Following Friends Across Walled Gardens

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,

Phil Gyford makes his plea for a single social network sign-on or as it was stated last week by Jeremy Keith on Twitter, "portable social network with XFN"  [Jeremy posted his More thoughts on portable social networks on his blog.]

The single sign-on is an often heard request these days. Nearly as much as a dashboard, er central interface to monitor all one's friends across the various walled social gardens.

I have been watching ClaimID and Marc's People Aggregator to make huge strides on this front.  Some recent conversations seem to point to others possibly providing this solution.  So far it is the early adopters that are needing these tools, but a recent post by Scott Andrew about people moving from MySpace to Facebook makes me think the cross-garden social tools will have a mainstream appeal in the very near future.  Well, those of us that are veterans of the on-line services of the early 90s will recognize the need as our friends jumped from one closed service to another when there was a 5 dollar a month fee hike.  Your buddies left Prodigy and went where? AOL, Compuserve, Delphi, usenet groups, etc.?

The current web environment makes the keeping up with your friends (if they grant you permission - this really should be the case) easier across closed social services.  Digital identity will be essential as will our trusted list (or grouped list) of friends we want to keep in they loop with our life (lives).

The Come To Me Web

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , ,

Until May of 2005 I had trouble with one element in my work around the Model of Attraction and Personal InfoCloud (including the Local and Global InfoClouds as well) to build a framework for cross-platform design and development of information and media systems and services. This problem was lack of an easy of explaination of what changes have taken place in the last few years on the web and other means of accessing digital information. In preparing for a presentation I realized this change is manifest in how people get and interact with the digital information and media.

This change is easily framed as the "Come to Me" web. The "Come to Me" web, which is not interchangeable with the push/pull ideas and terms used in the late 90s (I will get to this distinction shortly). It is a little closer to the idea of the current, "beyond the page" examinations, which most of us that were working with digital information pre-web have always had in mind in our metaphors and ideologies, like the Model of Attraction and InfoClouds.

The I Go Get Web

Before we look at the "Come to Me" web we should look at what preceded it. The "I Go Get" metaphor for the web was the precursor. In this incarnation we sought their information. The focus was on the providers of the content and the people consuming the information (or users) were targeted and lured in, in the extreme people were drawn in regardless of a person's interest in the information or topic covered. The content was that of the the organization or site that provided that information.

This incarnation focussed on people accessing the information on one device, usually the desktop computer. Early on the information was developed for proprietary formats. Each browser variant had their own proprietary way of doing things, based around a few central markup tags. People had to put up with the "best view with on X browser" messages. Information was also distributed in various other proprietary formats that required software on the device just so the person could get the information.

The focus providing information was to serve one goal (or use) reading. Some of this was driven by software limitations. But it was also an extension of information distribution in the analog physical space (as opposed to the digital space). In the physical space the written word was distributed on paper and it was consumed by reading (reuse of it meant copying it for reading) and it took physical effort to reconstruct those words to repurpose that information (quoting sources, showing examples, etc.).

The focus was on information creation and the struggle was making it findable. On the web there were only limited central resources used to find information, as many of the search engines were not robust enough, did not have friendly interfaces. Findability was a huge undertaking, either to get people what they desired/needed or to "get eyeballs".

Just as the use of the information was an extension of the physical realm that predated the digital information environment, the dominant metaphor in the "I Go Get" web was based in the physical realm. We all designed and developed for findability around the navigation/wayfinding metaphor. This directly correlates to going somewhere. Cues we use to get us to information were patterned and developed from practices in the physical world.

Physical? Digital? Does it Matter?

You ask, "So what we used ideas from the physical world to develop our metaphors and methodologies for web design and development?" We know that metaphors guide our practices. This is a very good thing. But, metaphors also constrain our practices and can limit our exploration for solutions to those that fit within the boundaries of that metaphor. In the physical realm we have many constraints that do not exist in the digital realm. Objects are not constrained by the resources they are made from (other than the energy to drive digital realm - no power no digital realm). Once an object exists in the digital realm replicating them is relatively insignificant (just copy it).

Paths and connections between information and objects is not constrained by much, other than humans choosing to block its free flow (firewalls, filtering, limiting access to devices, etc.). Much like Peter Merholz desire lines where people wear the path between two places in a manner that works best for them (the shortest distance between two points is a straight line). Now, don't think of the physical limitation between two points, I need to go from my classroom on the fourth floor of building "X" to across campus, up the hill to the sixth floor office of my professor. Draw a straight line and walk directly. This does not work in physical space because of gravity and physical impediments.

Now we are ready to understand what really happens on the web. We go from the classroom to our professors office, but we don't move. The connection brings what we desire to us and our screen. In this case we may just chat (text or video - it does not matter) with the professor from our seat in the classroom (if we even need to be in the classroom). Connections draw objects to our screens through the manifestation of links. As differently as people's minds work to connect ideas together, there can be as many paths between two objects. Use of physical space is limited by limitations outlined in physics, but the limitations are vastly different in digital space, use of the same information and media has vastly different limitations also.

It is through breaking the constraints of old metaphors and letting the digital realm exist that we get to a new understanding of digital information on the networks of the digital realm, which include the web.

The Come to Me Web

The improved understanding of the digital realm and its possibilities beyond our metaphors of the physical environment allows us to focus on a "Come to Me" web. What many people are doing today with current technologies is quite different than was done four or five years ago. This is today for some and will be the future for many.

When you talk to people about information and media today they frame it is terms of, "my information", "my media", and "my collection". This label is applied to not only information they created, but information they have found and read/used. The information is with them in their mind and more often than not it is on one or more of their devices drives, either explicitly saved or in cache.

Many of us as designers and developers have embraced "user-centered" or "user experience" design as part of our practice. These mantras place the focus on the people using our tools and information as we have moved to making what we produce "usable". The "use" in "usable" goes beyond the person just reading the information and to meeting peoples desires and needs for reusing information. Microformats and Structured Blogging are two recent projects (among many) that focus on and provide for reuse of information. People can not only read the information, but can easily drop the information into their appropriate application (date related information gets put in the person's calendar, names and contact information are easily dropped into the address book, etc.). These tools also ease the finding and aggregating of the content types.

As people get more accustom to reusing information and media as they want and need, they find they are not focussed on just one device (the desktop/laptop), but many devices across their life. They have devices at work, at home, mobile, in their living space and they want to have the information that they desire to remain attracted to them no matter where they are. We see the proliferation of web-based bookmarking sites providing people access their bookmarks/favorites from any web browser on any capable device. We see people working to sync their address books and calendars between devices and using web-based tools to help ensure the information is on the devices near them. People send e-mail and other text/media messages to their various devices and services so information and files are near them. We are seeing people using their web-based or web-connected calendars to program settings on their personal digital video recorders in their living room (or wherever it is located).

Keeping information attracted to one's self or within easy reach, not only requires the information and media be available across devices, but to be in common or open formats. We have moved away from a world where all of our information and media distribution required developing for a proprietary format to one where standards and open formats prevail. Even most current proprietary formats have non-proprietary means of accessing the content or creating the content. We can do this because application protocols interfaces (APIs) are made available for developers or tools based on the APIs can be used to quickly and easily create, recreate, or consume the information or media.

People have moved from finding information and media as being their biggest hurdle, to refinding things in "my collection" being the biggest problem. Managing what people come across and have access to (or had access to) again when they want it and need it is a large problem. In the "come to me" web there is a lot of filtering of information, as we have more avenues to receive information and media.

The metaphor and model in the "I go get" web was navigation and wayfinding. In the "come to me" web a model based on attraction. This is not the push and pull metaphor from the late 1990s (as that was mostly focussed on single devices and applications). Today's usage is truly focussed on the person and how they set their personal information workflow for digital information. The focus is slightly different. Push and pull focussed on technology, today the focus is on person and technology is just the conduit, which could (and should) fade into the background. The conduits can be used to filter information that is not desired so what is of interest is more easily identified.

WebVisions Designing for the Personal InfoCloud Presentation

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , ,

The presentation at WebVisions of Designing for the Personal InfoCloud went quite well yesterday. There is ever growing interest in the Personal InfoCloud as there are many people working to design digital information for use across devices, for reuse, for constant access to information each individual person desires, and building applications around these interests.

In an always on world peoples desires and expectations are changing for their access to information. The tools that will help ease this desire are now being built and some are great starts have been made in this direction. I will be writing about some of these tools in the near future.

I am more exited today than I have been in quite some time by what I see as great progress for the reality of a Personal InfoCloud. It is ever closer for the Personal InfoCloud being more automated and beginning to function in ways that really help people find efficient ways to use information they have found or created in their lives when they want it or need it.

Not only does the Personal InfoCloud need devices but it needs people designing the information for the realities of Web2.0, which is not the old web of "I Go Get", but the new web of "Come to Me". This change in focus demands better understanding of sharing digital assets, designing across platforms and devices, and information being reused and organized externally.

Who Are You

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , ,

The person is the center of focus in the Personal InfoCloud, but each person has to interact with others and others' information. It is at this point of interaction where identity becomes important. We use many services around the web. From Epinions to LinkedIn to our personal blogs and beyond we all have many identities and usernames. These "can" be manageable for ourselves, but often our friends value what we say and some of our opinions. We are also interested in what others say, for those opinions and taste that run similar to ours. We also are a verbose bunch writing in volumes over time. We also comment and review on many different services, like restaurant reviews on Yahoo Local, Amazon A9, and other sites.

Now lets say we are going to another city on travel. How do we leverage our friend's opinions and their network of friends reviews? In part we need granular social networks, but we also need digital identity that works.

The digital identity light went off thanks to Brett Lider and it has been a deep interest in the many months since. This may have also been triggered by the Identity Gang and the Gilmore Gang's December 30, 2004 digital identity show. Identity has been a solution fraught with schisms and opposing camps, but it seems to be coming together to some degree at this point. The more I read about digital identity from the Identity Gang and in particular Kim Cameron I realize it is central to the Personal InfoCloud.

At this point we need to modify our address books or use their notes forms to dump in our friends identities and usernames we know about across the various systems we interact with them on. This is unmanageable and not easily usable at this point. But if we want to follow John Doe and his reviews we have to know he uses jdoe, doe, paininmaximus, and 33482aad across various systems. We have to know what systems he is what identifier/username. Now lets say he gave us a card/key that he managed what we knew and he could update as he changed his information. We could then use that information in our own aggregation of information he has posted

It is Getting Personal

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , ,

One of the main concepts around the Personal InfoCloud is access to our information when we need it.  It has become relatively easy to find digital information on the internet these days, but keeping track of information for ourselves is a huge problem.  Not only do we have the problem of tracking our information on one device, but across our devices (our laptop and desktop at work, our mobile, our PDA, our desktop at home) it become nightmare.  We have gone from the scent of information (Xerox Parc term), to the current stench of information, and we are trying to get to the sweet smell of information.

One of the tools that has helped many manage some of the information they find on the web is is a social bookmarking tool that give the person the means to save the bookmark in a web-based tool and add tags (keywords) to the link that are of their choosing for their own bookmark retrieval.  The tool really caught on as people can easily refind that information they stored because it is saved using their own vocabulary.  Other people can find the same object (it is a shared "social" tool) if they use the same vocabulary to describe the same object.

It is time we all start to focus on the person and how they use and reuse the information.  How do people  combine disparate information in what have been separate applications and separate devices?  Our design and development has to get personal.

It is these solutions an focus that are lacking from many approaches to web and application development today.  Yes, it is still lacking, but it may not be for much longer.

What has changed the environment?  Personalization has triggered much of this change.  No, not the giant portal personalization that the content management overloads want to sell for mega-bucks and still provide mini-returns.  This is personalization that allows the person to decide what information or information source is important to follow.  People and vendors (be it information or products) have a desire to strengthen their connection.  Vendors need to make it easy on the person who has an interest in the vendor and one or many of their products.

One of the tools that has caught on in the mainstream is RSS/Atom feeds.  This allows a person to subscribe to the information that most interests them.  This information can be news feeds that are targeted to specific genres or it can be a listing of products newly available, as Apple is doing with its new additions to iTunes each week and Amazon is doing for it product categories. In the past e-mail has been one of the few avenues that has been available to provide a personal connection.

So if it is getting easier to have the information from vendors easily subscribed to, how difficult should it be to  subscribe to our own information?  This is one of the solutions, well it seems to be targeted to others subscribing to our shared bookmarks, but we can easily subscribe to an RSS feed of our own bookmarks  or even our own specific tagged bookmarks, should we wish to.

With calendaring we have similar subscription options if we use the iCal standard.  There are even RSS event capabilities that can be incorporated (RSS with Dublin Core attributes as Upcoming does, or event module attributes).  Subscribing is one solution, but often I need to add calendar events into my mobile device (Treo 600 or Nokia Series 60 phone) with out having to rekey everything.  There are open standards for calendaring, why don't mobile device calendar applications just incorporate accepting these standard file types?  Using standard solutions to keep all of the facets of our life, or at least our calendar related facets, seems to be a wise and relatively easy solution. 

Focus of Startups

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,

David Weingberger discusses Meet-up new charge to use plan and wonders about free competition. David, and those commenting on the posting, offer alternatives to Meetup. I am not so concerned with Meetup charging money as I am the changes that have come to Meetup in the past year, some have been very good.

I have been watching trends in the last year or two that bring a needed tool to market. It catches on and one of two things happen most often 1) they do not innovate and listen to their user base and improve on their great start, or 2) they start including other components and start looking like a social network or something not quite related to their initial goal. The exceptions to these are those that go under quickly or those that do it well get bought for their great special tool. There are many that fall into category one that flourish and stagnate and there are many valid reasons for this, change in life for the developers (married, baby, death, new job, etc.) or loss of interest. The second category seems to be the influence of money and advisors, or some odd force unknown to me.

Companies that fall into category one still have a chance. They are thin and can innovate if they focus. Look at what did in a couple weeks after John Udell made some insightful comments. This is what many of us users of the site had wished for. Hopefully Upcoming will continue with the progress, but it is sticking to what it has done well, build a site around events that keeps the calendar open and easy to get a subscription to the event. Upcoming has always had a great interface that was easy to figure out and was fun to explore.

Meetup seems to have fallen in to the second category. It has been a solid site and resource, but it kept adding user features for finding people and communicating with people. Nice, but there was a lot of effort there rather than improving the ability to organize a meeting and get it off the ground. The meeting focus came back (nearly everybody I knew had the same complaint, they could not change the date or place for the event) and the site started to work much better for many. The social networking components are nice, but to have sacrificed their core interests, getting people to meet face-to-face and helping the meeting come off. Now Meetup will, inevitably loose some of its audience, but how much will be left? Had Meetup focussed on building tools for the meeting organizers they would already have something special. If the meetings don't happen they loose the flocks that come to check in on their meetings, I watched local groups wither because of Meetup's lack of focus. I am really not trying to blame anybody, just making observations.

What is the point? Focus on what you are doing that is different. Listen to your core constituency that makes your site worth going to. Make your offerings open so that the person using the service feels like they have control of their information (they should have control of that information as they are trusting the site owner's with it and trust can wither quickly). Make it easy to for the people to not only manage what information they give you, but allow them to consume this information in the manner they wish (Upcoming allowing me to subscribe to my own events I am following is a great step and that is the focus interaction should take -- the person chooses how they best want to consume the information). Focus on simplicity (of interface, of interaction, of purpose). Provide an element of play in your offering as life does not have to be boring (not too cute as cute ages fast).

Good Bye to the User?

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , ,

One of the side-effects of my focus on the Personal InfoCloud has been finding putting the focus on the person gets to more options than focussing on the "user". When doing user interviews for existing systems and sites, we are interviewing people. These people we ask: What works for them; what is missing; What are the devices they use; What locations do they use the information; In what context do they use the information; and How do they reuse and repurpose the information (as some of the questions). These are real people supplying the answers.

In the past we roll-up these people's answers and build an user persona. In rolling up we are building one or many common users and try to generalize. This simplification of the problem set we build to starts to limit our solutions. If one percent or less of our user base is using a mobile device to access information or our application do we throw them out of the persona? Normally, we would tend to do this and focus on a higher portion of our population.

But, in building a user-centered approach we can miss some of the easy solutions that will help the people that are part of the smaller populations. By keeping the person with the mobile needs in the mix, we are able to build scenarios and solutions that will work across many device needs. The steps between a desktop/laptop web browser only community and many mobile devices is relatively small. The difference to the desktop/laptop user is minimal, but to the mobile user it can be the difference between having access to information when it is needed and not having access at all when the information is needed most (like working remotely on a project that is 50 miles from the nearest landline and internet connection).

As we look at providing solutions we base our choices on users who make up a large percentage of our population. Lets take the 80/20 rule, we build for 80 percent of our users with 20 percent of the work. Sounds good, until we realize that one in five users are left out of the equation. By focussing on the person, we can look at extending our success. Often by building more than one solution into our products or one interface metaphor (folders versus tags for storing e-mail) we can provide better solutions that work for more people. Does this add complexity? Many times, yes it adds complexity on the design and development side, but knowing early enough in the process we can build more open and more flexible systems that lead to greater adoption. Not, only do we get greater adoption, but we open up the potential for uses beyond what we designed into being.

No two people are alike and we should build toward this reality so that there is choice, freedom, and ease. The more granular approach does not completely wipe out the user personas, but greatly enhances their functionality. Go back to the original people interviewed and use them in scenario planning for their needs across their contexts and tasks. How well does what we are designing work for them? How different will a solution need to be to have it work for them? Do these users have older technology? Do we want to rule people out categorically or can we do a little more work and be inclusive?

Focussing on the person and the granularity is where things get more difficult, but this is where we can make huge differences. This is what we get paid for right?

SXSW Calendar the Personal Way

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , ,

I really enjoyed my short time at SXSW Interactive Festival this year. One of the things that helped me was their step to help people interested in SXSW to build their "own" calendar. Yes, they understood the people attending have a lot of offerings to consider and nobody wants to miss anything they really would like to see. The SXSW site showed the conference sessions and if you liked it you could add it to your SXSW calendar. This calendar could be accessed as an iCal, which means as you update the calendar on the site, or the calendar is changed by the SXSW folks, you calendar is updated. Being that it is iCal it is relatively easy to synch this to your mobile device.

Why is this important? It is not only a great step to help the people attending the Festival, but it builds a connection between the person and the SXSW site as well as a enables the person enjoyment of the Festival. Technology should help the person control what they would like to do and help them do it with out worry.

I remember my first SXSW in 2001, where they had a Palm Pilot that would beam you a packet including the conference sessions as well as food and other amenities. The application allowed you to add the SXSW sessions into your Palm calendar and restaurants into your address book. It was a great app, but you only got the application when you got there and you had to have a Palm device (luckily I did). This year's version greatly improved on this as it allows the person attending to build their own calendar and choose how they want the information to follow them. The person attending just added the information to their own Personal InfoCloud and the person consumed and reused the information as needed.

Brilliant and Bravo.

Recent Speaking Engagements

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , ,

I have posted the last three presentations I have given in the last five days. The presentations and a little about each presentation are available as follows: IA for the Personal InfoCloud from the IA Summit, Folksonomy: A Wrapper's Delight a panel at the IA Summit, and The Blog as Personal Knowledge Managment from a panel at the local Potomac Chapter of ASIS&T.

Some of the ideas and themes in these will bubble up here fairly soon. I am also speaking in Austin at SXSW Interactive Festival this upcoming Sunday. Stop by and say hello.

Stitching our Lives Together

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , ,

Not long ago Jeffrey Veen posted about Will you be my friend, which brought up some needs to better stitch together our own disperse information. An excellent example is:

For example, when I plan a trip, I try to find out who else will be around so I have people to hang out with. So my calendar should ask, "Hey, Jeff says he's friends with Tim. Will he be in New York for GEL?"

This example would allow up to interact with our shared information in a manner that keeps it within our extended Personal InfoCloud (the Personal InfoCloud is the information we keep with us, is self-organized, and we have easy access to). Too many of the Web's resources where we store our information and that information's correlation to ourselves (, Flickr seems to use. The advent of wide usage of RSS feeds and RSS aggregators is really putting the user back in control of the information they would like to track. Too many sites have moved toward the portal model and failed (there are large volumes of accounts of failed portal attempts, where the sites should provide a feed of their information as it is a limited quantity). When users get asked about their lack of interest in a company's new portal they nearly always state, "I already have a portal where I aggregate my information". Most often these portals are ones like My Yahoo, MSN, or AOL. Many users state they have tried keeping more than one portal, but find they loose information very quickly and they can not remember, which portal holds what information.

It seems the companies that sell portal tools should rather focus on integration with existing portals. Currently Yahoo offers the an RSS feed aggregator. Yahoo is moving toward a one stop shopping for information for individuals. Yahoo also synchs with PDA, which is how many people keep their needed information close to themselves.

There are also those of us that prefer to be our own aggregators to information. We choose to structure our large volumes of information and the means to access that information. The down side of the person controlling the information is the lack of common APIs and accessible Web Services to permit the connecting of Upcoming to our calendar (it can already do this), with lists of known or stated friends and their interests.

This has been the dream of many of us for many years, but it always seems just around the corner. Now seems to be a good time to just make it happen. Now is good because there is growing adoption of standards and information that can be personally aggregated. Now is good because there are more and more services allowing us to categorize various bits of information about our lives. Now is good because we have the technology. Now is good because we are smart enough to make it happen.

(Originally posted at

PC Forum Eventspace - Users Make Content Their Own

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , ,

PC Forum Eventspace - Users Make Content Their Own seems to have only part of the equation correct.

It seems that the commercial ventures only partly understand the Personal InfoCloud. The panel, as I read the excerpts, (Rob Glaser of Real Networks, Lisa Gansky of Ofoto and Shane Robison of HP) understand users creation of information as content creators. Having used Real products and Ofoto, they do not seems to fully get the personal management of the information very well. These products set barriers to reuse and have poor interaction design.

Lets look at Ofoto, which has a good business model to upload photos to share them and allow the user and their friends to make prints of the photos. The tools for photo management have a lot to be desired. The tools only permit management of the photos for Ofoto's use. Users want more management than these uses. I have been frustrated with photos that have gone missing in Ofoto albums.

The tools do not allow the user to manage information across devices. Moving digital media easily from PC to handheld and to the Web easily and seamlessly should be the goal. This transfer of digital media and content is the idea behind the Personal InfoCloud. This is what keeps the users from using devices and technology in general to help their lives.

Maybe next years PC Forum will focus on better understanding the Personal InfoCloud. In the Great Weird Ideas notes Brett Fausett's ideas on Personal Data for Personal Services is on target with the Personal InfoCloud. and Others Understand Ease of Information Reuse

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , ,

Some sites are getting that helping the user with date related information by providing the information in a standard format that allows the user to drop the information into their calendar tool. One such site is's iCal Integration.

The I recently ran across a similar tool, but for vCal, on the Hilton site. When you book a room on the Hilton site the site provides a standard calendar format data chunk that drops right into Outlook or other vCal ready application. This is a no fuss and no error means of helping the user get the information right and dropping it right into their Personal InfoCloud so they can synch that with their mobile phone or PDA and have the correct information (with the confirmation number) within ready reach at all times.