Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The open standards way to personal aggregation

When Phil read my post about being aggregated by Google he responded, in the comments, that "...the idea of a company aggregating *everything* about my online experience, and the potential for what they could mine and sell related to me... well... that seems a bit too Orwellian for my tastes."

I responded to him, and to Sonny's pointer to Yahoo!, with yet another post -- this one arguing something, not that well reasoned, about the fact that Google already knows a lot about me and aggregation allows me to use that knowledge. Jason Kottke's Big Brother 2.0 post labels Yahoo! with the Orwell word.

Trusting a company, as I was implicitly doing in my Google post and both Phil and Kottke argued against (with a pretty powerful literary label), was the way in which I was getting at aggregation. Frankly, I'm not squeamish about trusting companies. I make an initial evaluation -- what do I think they are going to do with my personal information. I use privacy policies, legislative requirements, terms of use, and reputation as a way of making that evaluation. And then, if I decide to trust them, I use them. And my trust is implicit in that use.

Another, more familiar example of this, is banking. My bank owns my saving account, some investment accounts. They are soon to know about my mortgage. Via my credit card, they know details about how I'm spending my money. This is useful to me because they can aggregate my financial information in a way that makes it easy for me to deal with. It's helpful to me. And I've decided, essentially, that they aren't up to no good.

My trust in companies and the fact that they aren't out to get me may, in fact, be naive. There may be lots of examples where trust was misplaced. I have to wonder though. Did the individuals who got burned do the diligence to decide if they could trust a company? Or did they just use them without making an explicit decision about trust?

This is a long way of saying that I don't worry about Google or Yahoo! having keys to my identity because, and this is critical, I can choose not to use them. There are other search engines. Other email services. If I think that Google might be up to no good, I can make choices to safe guard my data. I know lots of folks that do this. More power to their decision.

However, there is another way to personal aggregation. Open standards. I choose the tools. They can be distributed across platforms, companies. But those tools have a way to interact and I control that interaction. As I understand it, that's what Marc Canter is talking about when he talks about Digital Lifestyle Aggregation.

Open standards seem, of course, a better way than my trust-the-Company way. Why? It means we can all have different criteria for trust, use different components, and still be able to munge our data together if we'd like. It also forces companies to offer more than the hook of a star application (in Google's case - search) that then locks a user into a suite of tools that may or may not be the applications a specific user would choose. It allows a maximum amount of choice and flexibility for the end user and promotes, in my mind, excellence from vendors.

So, that's one thing: Open standards are the way to go.

However, I still have at least two questions to explore:
  • Phil talked in his comment about privacy? What about that?
  • What does this have to do with nonprofits?
Creating an online identity has to be a choice. Rather obviously, I've decided it's a good choice. Why? I look at the creation of a public persona as a way to protect my identity and, hence, privacy. Anil Dash talks about this as privacy through identity control.

This is, in the non-technical sense, about reputation management. I can point to a body of writing, of activity to say something about myself.

At a base level, it can help prevent someone, for whatever reason, of trying to be me. No errors in your writing? Oh, right. There's no way that that could be me and I've got lots of proof. It's not that I'm paranoid. I don't think people are trying to be me (I typically tell banks trying to sell me identity protection that my identity won't help anyone and they are, quite frankly, welcome to it). But I do like the notion that I've put out what I've thought and I stand behind my words -- or activities or whatever -- and people can use that to judge me rather than someone else's representation of me. I know that I Google people I don't know before meeting them. And I always wonder if I hit nothing but genealogy sites.

How does this apply to nonprofits?
Brand, baby. Individual is to identity as nonprofit is to brand.

Open standards provides the possibility of a low-touch, automated way of pulling together a group of publications, comments, on-line participation onto a single page that describes the organization. In short, distributed participatory content can be used to develop an organizational brand on the orgs website and in bits and pieces through the online world.

Here's an illustrative (I've been using that word lately as a hedge to mean "I don't want to argue about the content of my statement but am willing to argue through the intent/purpose") example. A single page that pulls together multiple kinds of information regarding XYZ Org:
  • a list of people pointing to or writing about XYZ Org. This can be the in-context presentation of data from any search engine that has opened itself up for this kind of use.
  • a list of public postings made by the members of the organization. These postings would have to be linked to a certain identity. FOAF seems pretty key here.
  • events pulled from open calendar applications.
  • etc
The point is: the same things that can be pooled on a personal portal page to create a reputation or identity can be pooled by a nonprofit. This can make them free to spread themselves around on the internet -- it's hard to convince people of the value of creating the content that goes into listserv messages or weblog comments or other community boards -- because it doesn't transfer to content within the organization's website. By making the creation of this kind of portal possible, organizations are creating content for their own websites when they encourage their staff to participate on listservs or comment on weblogs or...

But all of this relies on the use of Open Standards. Either that or we make everyone use the same tools (and that is Orwellian).

It also relies on people working to create the integration tools necessary for organizations to pull this onto their website.

And the time to write and participate in web communities.

And the evaluation skills to show how this is valuable so that funders and boards don't consider it "extra."

And user interface skills so the portal presents a variety of information output into a usable, understandable page (I actually think that the Omidyar Network provides a nice little example of this, though it's limited in the single company kind of way, on the user profile pages).

So whatcha think? If this open standards, portal created from distributed content idea is a good one, how do we go about making it happen? If it's not a good idea, why? What's missing? What's needed instead?

(in personal_aggregation, thinking_aloud and digital_lifestyle_aggregation)