I discovered today that the founders of the Path social networking platform, have been reading the same pop psychology as me (see the previous posting on the Posse proposal) and limited the number of contacts users on their service can have to 150. Huzzah! Says I, maybe this is what I’m looking for? Sadly, no.

Firstly, like a lot of software in the last few years, Path is only available on two platforms iOS and Android. Since I’m somewhat old-fashioned for a geek, I don’t yet have a handheld computer (”smartphone” or “tablet”), and I won’t be getting one until I have the same freedom to replace its default operating system that I currently have with desktops and laptops (as long as Micosoft don’t get their way with Restricted Boot). Secondly, and more importantly, there’s no sign that the source code of Path is available, let alone subject to a free code software license.

Combining these two flaws, and it’s no surprise to find the company facing fines and oversight of its privacy policy by the US Federal Trade Commission for ripping off the contacts of its users’ address books without their knowledge or permission. Protecting people’s privacy, both as users and as friends and contacts of users, is a fundamental obligation of any software or platform that involves an address book or a trust network. It’s also one of the trickiest problems for making federated systems both secure and user-friendly. The Path case shows is that the first thing that’s needed is an incentive to actually do this, and strong disincentives for taking advantage of your ability as a trusted provider of communication services *not* to do it.

What Path does illustrate is that not every internet-based service needs to involve the web. Federation between locally installed email and instant messaging clients might turn out to implement the Posse concept with more secure privacy than yet another Plaxo/ Farcebook style web-based platform can, or would want to.

Filed April 29th, 2013 under Uncategorized

Travelling around the country over the last couple of months has reminded me again of how complicated contact management has become in the age of social networking silos. I have a cell phone full of cell phone numbers, which I lose every time of my phones dies. I have a paper address book full of snail mail addresses, and landline numbers, many of which are wildly out of date. I have a drawer full of people’s business cards. Obviously none of that is backed up either. I have multiple email accounts, with address books full of addresses which have been auto-added by my email client, even when they are mistakes, which bounce back a mailer-daemon response. These are nominally backed up, and generally able to be exported in some fashion, but dealing with dead addresses and duplicates and merging the various sets of data would be painful.

I’ve been thinking for a few years now that there must be a way of integrating all this. Most people currently resort to doing everything through Farcebook, which I refuse to use, meaning I don’t socially exist for a lot of people. I do have a Twitter account, but I don’t follow it, it’s just there to echo anything I post on Identi.ca the fediverse . Google (Gmail/ GChat/ G+) I use, but I’m ambivalent about whether I should. I figure there must be a way of mapping my “social graph”, without making it the commercial property of a corporation.

For a while now, I’ve been hearing all sorts of variations on the theme of Dunbar’s number, Robin Dunbar - an anthropologist - proposed there is a maximum number of people that we can maintain ongoing relationships with, somewhere between 100 and 200, and the number 150 is commonly associated with this limit. Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’, discusses a company whose management break their business units into two smaller ones when they approach 150 people. Discussions on the limits of online community decision-making in Loomio (an open source project to develop an online consensus web app), regularly throw up the 150 limit. It just keeps on coming up.

I started to wonder if you could base an application on this concept, and I came up with a working title: Posse. Posse would be an address book which can only store 150 people’s contacts (or some other variant of Dunbar’s number, set by the user). Once you reach this limit, you have to remove someone every time you add someone. The central interface would list your friends in order of birthdays, starting with whoever has the next birthday, with an option to toggle the list to who you contacted most recently or least recently, and what you said. This would require the program to integrate with any comms software you use, be it email, IM, voice chat, social network sites, whatever, using well-documented standards, and maximum respect for the privacy and security of your friends’ contact info. It would use these connections to make sure that all the contact info for your Posse was synchronised across all the address books, in any desktop or web-based comms apps you use.

Unlike most of the current crop of “social media” platforms, which aim to attract and track the largest possible network of ‘contacts’ or ‘followers’ so they can be advertised or proselytised to, the goal of Posse would be to help the user keep in regular contact with close family and friends, in an age where cheap travel and a globalized economy mean we often live in different cities, or even different countries.

Anyone got any ideas for how to implement this?

 —————————————-

Update 2019-01-18: updated the link to my Identi.ca account, which I don’t actively use at present, to point to my current account on the fediverse. I decided some time after this piece was written to stop using goOgle too, although I still haven’t completely extricated myself, and deleted my account there.

Filed April 25th, 2013 under Uncategorized
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