We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Social media

Why I’m excited about joining Singly

This summer, I’ll be taking a bit of time off, moving back to San Francisco and starting a new job. I can’t wait to get back to work. Here’s why.

Me and my data


I have a singular relationship with my data. I have a copy of every email I’ve sent since I first got an Internet email address in 1994 (82,000 messages and counting). I have even older files downloaded from BBSes, and passed between friends on floppy disks. Chat logs, text messages, voicemail…I hold onto them all. Anything which is relevant to me personally, I tend to save.

This must seem banal to people who are first getting online today. In the age of Gmail and Flickr, it’s easy to assume that all of your data will be preserved indefinitely, with little or no effort on your part. But for me, it has been hard work over the years, because I’ve done it myself. I’ve carried my data with me to countless new computers, operating systems, storage technologies, file formats and cities over the years. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve brought it with me. Physically.

Really?

Why do I do this? Why have I gone to such trouble for a collection of bits? Especially now, why is most of my data still at home?

One pragmatic answer is that I can simply do more with my data when I have a copy. I can work with it using any software I want, including software that I write myself. I don’t have to worry about whether I can transfer it from one web service to another. I’m never stuck using yesterday’s services because my data is never trapped in them. My personal data is always available to me me, always raw, ready and waiting for the next wave of software to come along. When it does, I can load my data into it and keep going. The fact that Facebook and Google disagree over sharing their users’ data doesn’t bother me in the least.

Another reason is that I want to be in control of it. I decide who to share my data with, and when. Some of it, I prefer not to share at all, with any person or company, and I have that choice. Even if a powerful government wants to access my data, I am afforded certain protection under the law, at least in the countries where I’ve lived. If I turned over my data to service providers, my choices and protection would likely be much more limited.

I have a deeper emotional attachment to my data as well. Enfolded within that vast pattern of bits is some part of my self. By sharing my personal data with other people, I show them something of who I am. Increasingly, my personal data is part of my identity. This is more than just a state of mind: it’s been shown that even our “non-identifying” personal data can reveal who we are.

In other words, it’s not just “my data”—it’s me data”.

Singly

I’m joining Singly because I want to take this concept much further, and combine people, data and software into a different shape with people at the center.

Today, we are creating vastly greater amounts of personal data, and it’s stored in many more places. We leave our trail on the Internet in the form of activity streams, messages and content, spread across different web sites, each with their own inscrutable terms of service and (if we’re lucky) their own API. These disconnected silos prevent us from using all of this information effectively.

Meanwhile, we want—and need—to connect with each other in more ways than ever before. We need applications which can connect us, through our personal data, to the services we need.

Singly is building the technology to make this possible. It will be designed with the deepest respect for the relationship that we have with our personal data, and with a vision for truly personal computing.

Singly is…

  • A team of passionate people, dedicated to a vision for personal data
  • Building an open source data locker, which aggregates and stores your personal data from around the web and ensures that it’s always available to you
  • Enabling developers to create powerful distributed applications based on this data, without having to deal with the complexity of multiple web services APIs
  • Providing secure hosting services for personal data lockers
  • Hiring! We’re looking for people with deep experience in security and cryptography, cloud infrastructure and user experience, as well as software engineering generalists

This opportunity is a great fit for my interests and experience. Singly aims to be the commercial part of a vibrant open source community, and I’m looking forward to building on what I’ve learned in Debian, Canonical and Ubuntu to help make it a success.

I’ll have lots more to say about it as time goes on. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in following what we’re doing, here’s where:

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 27, 2011 at 17:13

Breathing information

I’ve written previously about my reading habits, online and offline, and the patterns I extrapolate to content consumption in general. I’ve been talking with other people about this as well, and am beginning to develop a model to apply to my daily life.

There are plenty of unsatisfactory metaphors circulating in this area: we eat the “information diet”, drink from the “fire hose”, endure the “information explosion”, and so on. None of them describe the richness of my experience: the profound variations in style, texture, speed, depth and movement are lost in this kind of dry imagery.

Instead, I think of it like respiration.

We inhale information, and we also exhale it transformed. We do this, consciously or unconsciously, every moment of our lives. Sometimes we do it quickly, other times slowly, and it can be relaxing or stimulating. We only retain a small amount of what we take in, but it becomes a part of us. We can immerse ourselves deeply, meditatively, in a series of breaths, or fail to notice as we breathe shallowly or pause altogether. One breath may be virtually silent, the next filled with a song or a question or a piercing whistle.

We maintain a balance in our breathing, and I aspire to do the same with information: reading and writing, listening and speaking, seeing and being seen. I don’t mean this simplistically, that I should do both in equal proportion (imagine trying to write as many words as you read!), but doing both consistently. It is often only when I share an idea that I come to understand it deeply, no matter how much I have read about it. By writing it down, or telling someone about it, I naturally fill in the gaps in my understanding and create mental structures which help me recall and apply what I’ve learned.

My input and output should be balanced appropriately for my circumstances. Rapid-fire email is like hyperventilation: I can do it for a while, reading and replying in quick succession, and even feel energized by it, but if I go on for too long, I get dizzy. Running might call for a certain breathing ratio, and Yoga quite a different one. Both can be healthy practices, but they are different, and each requires focus and consistency.

Another key lesson from breathing is to let go. A friend recently told me about his daily online news routine, which included closing any unread tabs at the end of the session. I will sometimes hang onto an article or a video for days or weeks before I find the opportunity to take it in. I eventually get around to most of them, but meanwhile they are taking up space and causing a continuous low level of anxiety or guilt. This information isn’t going anywhere, and if it’s truly significant for me, it will most likely turn up again. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too.

Similarly, it’s not wise to breathe stale, indoor air for too long. I will try to step outside regularly, and engage with people and media from outside my usual sphere. When the weather is tolerable, I’ll open up the house and let plenty of fresh air circulate. This will help me avoid getting stuck in the “echo chamber” of my own ideas, or in groupthink.

Perhaps most significantly, I will try to remember that information exchange, like breathing, is not an end in itself. It is a means to action. This will remind me to get out of my head regularly, and do something significant with what I’ve learned.

Ready? Breathe.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 2, 2010 at 15:44

How to decide what to read (and what not to read)?

Like you, dear Internet readers, I have no shortage of reading material. I have ready access to more engaging, high quality, informative and relevant information than I can possibly digest. Every day, I have to choose what to read, and what to pass by. This seems like an important thing to do well, and I wonder if I do a good enough job of it. This is just one example of a larger breadth/depth problem, but I’m finding the general problem difficult to stomach, so I’m focusing on reading for the moment.

These are my primary sources of reading material on a day-to-day basis:

  • Email – I read everything which is addressed to me personally. I don’t reply to all of it, and my reply time can vary greatly, but I am able to keep up with reading it, and I consider it important to do so. I am still subscribed to a selection of mailing lists, but I find them increasingly awkward to manage. There are a few which I scan on a daily basis, but most of them I process in batches when I’m offline and traveling. I’m subscribed to far fewer mailing lists than I was five years ago, though I feel they are still the most effective online discussion facility available. I find myself doing more and more discussing in real-time on IRC and by phone rather than by email.
  • Blogs – I subscribe to a few big aggregators and a random sampling of individual blogs. Most of them I scan rather than read. I do most of this offline, while in transit, and so I don’t tend to follow links unless they’re promising enough to save for later. I’ve recently stopped trying to “keep up” (scan every post) on most of them, and instead just “sample” whatever is current at the time. It feels like turning on a television, flipping through all of the channels, and turning it off again. Even when I do find something which I feel is worth reading, it’s hard for me to focus my attention after a long session of scanning. I do find a lot of good stuff this way, but I’m pretty dissatisfied with the overall experience. I never feel like I’m looking in the right places.
  • Shared links – I share my own links publicly, and follow those shared by friends and acquaintances. I do this with multiple groups of people who don’t connect directly, and pass items back and forth between those groups. I place an increasingly high priority on reading items which are shared by people I know, more than on trying to follow the original sources, because the signal-to-noise ratio is so good: my personal network acts as a pretty good filter for what will interest me. I have the nagging feeling that I need to maintain a balance here, though. If I read mostly what other people are sending me, I feel like I’m living in a bubble of like-minded people and fear that I’ll lose perspective.
  • News – I read hardly any “proper” news. I don’t subscribe to any newspapers, and generally don’t read the online versions either. I do read articles which are shared by people in my network. Traditional media never seems to have the right scope for me. There may be particular journalists, or particular topics I’d like to follow, but news outlets simply don’t group their content in a way which fits my mind.
  • Books – Remember these? My diet of books has shrunk drastically since I started reading more online media. Devoting my full attention to a book just doesn’t feel as energizing as it used to. I hesitate at the prospect of sinking so many hours into a book, only to decide that it wasn’t worthwhile, or worse, to forget what I learned as I’m bombarded by bite-sized, digestible tidbits from the Internet. I feel sad about losing the joy of reading I once had, and want to find a way to reintegrate books into my regular diet.

How do you decide what to read, and what not to read? How does your experience differ between your primary information sources? How have you tried to improve?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 12, 2010 at 19:35

A farewell to Facebook

Actually, on second thought, this isn’t a farewell. There is no goodwill on either side of this bitter parting. Facebook doesn’t care about my privacy or consent, and I don’t care about their shady and anti-competitive profiteering. It’s over between us.

So, here’s what I did:

  1. made a list of all of my connections on Facebook (via copy and paste from a browser window)
  2. confirmed that I have alternate contact information for all of them, either by email or other social media
  3. deleted all of my photo albums
  4. deleted all of the information from all sections of my profile
  5. removed all applications
  6. deleted everything under “My Links”
  7. deleted all of my notes (this was tedious, as my blog was syndicated there)
  8. followed the WikiHow instructions to delete my account

Obviously, I can’t really control whether they hold onto my data in spite of this. This should provide a clear statement of intent on my part, though, if it comes up in future shenanigans.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 16, 2010 at 12:52

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Breadth and depth

I’ve always felt a little bit odd when people seem to yearn for “simpler times”: before telecommunications, before mass production…these fragments of an imagined past seem a tantalizing contrast to the present. For myself, I’m more often eagerly embracing the latest technology, learning how to use it to positive effect, and sometimes find it difficult to relate to this point of view.

I can certainly understand feeling nostalgic for an earlier part of one’s own life, a particularly enjoyable time, perhaps embellished further through remembrance. But what of periods which ended well before we were born, of which we have no first-hand experience?  Do we truly believe that our lives would have been better in another age?  Is this even a meaningful comparison?

Can we even compare our own experiences of childhood to our adult life?  Certainly, the world was a different place, but then, so were we.  Do we even remember what it was like for us?  Can an adult mind still relate with the experience of youth deeply enough to compare it with the present?  Similarly, it puzzles me that some parents seem to want future generations to repeat their experiences.  Shouldn’t we want them to make the most of their world, rather than trying to make it like ours?

I encounter these attitudes regularly when talking with people about technology, some of whom seem to feel that technology is depriving them of something.  I find this puzzling, since most of the time, I see technology as offering more choice.  At least, I used to find it puzzling, until I considered how more choice makes us less happy.  It also seems that we adjust to being happy with our circumstances.  This process can take some time, though, and if things are changing too rapidly, we may continue to feel dissatisfied until our expectations “catch up” with us.  We can also feel this way if we adapt too quickly, as we may take our world for granted.  It all seems to indicate that they are having trouble coping with changes in our environment.

Or, perhaps, the critics are right, and technology is corrupting our virtue.  I decided to take up this position myself to see if I could better understand it.  What better way to explore the question than through baseless conjecture thought experiments?  Here’s food for thought:

Thanks to advances in communications technology, we have immediate access to the people in our lives, wherever they are.  This enables us to maintain a certain level of social connection with people we never see in person, and therefore our social circles can be presumed to be much larger than they were in the past.  However, we have not been similarly blessed with more time to devote to these relationships, and so the average amount of time available for each of our “friends” is reduced.  The natural equilibrium in such a system might be to have a large number of relatively shallow relationships, rather than fewer, deeper ones.

A similar effect could be imagined for information.  With instantaneous access to a vast breadth of information, all similarly presented, we can lose sight of important differences between sources.  With so much unfiltered information, it all starts to look the same.  Is one point of view really worth more than another?  Do we even take the time to understand whose point of view it is?  It is all too easy to seize the first answer which presents itself, or worse, the most popular one.  We’re exposed to a lot more information, but are not yet equipped with a proportionally better ability to process it.

These patterns point to a common trend of increasing breadth over depth.  If such a trend does exist in technology, what effect is it having on us?  Is it a progressive trend, or will we eventually regain balance and see it reversed?  Personally, I am confident in the capacity of the human system to adapt and maintain order. The fact that people can sense an imbalance is an indication that we are healthy, and will in time find ways to cope with the change. We may not know what the solutions will look like, but we are already looking for them. Perhaps some aspects of our life will be temporarily worsened until we find them, but I believe the solutions lie ahead of us, not behind us.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 6, 2010 at 12:21

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Optimizing my social network

I’ve been working to better organize my online social network so as to make it more useful to me and to the people I know.

I use each social networking tool in a different way, and tailor the content and my connections accordingly. I don’t connect with all of the same people everywhere. I am particularly annoyed by social networks which abuse the word “friend” to mean something wholly different than it means in the rest of society. If I’m not someone’s “friend” on a certain website, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like them. It just means that the information I exchange with them fits better somewhere else.

Here is the arrangement I’ve ended up with:

  • If you just want to hear bits and pieces about what I’m up to, you can follow me on identi.ca, Twitter or FriendFeed. My identi.ca and Twitter feeds have the same content, though I check @-replies on identi.ca more often.
  • If you’re interested in the topics I write about in more detail, you can subscribe to my blog.
  • If you want to follow what I’m reading online, you can subscribe to my Google Reader feed.
  • If (and only if) we’ve worked together (i.e. we have worked cooperatively on a project, team, problem, workshop, class, etc.), then I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn. LinkedIn also syndicates my blog and Twitter.
  • If you know me “in real life” and want to share your Facebook content with me, you can connect with me on Facebook. I try to limit this to a manageable number of connections, and will periodically drop connections where the content is not of much interest to me so that my feed remains useful. Don’t take it personally (see the start of this post). Virtually everything I post on my Facebook account is just syndicated from other public sources above anyway. I no longer publish any personal content to Facebook due to their bizarre policies around this.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 18, 2010 at 17:28