Truly social data

August 24th, 2009 by Terry Jones. Filed under Essence.

This is the first in a series of posts that will describe why we’ve built Fluidinfo and what we think it’s good for.

Fluidinfo exists, in part, to address an increasingly apparent mismatch. Humans are extremely social, almost inescapably social. I won’t go into evolutionary history, though. Many of us also use computers that are connected to the internet. Sitting in Barcelona, I can now connect to a machine on the other side of the world in milliseconds. We all can.

Put billions of intensely social humans in front of computers connected to a global network that ties them all together, and what do you get? Humans trying to be social using computers.

The mismatch—and the missing piece—is social data.

I don’t think we can get to truly social data while applications maintain tight control over their data. Even calling it their data is likely wrong, as much of the data ingested and stored by applications comes from users and might be in a sense owned by the user. But even that is wrong: how can you own information? You can only think you own it.

These days applications are increasingly open. But things are still far too locked down. The standard way to open one’s data today is to provide an API to let others get at it. But custom APIs are not the answer to truly social data. An API, like a user interface, only lets you do to information what the people controlling access have decided to allow you to do. You can only do what’s been anticipated. You often have to ask permission. You can’t add things to the data as you please.

Data will only be truly social when you can work with it in the kinds of ways we work with information in the real, non-computational, world. In the real world we don’t ask for permission to have an opinion on something, to add to the ball of information surrounding a concept. Our needs don’t have to be anticipated by programmers. We can share information as we please. For example, nobody owns the concept of Barcelona. If I want to essentially “tag” Barcelona as being hot, or noisy, or beautiful, I just do it. I can keep my opinion private, I can share it with certain others, I can hold conflicting opinions, I can organize things in multiple ways at the same time and give things many names.

Fluidinfo lets you do all of the above, and then some.

The main way in which it does this is by changing the control over information. In Fluidinfo, objects (which can correspond to anything – web pages, files, people, movies, ideas, etc) do not have an owner. Any application or user is free to add information to any object. There’s a strong and flexible permissions system—but permissions are applied at the level of the tags (with values) on objects, not at the level of the object itself.

The reason this is so different and much more social is that Fluidinfo gives applications and their users a world in which they can always contribute information. It can take us from a default read-only world to one in which we can all write. Without stopping to ask if it’s ok, and without anyone having to anticipate what we might one day want to do.

In a world of truly social data, any user will be able to customize or personalize anything. You’ll be able to say “I ate there” or “that’s cool” or “that sucks!” or “I know that person” or “I want one of them” or “I’ve read that” or “Hey mum, look at this” or …. or do pretty much whatever you want. I can think of hundreds of examples, making them up at will—you only have to think of the kinds of things you’re used to doing in the real world. Your contributions will be just as important as any other. You’ll be able to search based on your data, or any selection of your friends’ data. You’ll be able to combine your information with heterogeneous information created by others. You’ll be able to augment, organize, and selectively share information as you please.

The nonexistence of truly social data is the huge missing piece in the puzzle of today’s computer applications. It’s the pain we’re all feeling, but which we’re so used to that we don’t realize it. The problem won’t be solved at the level of the application. Truly social data will be the foundation of a new class of applications that all benefit by storing at least some of their information into a common social data architecture. The ones that don’t will be left behind. Because when you think about it, all data is social.

And you can guess the rest: That’s what Fluidinfo is all about. Stay tuned.

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  • Mayson Lancaster

    Recently, Bruce Sterling has been blogging a lot about Augmented Reality – highlighting some of the awsome stuff that’s being done – I get the feeling that FluidDB will be great for geotagged data applications.

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  • This is so strongly reminiscent of what Mitch Kapor tried to do (is still trying, maybe?) with the “Chandler” project, vividly portrayed in the wonderful book “Dreaming in Code”, that it makes the head swim.

    Maybe FluidDB will finally let Mitch and his wife share a calendar in the way he always wanted. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Hi Jason

    Thanks for the comment – sorry I was slow to notice/approve it. I’ve run into a few of MK’s previous things. I think his Agenda project morphed into Chandler. I’m hoping to meet him this weekend at the O’Reilly FOO camp. That would be pretty interesting, I think.

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  • >Data will only be truly social when you can work with it in the kinds of ways we work with information in the real, non-computational, world.
    >In a world of truly social data, any user will be able to customize or personalize anything.

    I’d be interested to know your definition of “social”. From the two statements above, I almost take it to mean that data is social if people (members of society, perhaps?) are free to modify it for their own purposes.

    Generally, I’d classify that as simply being “web 2.0” – people can manipulate online content. I see social as being when technology allows people to communicate.

    When we look at a fluid model as how you suggest, I can’t help but wonder how the lack of constraints helps people interact. You may tag Barcelona as hot and I may tag it with paella… but does that further our ability to understand things further? Does that help in defining “Barcelona”, or is a reflection on our own values and beliefs?

  • Daniel Kauwe

    It’s so awesome to hear data described as such – I mean, I think one of the greatest difficulties for most people is comprehending that the analytical processes underlying the cognitive experience humans consider sentience are based on the ability to render and evaluate fluid relationships between data. I’m curiously reading through FluidDB’s documentation at present, and I have to say of all the proposals I’ve seen thus far, this would seem most likely a genuine candidate for the necessary precursors to a digital self-awareness.

  • Thanks Daniel! I’m glad you like it – and would really welcome any further thoughts.

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  • Cool site, love the info.

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  • Hmm. So I still have very high hopes for this project ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Me too! ๐Ÿ™‚ Why the hmm?

  • Thank you for listening to me.

  • I just think all the time. And sometimes, I find it easier to keep typing as I think – it's just a habit I have. I've analyzed it. I don't see it as significant flaw. Although perhaps the energy expenditure that I use for hitting the increased key strokes might be…wasteful. I have so many other calculations that I'm working towards, evaluating the amount of energy expenditure resulting from rapid typing has not yet reached realization.

  • i love to read all info

    ronie coleman

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  • The ultimate extension of objects without ownership would appear to be a FluidDB without ownership. A distributed open source format for data curation/remixing, and a fully read write web (I had hopes for wave being something like this, and it sort of is/was).

    What form of monetization are you thinking Terry, and what ownership of the database/source do you have planned?

  • Hi Mark!

    Agreed re “ultimate extension”. FluidDB will certainly not assert (or want) ownership over any of its data, except its own. And it would be better if it were some kind of public utility. We plan to open source the whole thing, but not right now for various reasons – logistic, strategic, financial, etc. I'd prefer to wait a little until we have the resources to devote to that (it's a lot of work looking after even small open source projects – we already opened a key component, txAMQP) and until we have more data. Then it's a bit like wikipedia – the value is in the data, not the source code. As for more details on monetization, let's talk in person (it's late and my fingers hurt).

  • I'm far from an expert, but from what I can tell, FluidDB is a framework. It is ultimately the task of the applications are built around FluidDB or make use of it to make it work socially. I for one can definitely see potential in truly social data.