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[Social-discuss] A User Perspective of GNU Social

From: Hellekin O. Wolf
Subject: [Social-discuss] A User Perspective of GNU Social
Date: Sun, 2 May 2010 11:44:07 +0000
User-agent: Mutt/1.5.18 (2008-05-17)

A User Perspective of GNU Social

This text follows a brainstorming session that occurred yesterday at a
park nearby in Amsterdam, with elinvi and psy, from

It aims at providing a non-technical view of an idealized GNU Social
application from the point of view of a sample user, in order to
broaden the reflexion on GNU Social beyond self-promotion of various
projects, and out of a purely technical scope.  You need to read it
once entirely before replying, otherwise you might get lost into
details where the idea is to provide a draft of a big picture.

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.

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