Who owns your social network profile? — An Interview with Marc Worrell
(photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)
Marc Worrell (social network profile, personal website) is software architect and partner at Mediamatic, a hybrid enterprise/cultural organization in Amsterdam engaged in developing software applications for clients as well as exploring new media, art, and society through exhibitions, presentations, workshops, manifestations and all sort of onsite/online cultural events. Marc is the architect behind Mediamatic’s content management system (CMS) anyMeta, which you can see at work on their website. I interviewed Marc in the high-traffic kitchen area of Mediamatic on May 30th.
Ulises Mejias: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the history of Mediamatic?
Marc Worrell: The Mediamatic Foundation was started in the mid 1980’s by Willem Velthoven and Jans Possel. I think they were still students in Groningen, in northern Netherlands. And they started a magazine about new media. At the time, new media meant interactive CDs and such, so they started incorporating that into their work. As Willem himself says, because he started writing about new media, people assumed that he knew a lot about producing it, which is not necessarily the same! So the Foundation grew a more commercial branch next to it, Mediamatic IP. This company did web sites, print design, more commercial stuff. It also made it possible to fund the Foundation a little bit, at least with office space, etc. There was another branch that focused on education: people learning how to make websites, editing, how to write for the web, project management around Internet projects, etc. The philosophy at Mediamatic was always that once you learn how to do something, you immediately make it possible for other people to learn how to do it, redistributing the knowledge. Then of course we had the dot com crash. Money just ran out for Mediamatic IP. It was decided to continue with some projects, like the Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands, but Medimatic IP itself declared bankruptcy. At that time Mediamatic Lab was started, as a partner to the Foundation, and that’s where we do our work today on social networks, websites, etc. for our clients, and where we do the implementation of the “strange” ideas that come out of the Foundation.
ONE PROFILE, MANY NETWORKS
UM: One of your current projects is the “federation” of social networks. You are proposing a range of existing technologies to accomplish this. Can you talk about what this entails?
MW: This is in response to a problem we encountered. We are building online social networks for our customers. A lot of our customers are in the same field, the culture “industry” (to the extent that it can be called an industry). And so a lot of their visitors, the people who are interested in them, are in fact the same people. They have a big overlap in their communities. By the time you visit 10, 20 or 30 of these online communities and create a profile to join these networks, you are very tired of entering the same data into yet another community! So we thought about modifying this situation so that instead of building one big community for everyone, each institution could retain its own face, its own identity and place on the Internet, while still being able to hook them up together. And that is the Open CI project. It’s an old concept, but now there’s funding for it (from the community, from ourselves, from customers).
The basic idea is that people should be the owners of their own data. It’s a very popular thing to say these days, but how true is it? When you go to another social network site, you should be able to move your data there, and you should own it, and you should be able to remove it if you want to. Having a presence in a particular network does not necessarily mean using it as your homebase. When we look at the social networks we launch, they are very little — couple of thousand members perhaps. In some networks the overlap of members consists of a dozen or so persons. In other networks, the overlap is close to 80% of members. So what we want to do, using existing technology, is to allow a user to choose their homebase, somewhere, where they feel most at home. And we don’t care if this is in an institute’s social network, or our network, or their personal web site, or their chess club — whatever the place where they feel most at home. They could have more than one homebase, of course: one for work, another one for their personal life, etc. And from there you start using that identity. When you go to another website, you say: I am Marc from Mediamatic. I am not Marc from PICNIC. I stay Marc from Mediamatic when I go to PICNIC. That is how I choose to represent myself.
This technology is not new. It’s called Open ID. The first step in the sharing of profiles, sharing of identity, is Open ID. Then we have other technologies to allow you to start moving a kind of summary. Because technology dictates that you should have some local information at each network, otherwise it doesn’t perform well, it moves too slow. You want to be able to expedite searches, etc., so you have to have a kind of representation on that site. But this is just a kind of bookmark, of reference to your real identity. So you can truly join in in the fun at each network –write articles, make friends, etc.– but your homebase is wherever you choose.
OBSTACLES TO FEDERATING SOCIAL NETWORKS
UM: When you say that individuals should own their own data, I’m thinking about some of the obstacles that currently prevent that from happening, specially when it comes to commercial social networks. As I am sure you know, there are social network sites (such as Facebook, for instance) which basically have policies that say that whatever you put in the network belongs to them. So your data is not really your data.
MW: “All your data are belong to us.”
UM: Is that going to be an issue in the attempt to federate social network data?
MW: It might be an issue for them! We here at Mediamatic, and I personally, believe that there’s a more viable long-term future in very small-scale networks. There is always a place where you feel most at home. And I don’t really see a difference between the place you feel at home in real life and in virtual life.
UM: So you think when the federation of profiles becomes possible people will basically abandon the large-scale commercial social networks, with all their restrictions, to find a homebase in their own small-scale social networks, where they have the freedom to own their data?
MW: I don’t think they will abandon those networks, because they have many social connections there, but I do expect that there will be a slow migration to places where the management of their homebase is more personal and private, a place that’s more their own, instead of this big thing. Because in the end, like you say, these commercial social networks are huge and impersonal, there’s a big corporation behind it. Do we want these corporations to own our data? I don’t. It’s my data, I put a lot of effort into creating it. So I should be able to control it. Why would I want to create something and publish it in a place that I don’t know how long it will be around? Right now Facebook is big. But where were they five years ago, and where will they be 5 years from now?
UM: I’m still interested in the reasons why federating social networks might be resisted by the corporations that own (or will own, if patterns of media conglomeration continue) the largest social networks. In your articles you refer to these commercial networks as ‘walled gardens,’ and you argue that those walls should be brought down. But the thing is that from the point of view of the corporation, walled gardens make a lot of sense! Corporations have a couple of reasons for sticking to the walled garden model and blocking federation. First, these sites depend on growing memberships (more eyes exposed to advertising); they try to get users to their networks and abandon the competition’s. So social network federation might be seen as a deterrent for users to abandon one network (think Friendster) and move to the latest one. Second, social network federation might do to advertising in social network sites what RSS did to advertising in blogs: provide a way to focus on the content and strip away the advertising. Will commercial social network sites have a problem with all this?
MW: As far as the current business model goes, yes they will have a problem. But I think it’s also something you can’t stop. I think in the end there will be more success in supporting lots of different networks that are very focused. These sites also bring in a lot of advertising value. Advertising for a chess set in a chess club site is of more value than advertising in Facebook. This doesn’t mean that the entity hosting everything, supporting the whole infrastucture, needs to be divided into different companies. It can be one company. But the place where people meet, where people gather, however, is better off being small. Of course, right now you can have groups in Facebook. But the chess club doesn’t want to be a group in Facebook, it wants to be its own thing, with its clunky interface –people want to build it themselves. For the people who don’t want to do it themselves, who want to get it off the shelf, the commercial sites will continue to cater to them.
UM: For the first group of people, who want to do it themselves, how come we haven’t seen an open source social network platform?
MW: We will see it, no doubt about that. It’s been a bit hard, because the standards are not there, the pieces don’t work nicely together. But it’s just a matter of time. Just look at what has happened with open source blogging software.
BRIDGING CULTURAL DIVIDES IN THE NETHERLANDS THROUGH ART AND NEW MEDIA
UM: In reviewing some of the Mediamatic projects, I found a couple that seek to explore the (real or imagined) cultural divide between Muslim and Dutch cultures. Mediamatic is attempting to bridge that divide through art and design. What role do you think an organization like Mediamatic can play, or what role do you think new media can play in bridging these gaps?
MW: Well, I can talk more from a personal perspective, because most of those efforts are being lead by Willem and Jans. I think one of the most important things you can do is to talk about it. ‘Act normal, do normal,’ as the very Dutch saying goes. The most harmful thing you can do for your own society is, in my personal opinion, to start denying the fact that there are people other than you, and not talking to them… denying that they are there. At some point you will have to confront the fact that they are there, and at that point you can’t talk anymore, you’ve missed some important opportunities. I think what Mediamatic has done in some recent projects, like El HEMA*, etc., is to start bridging that gap, start talking about it, start representing the dialogue as normal. Start celebrating difference in culture, and start making it clear that Dutch culture and Western culture are the result of interaction with and embracing of other cultures. We can’t deny that we owe a lot to the Islamic and Arabic cultures (accounting system, technologies, etc.). Let’s not deny how much of our own values are coming from there, and the other way around. By bringing those two cultures into contact with each other, as Mediamatic has been trying to do, we seek to start that dialogue, start to show people that there’s nothing strange here…
* Note for non-Dutch readers: HEMA is a popular Dutch department store chain. El HEMA is a collaborative art project that “curiously and freely approaches the possibility of an Arabic HEMA,” complete with a line of products, a jingle, store designs, etc.