Permission Taken, Silicon Valley

Learning about, and deploying IndieWeb tools

It’s the second day of the IndieWebCamp in San Francisco, where some talented tech folks are discussing, demonstrating and deploying tools designed to keep the Internet as open as possible. I’m learning a ton about things like microformats, webmention, and other useful (if, to relatively non-technical people like me, somewhat arcane) technologies.

Already, using easily deployed tools, I’m using this blog to create posts that show up on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ (I don’t use Facebook much). That’s easy because WordPress has built this kind of functionality straight into the Jetpack plugin.

What I’ve also done, using the IndieWeb plugin — created by a member of the growing community dedicated to making this all work — is to get Twitter replies and retweets to show up as comments on the blog posts. At least that was happening with a different theme; still waiting to see if it works in this one (UPDATE: it does!).

Ryan Barrett‘s work is key to this. He created something called Bridgy, which

sends webmentions for comments, likes, and reshares on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram. Bridgy notices when you post links, watches for activity on those posts, and sends them back to your site as webmentions. It also serves them as microformats2 for webmention targets to read.

As you can see if you look at the comments, it’s working nicely for me on this blog. I’m seriously blown away by what this suggests for the future of an open Internet.

I’ll be writing more about this in an upcoming Guardian column, and in Permission Taken, my new book project that’s dedicated to helping people understand the consequences of centralized technology/communications, and what we can do about it.

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Silicon Valley

WhatsApp Collects More Data than You Think

WhatsApp is a fabulous service, and may be worth the billions Facebook is paying for it. One of its best features, the company has claimed, is that it puts users first and, partly by being a paid app instead of an ad-based one, respects their privacy.

That depends on your viewpoint, I guess. Here are the permissions WhatsApp demands from its Android phone users (copied/pasted from the Google Play site):

This app has access to these permissions:

Your accounts
find accounts on the device
use accounts on the device
add or remove accounts
create accounts and set passwords
read Google service configuration
Your location
approximate location (network-based)
precise location (GPS and network-based)
Your messages
receive text messages (SMS)
send SMS messages
Network communication
receive data from Internet
full network access
view network connections
view Wi-Fi connections
connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi
Your personal information
read your own contact card
Phone calls
read phone status and identity
directly call phone numbers
Storage
modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
System tools
modify system settings
install shortcuts
uninstall shortcuts
test access to protected storage
Your applications information
run at startup
retrieve running apps
Camera
take pictures and videos
Microphone
record audio
Your social information
read your contacts
modify your contacts
Affects battery
prevent device from sleeping
control vibration
Sync Settings
read sync statistics
read sync settings
toggle sync on and off
Choose a device

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Media, Projects, Silicon Valley

Needed: A “Think Tank” for Journalism R&D

Most of the smartest people don’t work in journalism.

There’s an enormous amount of R&D going on in digital media. Most of it isn’t happening inside the news industry.

As Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, the low barrier to entry is fueling an enormous amount of experimentation. Most projects fail, but that’s a good thing, because when so many are being tried the small percentage that work will be a relatively big number.

Where is all this happening? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world. Many if not most of the valuable ideas, technologies and techniques are coming from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent — but whose work could and should be used in the journalism ecosystem.

Connecting dots

There’s a need for a new kind of initiative to help sort things out. It’s not a traditional Center or Institute.

Imagine the inverse of a big corporate R&D center, which tries to pick winners and makes relatively “safe” bets. Imagine, instead, a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques — business models as well as editorial innovations — inside and outside the journalism sphere, but mostly outside. Then they connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Who are the connectors?

They understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer. But it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people; b) recognize innovative technology and business models when they see them; and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

They appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing.

They have a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors; the ability to have an intelligent conversation with any of them; and the desire to follow the dots to wherever they lead.

They’re capable of being evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also to take risks in new areas.

Some principles of operation

  • An open process. Honor requests for NDAs prior to product launches, but the bias should be toward making everything available to anyone who’s interested. This would run contrary in many ways to the news industry’s traditional approach, but the tide is turning in a lot of shops where openness is correctly seen as an advantage.
  • Meet anyone, anywhere. Hold small news-focused workshops or mini-conferences to encourage more independent cross-fertilization. Might not be necessary given the explosion of startup camps, incubators, etc.
  • Measurement: Get the data, publish it and explore it as you go, and work with academics who are (at long last) turning to the real world for a lot of their research.

Audience/users

Traditional news organizations could really use this. I’m not saying they should stop doing their own R&D, but this would provide some better leverage for those budgets, to the extent they still exist. Only a few major organizations have what it takes to do this in-house.

Who else could use this?

Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that there are also serious business models.

Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and nonprofits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, all the better. (If newspapers can sell advertorials, uh, native content, by the bushel, why can’t they — transparently — partner with some of these other entities?)

Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use. (This includes communities of interest, not just geography, but if something useful for one it’ll almost certainly be useful to the other.)

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing. It is definitely worth the effort, because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

I recognize that those latter entities are competing with newspapers and traditional media. But my goal isn’t to see newspapers survive — much as I still love what they do when they do it well and hope they’ll survive in some form. It’s to see that whatever comes out of this messy period has value to communities, investors and everyone else in the emerging ecosystem.

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Silicon Valley

CCTV Interview

I’ve just been interviewed by CCTV (China state media) for a series on the history and future of the Internet. The questions were about Silicon Valley’s 1990s Internet bubble, media developments, and where things may be going. I’m a lot better informed about the first two than the last of those…

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Media, People, Silicon Valley

Why WordPress is so Important

This is a WordPress blog — created and maintained using the great open-source team at WordPress.org. I’m a huge fan both of the software and the people behind it.

In my latest Guardian column, pegging off the Yahoo buyout of Tumblr, I explain why WordPress matters so much, and why I hope its founders never sell out. Key quote (from Matt Mullenweg, a WordPress founder):

“We still need this platform for longer forms of self expression, and a place that people can have their own domain on the web, that really belongs to them, that they have complete control of it, all the way down to the software, the actual code executing on the server someplace in the cloud. You should be able to control every single line of that. And that’s the beauty of open source.”

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Customer Service, Silicon Valley

Facebook/Instagram Terms of Service: Bad for You

A reporter just asked me what I thought of the — to put it mildly — controversial new terms of service at Instagram. Here’s what I said:

First, this is a Facebook issue, since Facebook owns Instagram. The coverage of this has tended to ignore or downplay that fact.

Second, Facebook has a long record of treating users’ rights and privacy in unfortunate ways. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re doing it again. I would expect, in the next few days, to see Facebook/Instagram follow the standard FB playbook: Take one step back, having taken three steps forward, and call it “listening to our users”.

Third, a user of the Instagram app should not have to make a choice of either accepting such sweeping terms or quitting the service altogether. (I use neither Facebook nor Instagram at this point.)

Fourth, this is a clear example of why we should be willing to pay for some software and services. I want to be a customer, not a product, and I’m willing to pay for that — but increasingly I’m not given that opportunity.

Finally, this is a great opportunity for Flickr or other photo services to create a more user-friendly ToS, and lure people away from the sites that don’t.

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Customer Service, Silicon Valley

Why My Current Mac is Probably My Last

The Mac I’m using today — without question the best computer I’ve ever owned — is almost certainly my last Mac.

This machine is a Macbook Air, a 13-inch model that came out last year. It is a stunningly fine combination of size, style and power. And Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” is a terrific operating system. I’ve customized it for my needs, and have truly enjoyed using it.

Because so much of my work depends on having a reliable and up-to-date computer, I buy a new one each year, using the older one as a backup in case of trouble with the newer machine. In recent years, that has meant owning two roughly equivalent Macs.

The latest Macbook Air went on sale this week. As is always the case with technology, it’s even more powerful than the one I have. I crave it. I won’t buy it.

Here’s the key issue: Not only does the new model come with OS X Lion installed, it will not run Snow Leopard at all. 

Lion is far too new for me to trust as my primary OS. And it is a radical departure — so radical in key ways that I can’t imagine _ever_ trusting it.

The hardware issue is entirely Apple’s choice. On these new Macbook Airs, using Parallels or VMWare Fusion, I could install any version of Windows or Linux on the new Air, and they’d run, provided there was support for the hardware. The only gotcha, for the moment, would be the Thunderbolt port. I assume Windows and popular Linux distributions, even older versions, will add support (if they haven’t already). But Apple’s policy is to make it impossible to run earlier Mac OS versions on its new machines, period. If there turns out to be a way to install Snow Lion in a partition, that might help, but I see no sign of that in the research I’ve done.

This wouldn’t be a big issue if I liked Lion more. Some of the changes look terrific, based on reviews. Others are more questionable, even though they’re designed to create a more modern structure — in itself a worthy objective but not when forced on users who have become accustomed to perfectly workable earlier methods.

Still other changes, however, are plainly designed to push Mac users into a more iPad/iPhone-like ecosystem, where Apple gives you permission to use the computers you buy in only the ways Apple considers appropriate. The writing has been on Apple’s wall for some time. It’s aiming for absolute authority over the ecosystem in which all its devices operate. Given the well-chronicled consequences of the company’s control-freakery in the iOS ecosystem, which is being merged with the Mac, that’s unacceptable — to me, at any rate, even if it’s just fine with everyone else.

For the past year, I’d been slowly working to move my desktop/laptop computing over to Linux in any case. It’s slow going for a lot of reasons, not least of which is my inability to replace several must-have tools, notably sparse disk image bundles and several superb applications I use for my blogging and other media creation.

In most ways, Ubuntu runs nicely on the new ThinkPad 220, a computer that is probably the best in its class. Yet I often feel about the experience the way I used to feel about the Windows-Mac comparison that’s held true for so many years: It tends to get in your way, while the Mac tends to get out of your way.

By rejecting its past so thoroughly — a proud history of creating devices that we users could modify for our own purposes with no one’s permission but our own — Apple is forcing me to move on.

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People, Silicon Valley

Happy Birthday, Mitch Kapor

In a Tweet today, Mitch Kapor said, “It’s true. Today is my 60th birthday. It’s a long way from being 16.”

It would take a long, long post here to catalog Mitch’s contributions to the world. Read this and this to get a sense of why I say that.

Mitch has been a friend for some years now. My admiration stems only in part for his amazing achievements in technology and related fields. He and his wife, Freada Kapor Klein, are involved in causes that are improving many lives.

Mitch was an investor in a small project of mine that failed, in part because I didn’t take his advice on a key issue. Of all the parts of that failure that bothered me, none was more difficult than letting him down. He advised: Get over it and move on.

Happy birthday, Mitch.

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