dull academic network might become the major talking point of 2007.

The post came back to me yesterday after I received a similar influx of people who have have chosen to follow me on the Twitter microblogging tool. And a Techcrunch article published on 2nd January 2007 suggested that “Twitter has the potential of breaking into the mainstream this year“.

The Techcrunch article described the Twitter Stats service which provides graphs showing an individual’s use of Twitter. This is likely to be only of interest to regular Twitter users. Of more interest are the range of other Twitter applications which have been developed over the past year and the excitement which Twitter seems to be generating.

I normally use the Twitter Web site, but I have also used the Twitteroo client (illustrated) and have configured Facebook so that my Facebook status is updated by Twitter posts.

Twitteroo

But what’s new with Twitter? Looking at Techcrunch articles about Twitter it seems that the review of 2008: Web 2.0 Companies I Couldn’t Live Without includes Twitter as one of the new indispensable tools released in 2007. Another review of the year suggests that “Omnipresence was another big theme in 2007 with Twitter brining (sic) always on, always available communication to the masses … perhaps overall we’re all the richer for the networking Twitter delivers“.

The uncertainties regarding the benefits of Twitter were acknowledged in a post on Can You Spare The Odd Pea For A Good Cause?The benefits of Twitter may still be subject to heated debate amongst TechCrunch commenter’s, but very few would doubt that Twitter has created new relationships and taken social networking to new (and perhaps different) levels.” The post refers to a cause that’s hot on Twitter (Frozen Pea Friday): a Breast Cancer Awareness and fundraising day in support of well regarded blogger Susan Reynolds. Although in this case Twitter is being used by someone with a clear interest in use of Web 2.0, the way in which microblogging can be used hints at its potential for a wider audience.

A Wikipedia article provides further background information about Twitter but the Twitter-fan wiki provides a more comprehensive list of Twitter applications and ideas for how Twitter could be used. I have started to think about the potential for Hashtags to aggregate microblog posts at an (amplified) event. I was also interested to see how Brooklyn Museum is making its blog available via Twitter. And software developers might be interested in use of Twitter by non-humans.

Now what other interesting applications for Twitter might there be?  And do you feel that it will take off in 2008?

Posted in Twitter | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Facebook Is Getting Better

Posted by Brian Kelly on 2 January 2008

Whisper it, but has anybody noticed the various developments to Facebook which seems to be making it a better environment to work in?

There have been developments to the user interface, such as the Facebook status no longer has to start with “Brian is …” and messages delivered via email now contain the contents of the message, and not just the URI you have to go to in order to read the message.  Simple developments, but much welcomed by many Facebook users, I suspect.

It is also pleasing to see serious service providers providing access to their services through Facebook – just before Christmas, for example, Lorcan Dempsey commented on the availability of the Worldcat application for Facebook, which is illustrated below.

Worldcat for Facebook

The research community is also engaging with Facebook.  I have recently joined the Facebook: Academic Research group which describes itself as “A group for anyone conducting (or interested in) academic research into Facebook. This includes sociologists, computer scientists, psychologists, information scientists, computer scientists, educators, philosophers, etc.

I also noticed recently that several of my friends had joined The Semantic Web – Benefits, Education & Outreachgroup. I must admit that I was very pleased to see the pragmatic approach which is being taken by many of the Semantic Web evangelists in this group. One message addressed the question “Why create a facebook group to discuss the semantic web?” by suggesting “for the same reason tv shows are advertised on radio and tv schedules are listed in newspapers and magazines. You have to reach out to people where they are if you want to bring them somewhere new.

In this group a thread on Getting FaceBook to open up provided a link to the Facebook Foaf Generator software which has been written by Mathew Rowe, a PhD student at Sheffield University.  The Foaf Generator is “a tool that generates a Foaf file from your Facebook profile, compiled from the information that Facebook has stored about you. It also includes details about your friends, along with geographical placement of your current location or hometown“.

Visualisation of FOAF file created from Facebook dataAs someone who has written a paper which explored the potential of FOAF back in 2004 I was intrigued by the possibility of making my Facebook data available as a FOAF file and then using a FOAF application to view the data. So I installed the application and created a FOAF file of my Facebook contacts. I explored several FOAF viewers before deciding that the Tabulator widget for the Opera Web browser seemed to provide the richest interface, and a screen shot of this is shown. 

What, then, does this show? Well it does seem to be possible to extract data from Facebook and make it available for use by other applications.  

Has the problem of data being trapped within Facebook now been solved? I don’t think so – remember that this is an experimental prototype developed by a PhD student, so there can be no guarantee of the quality of the service or that it will be available on a long term basis. And one simple experiment isn’t enough to explore how sophisticated (or not) the data export capabilities are. Perhaps more interestingly, though, are the ethics of exporting personal data to other applications.  The data I have received from my friends (their photos, contact details, interests, etc.)  has only been made available once we have mutually accepted friendship invitations.  Wouldn’t making a FOAF file of such data openly available infringe the implied privacy settings?   Or to put it another way, although Facebook may be improving, could it become too open?

  

Posted in Facebook | Tagged: | 9 Comments »