Scrogues Converse: Open-space, Identity and the Missing Web

Scrogues ConverseScrogues Converse is our new feature where scrogues engage in informed discussion of fringe topics fast approaching from the grey fog behind you. In our first conversation Martin Bosworth and Gavin Chait discuss the nature of Open-source vs Open-standards and the way in which Web 2.0 is not so much re-inventing the web as in repeating the past at a higher level.

Does Web 2.0 undermine net neutrality?

Gavin: I feel that net neutrality is being undermined by all the new upstarts; from Facebook to Digg to WordPress. My issue is this: closed-standards, like all the Web 2.0 platforms, seem a step backwards rather than a step forwards. Try and imagine if Google declared that henceforth Gmail subscribers could only email other Gmail subscribers? They’d go bang in a week.

Yet, that is precisely how Facebook, Digg, WordPress, etc all operate. I need new login addresses – new identities – for every single Web 2.0 ap. Yet I only need one email address to contact anyone via email anywhere in the world. Various initiatives (like Identity 2.0) aimed at reducing this complexity seem merely to reinforce it.

It is this very lack of open-standards that reduces the long-term power of all the new Web 2.0 companies. They make it a choice. You have to give up your old blog to come and use the new system. You have to give up your old friends on MySpace and make new ones on Facebook. I can change my service provider any time and keep my email address. No compromise necessary and it improves service levels and expands the market, since I don’t mind making a bad initial choice when I can change my mind later. Try changing your mind about S&R’s blog platform choice now …

This is so much like dotcom bubble 1 that I continue to be amazed that no-one notices.

Martin: I know that LJ, at least, utilizes OpenID, but I do agree that lack of compatibility across platforms is a severe hindrance for people that want to establish cohesive online identities for themselves all over “teh Intar wubs.” 🙂 I’m on several different social networking hubs (LJ, Orkut, LinkedIn) and have different accounts for each, PLUS my various e-mail addresses and blogs I do. It’s a pain in the ass.

As a privacy advocate, I can understand the need for security that a walled garden approach supports, but I also think it has a lot to do with the incipient social stratification and layering between different sites. Did you read Danah Boyd’s article about the class distinctions between MySpace and Facebook, wherein the former is considered “gutter” and mostly for use by musicians, porn stars, and generally non-white, trashy types, and the latter is where the “good” people go? Fascinating stuff. Check out this Guardian article about it.

Gavin: I read Danah Boyd’s article a few weeks ago and got angry about it. The thing I enjoy about the internet is its flatness. So I am perturbed by indications of the creation of a classed society by all the miscreants who claim that this is precisely what they don’t want. I don’t believe them. Digg and Reddit are now owned by the same company yet, to read the missives between them, they’re on different continents.

Martin: I don’t think that it’s unwanted, per se, but more of the inevitable truth that human irrationality and tribalist impulses will create class distinctions even in the flattening, no-one-knows-you’re-a-cocker-spaniel world of the Internet. People will associate with whom they feel comfortable, and even in the delimiting world of the Internet, human nature is not so easily overcome.

There’s a positive side to this, however, individual communities can block out a unified identity, but it also frees you to create distinctive identities that fit each community. The Martin Bosworth who blogs on S&R is not quite the same person who blogs on Private Intelligence; we have different topic focuses and different approaches, so we present different identities to the reader (not consciously, but that’s the perception). Jim Harper of the CATO Institute very insightfully pointed out that Web 2.0 is simply the latest flowering of the Internet’s power to “decouple” your “meatspace” identity from your Internet presence; a concept as old as Gibson’s “Neuromancer.”

I had someone call me all kinds of names for getting into a flamewar with them over anti-gay comments they made in a public forum. To their perception, I was everything they said I was and worse, even if it was inaccurate in fact. 🙂 They knew only what they saw, and even after I copiously pointed out that I was not a troll and a hypocrite for calling them out, they did not buy it. Perception is all.

Are multiple independent identities a security feature, or just schizophrenic?

Gavin: Oh, sure, it allows one to explore parts of oneself. You can even go completely psycho from the privacy of your own home if you wish. A friend of mine – in her 50s – enjoys playing a teen vamp and picking up boys all over Second Life. But having all sorts of different identities doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to co-ordinate them all from one place. That can’t be a privacy issue. Surely having numerous gates to the same place (i.e. me) is worse than one? It makes spam worse, for starters, since there is more than one way to get hold of me, more than one password (rather than a single, very robust system).

Martin: Security specialists go round and around about this. For me, a decentralized, localized, multilayered target is much harder to attack than a single centralized target. And spam is so easily dealt with these days that many people simply disregard it and move on. Believe it or not, not everyone necessarily wants the world to know they write Harry Potter/Jack Sparrow slash fic on their LJ. 😉 And that’s their right. It’s their personal space to share – and NOT share – as they wish.

Control is key. If I choose to share my lurid gossip with the world, making all of my journal entries public and unfiltered, I must accept that I will lose some expectations of privacy. But if I explicitly lock some content for certain viewers only, my expectation of privacy should be assured.

Gavin: And I’m in agreement. Your privacy should be entirely yours to control. But we do have to discuss convenience. The more services that come out, and the less they communicate across common standards and platforms, the harder it gets to keep track of which identity you’re using and where. When you go shopping do you prefer having a separate credit-card for each store, and carrying hundreds of them, or do you prefer to have one you can use everywhere? When you phone someone would you like to have a different phone for each network provider? One for Verizon so you can call your Verizon friends, another for AT&T, another for Vodafone.

Martin: The more credit cards you have, the more at risk you are for ID theft and fraud, but one of the downsides of the credit system is that “thin credit file” consumers sometimes have to apply for gas cards, boutique store cards, etc. just to build a history. Merely making that point. 😉

Bear also in mind that wireless carriers in the United States regularly lock down and disable interoperable features of phones to ensure you cannot port your phone with you if you change providers. It’s a horrible state of affairs and completely anti-competitive, and it has had the side effect of conditioning people to accept “walled gardens” for many features of their technological life.

Gavin: Which means that there is clearly a competitive advantage in dropping those walls. Basic business strategy has always said that the easier one makes it to arrive or leave, then the lower the switching cost – that’s why your network carriers put up the walls in the first place. But there is a further set of analyses that says, if the walls are high, then people often behave in ways that go against your objectives. They fight you. So illegal immigrants in the US have such a hard time getting in that they choose not to go home at all. If it were easier to get work permits to get in, then more would be happier to go home in-between jobs. The same goes for switching costs. If it is really difficult to leave then, once a person makes the choice to leave your company, they will NEVER return.

But that misses the point about the web. It’s always easy to leave, but it is really hard to set up a new account and recreate your network. So why does every web 2.0 brand have a different, inherently dodgy, login system? Why are they all distinct from each other? Why can’t I link my LiveJournal, WordPress, and Joomla blogs together? They’re all open-source projects? Why the hell don’t they communicate with each other?

Open-source might be free, but open-standards allows communication between competitors

Martin: I don’t think any of this was intentional by design, but each of the groups you mention is specifically out to ensure you stay within their community. The upside of decentralized closed communities is that it enables the user to create their own identity to fit each community, and enables them more control over their individual Internet identity footprint.

Sam started Scholars & Rogues because he was frustrated with LiveJournal’s detachment from the larger blog political community, which is completely valid and fair. Yet I find many a LiveJournal quoted and linked to in a wide variety of blogs and just as many topics. These users have enabled themselves to be found, and their communications have reached beyond LJ’s closed niche. For better AND worse.

Gavin: Blogging fits entirely within my point. It’s easy to link within blog platforms, but across platforms is harder. I’d like to keep a common identity across blogs I comment in of similar interest. I don’t want to have to create whole new identities to comment at Huffington Post, Daily Kos, or any of the other blogs I don’t necessarily write for but may comment on regularly. I want my comments to connect to my blog – to create a consistent personality.

My greatest gripe with the instinctive anti-business / anti-commercial edge of Web 2.0 is that they completely neglect that real market growth comes from open-standards not open-source technology. Open-standards ensure that everyone has access to a common understanding of how something should work. Phones would never have caught on if there hadn’t been a standard set of protocols that allow different brands of phone and different networks to interact. People would bitch like hell if they had to carry multiple phones to solve this issue. But multiple systems for social networking seems just fine. Of course I want to spend hours building up a network on one platform and then watch another one become popular and be unable to move my network across. Sounds like a great idea.

Martin: Think about this, Gavin: each network has a niche that it fills, and you build your identity footprint to fit in that niche. There’s been talk that Facebook (which was originally only for college students; as “walled garden” as you can get) is overtaking LinkedIn as the premier destination for business networking. Now, while Facebook may be the superior product when it comes to social networking that leads to business opportunities, LinkedIn is still the market leader when it comes to specific business networking. Why would I move my identity somewhere when I can build and define my niche in the locale that it’s best suited for?

Put more simply, if I want to find college friends, I’ll use Facebook (or MySpace, God forbid). If I want business connections, I’ll use LinkedIn. Each one serves a particular need, and the other is not – or should not – trying to be something it’s not. To all these rules, there are exceptions. I had a college buddy find me on LinkedIn, and I’ve found business interests in LiveJournal, but their prime design remains the same.

Gavin: How about simply a set of open-standards – plugs, if you like – that allow third party “bridges” to collect information you allow and you can choose what gets sent where. Then you can spend ages developing a comprehensive set of data on yourself and simply port it to the platform you want to use. So your business info goes to LinkedIn, your college info to Facebook, your curriculum vitae to Monster, and your mad fantasies about hair-nets and blue rinse to the granny forum on LJ. To me this would create a real “neutral” platform and make it easier for all.

Net-neutrality seems aimed at the standard “bad-guys”; people like AT&T or Microsoft but at least they signed up to open-standards. You can leave their platforms and still connect to your mates who stayed behind. But it works both ways. If they clean up their act it’s just as easy to go back.

Screaming from the public gallery

Martin: They only did this thanks to lots of regulation and screaming from the public, mind you. 🙂 AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy were the same in the Internet’s early days. It took outside forces to push people beyond their particular networks, and many people STILL use AOL’s system alone for their Internet needs. More power to them if that’s what makes them happy.

Gavin: Of course it takes screaming from the public. Hi, everyone, I’m a member of the public and I’m screaming.

Anyone remember the Search Engine wars? How about SixDegrees? How many of the incumbents from, Digg, Furl, Reddit, Newsvine, StumbleUpon, Simpy, Fark, Backflip, Wink, Spurl, LinkaGoGo, Mister Wong, Netvouz, Magnolia, Diigo, Blue Dot, Segnalo, Tailrank, RawSugar or any other I may have left out are going to survive? And what happens to all the effort to the one you put in if it fails?

Martin: Honestly, half of those names you mentioned will die on the vine if they have not already done so, or be bought by larger companies and instituted into the corporate approach. I don’t feel obligated to sign up to EVERY single search/social network/Web 2.0 gadget that comes down the pike, because I have crafted an individual identity that suits my needs. People will use the market to decide what they want and don’t want. Google is king because it was easy to use and free. FARK is king because the content is hysterical and user-contributed. is king because … well, actually, it got bought by Yahoo and now it’s not nearly as user-friendly and intuitive in the current iteration. 😉

You have the power to decide where you want to build your online identity. I agree that the option for a cross-platform interoperable accessibility should exist; BUT this should only be an option, not the standard.

13 replies »

  1. Will the Internet be an evolution from “tragedy of the commons,” through Lockean property rights as a regulatory mechanism, and onto entrepreneurial grasping for power?

    “Tragedy of the commons” results from overuse and diffuse opportunism. The currently fashionable solution to the perceived difficulty is privatization rather than government regulation. However, despite cries of free trade, once the right to govern is granted to a corporate personhood, any gatekeeper assumes a disposition more commonly associated with the Freemont Troll.

    The new tragedy is that, at the expense of many, the commons becomes a fiefdom for the benefit of those few able to corner the market. In turn, they decide what can be said, when it can be said, by whom it can be said, and at what price.

    The power of propaganda – a license to spread the lie of the day without recrimination – is one of the three cornerstones of tyranny. In the eyes of the tyrant, those who know too much, or those who want to know more than they should, are threats that must be controlled. A craftily designed market mechanism can be as censorious as either a repressive religion or rampaging book burners.

    When the right to be heard, or even the right to be informed, is determined by the depth of one’s pockets or by being a toady, the days of free speech, free press, freedom to associate, and freedom to dissent are history. Any subsequent clicking of heels will not be the sound made by a little girl wanting to get back to Kansas!

  2. What the hell is all this reasoned discussion crap? You two are never going to get your own television show if you can’t give us more drama than this. 🙂

  3. We thought we’d start gently and then get on to discussions of the planned economy next time. Plus, I’m waiting for my bullet-proof vest to get back from the cleaners.

  4. Martin was amusing…Lord knows what he is like in real life considering his multi on line personalities. 🙂

    Writes like a genuine nice guy on S & R.

  5. Sam,

    If you feel comfortable typing one-handed, you’re more than welcome to be the first to test that theory. 😉

  6. This “reasoned discussion” was dramatic in its passion. Even better, it was fascinating and easy to understand for a non-techy like myself.

    Thanks, Martin and Gavin.

    Regarding the social networking. . . It’s so time-consuming registering and loggin on to all these sites, that I only use three. They cancel each other out in that way.