July 2011

The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser shows some of the implications of personalization, especially for the public discussion and our community political discourse. Google is one example, where the search results differ based on geography, previous searches and many many other factors.

When we first started work on federated identity and attributes, we thought the primary use for attributes would be authorization: granting or refusing access. We were wrong. In the first two years of handing out attributes, we discovered that personalization is the primary reason for requesting information about a person. Attributes are used for personalization, and controlling attributes is under-estimated. We need to work more on attributes and how to share enough information without revealing too much. Cross-site scripting is a security threat, cross-site personalization is a risk to our integrity.  Personalization is available on most modern web sites.

The Filter Bubble points out some of the dangers for our society as the news streams get fragmented and we slide into ghettos where there is no shared reality anymore. Shared reality is important for democracy, as we need to sort out where our choices are, during a public discussion.

My sister is a public servant, working for the Norwegian government. Someone set off a bomb just outside her office less than a week ago, because he hated the current political regime, killing 8 people. He then went on to the Labor Youth summer camp, killing 68 (current number, there are several missing persons), where he was arrested. All the evidence reported by the media points to a person who has been living in a filter bubble with a strong reinforcing feedback hatred for Muslims, as explained in the Guardian by Thomas Hylland Eriksen. The terrorist has been using anonymous discussion forums online to confirm his ideas and get ideological backing. Conspiracy theories flourish in such environments.

The Filter Bubble on our Internet gets really scary when we encounter:

  • There is no transparency, we do not know how reality was altered to fit us
  • The invisible ghetto I live in have walls, and I believe they are the end of the world
  • We have no interest in our community and cross-partisan discussion fail to deal with large (and small) political issues
  • Personality tests used for job interviews gets replaced by an interpretation of the bubble the job applicant live in (there is probably an app for doing this, at least in the US, where such information is for sale). Knowing about your bubble gets more important than knowing you.
  • Critical thinking is made more difficult by incongruent information, since search results and news flow differ significantly

Google launched testing of google+ last week. One interesting feature is the concept of circles: sorting your friends into friends, family, acquaintances and cool-people-to-follow. The interface for sorting friends is OK, and I may add my own circles.

The idea of using circles got me thinking about overlaps and how the circles could overlap. Most of the right’s management we are using today always starts out with a well defined root and hierarchical structure under the root.  I believe we need circles of rights, not hierarchies. I say this having worked both in the enterprise environment, social networks and for cross-organizational solutions. Bull’s eye is composed of concentric circles, exemplified by True friends within acquaintances/buddies/friends. This is similar to the traditional hierarchies in LDAP servers, who in practice limit us in what is easily done. Even for other services we tend to limit ourselves to this way of thinking, for example are there very few customer relation clouds that let you assign a person to two different organizations. Relations are normally with a person, not with a graph. I need persons assigned to multiple organizations because so many of my customers have more than one job or are in the process of fusion/fission for their organizations.

Child play is what Google+ circles look right now: disjunct circles you can skip around in. There is currently not much more than twitter lists or Facebook lists in the functionality. So why do I bother to spend time thinking about the potential? Because something needs to be done with the user interfaces for sharing information, and the Circles is a new kid on the block.

Some of the functionality I like about circles

  • Visual guide for who is in what circle
  • Drag and drop interface, still needs quite some work before escaping beta
  • Ability to put people in multiple circles
I think Google should not aim for the bull’s eye, but rather aim for something usable in everyday life, something more like child’s play.

Do not disturb my circles

Are we ready to take up the challenge of using flat space for rights management? It depends on the user interface, and the way circles are implemented today are several steps away from what we need

  • Visualization of circles overlap: Venn diagrams
  • Ability to weed out persons/circles (everybody but my cousin will get the funny pics, I want to closely follow my close friends but not the chatty girl posting too many updates)
  • Sorting the list of circles, and adapting the sort to usage patterns
  • Importing (and searching) from a variety of circles: people who get the same email, lists from other sources, people who live in my area, teams, my co-workers etc
  • Automatic updates, reflected in the search facilities
  • Scaling, for those with more than 15 people in their lives
And all of this needs to happen without having to think too hard about how to do the right thing for me as an end user. Otherwise I’ll just not bother. Google has great intelligence for search, they need to apply that same thinking to who-gets-what in the social networks.

Forget bull’s eye, give us child’s play

If a child can play with the circles and get rights management right, then the solution is good enough. Forget about building the perfect hierarchy with the single root, and get the flow going!