Opening Up Galapag.us for Alpha

My thesis project for NYU-ITP has been Galapag.us, a tribe and ecosystem for promoting the idea that we should be radically open and transparent with our data so that we can form and share metrics to measure our progress and success in different areas of our lives.  More info at the front page of Galapag.us.

User Zero

I came up with the idea in 2006.  An email I sent to my Army buddy in April, 2006:

I sort of had an idea but it seems like it’ll be difficult to build out.  My idea would be for something similar to Xbox Live’s ranking system.  Except it’s for your life.  Privacy issues aside, people would volunteer to put in as much personal info as they want.  At first it might seem cumbersome putting in so much info but I think as myspace and other services have shown, people are willing to do it if it means it cultivates their identity.

So for instance you put in your income and number of kids and connect your accounts for online game rankings (like in Halo or Battlefield 2) and your exercise plan and your birthdate and your finances and investments and how many web sites you’re on (like myspace, digg, yahoo, etc.) and from all that data, the company would generate statistics that break down your life and give you info about how much time you spend on certain tasks, how efficient you are with your money, what your online reputation is.  Stuff like that.  The core would be statistics…anonymous statistics I think so people won’t have any incentive to forge their results.  The point would be to turn peoples’ lives into a numeric game where they can see how they rate in certain aspects of their lives.  Think of all those online quizzes people take about what kind of lover they are or what their personality is.  That could be tabulated into the statistics, which could be searchable or broke down any way the person wanted.

At the end of a year, we could look internally at our statistics and go visit the top overall people in person to go verify their data and videotape their lives, interview them.  Then a winner would be announced…like the best person award.  Heh…there’d be so much controversy and whining and competition if it caught on.  Then we could write a book about our experiences going out and discovering what makes someone “the best” compared to everyone else.

So…that’s my idea so far.  Sort of like a real-life RPG.  Perhaps we could offer points for real-world scavenger hunts or traveling to different countries around the globe.  What about having life coaches for certain segments, if someone was weak in an area like professional development?  I was thinking we could also offer points for accomplishing certain tasks like humanitarian work.

A lot of stuff happened in the meantime: I got out of the Army, went to study foreign policy in DC, worked for Homeland Security, moved to NYC for school.  And so now I’m wrapping up the thesis, which allowed me more than a semester to work just about full-time (including any waking moment) on trying to make Galapag.us a reality before I can either A) get funding or B) get an engineer/developer job after school.

So I present Galapag.us for thesis on May 15 at NYU.  I have two weeks still to work on it before then.  I think I’ve gotten it to a point where I can start letting alpha testers in to explore, and think about it.  My work log has been tracked on the thesis blog.

Beginning Alpha Testing with Thesis

Want to help alpha test or just look around?  Give it a try at https://galapag.us/login and see what you think!

Here’s the slide deck I’ll be presenting at thesis:

Stack

  • Amazon EC2 small instance with ubuntu
  • node.js/express.js: So easy to build a site using this framework.
  • varnish/nginx+ngx_pagespeed: Caching, run-time optimizations for faster page loads/downloads.  Routes to https and socket.io server too.
  • python scripts for maintaining server default state
  • celery for queuing
  • redis for temporary data dumps and lookups
  • mongodb for permanent data storage
  • angularjs for the comment system
  • mocha, unittest, qunit for unit testing in python and javascript

 

I know the site’s confusing — like an airplane pilot dashboard.  It’ll become more cohesive over time.  A lot of things aren’t quite working yet, or they have filler data to get them going.  Apologies for that.  For more familiarization, try the welcome demo.

But here are some features that are worth checking out:

Comment System

Comments will be available for tribe forums, formula critiques, peoples’ profiles.  I decided to use angularjs so I could learn how to build SPAs with it!

ss_comments

 

Tribes

By tracking individual data, one can also track internal company metrics and state-level happiness metrics too!

ss_graph

 

The Islands

Each island has its own weather, environment, and bonuses/penalties for certain user behavior, so it benefits you to live on the island that incorporates your style best.

ss_islands

 

Professions and Skills

What does it mean to be “good” at something? Are companies hiring the most qualified candidates? How do we standardize that?

ss_professions

 

Your Genome

A profile for your data.  You get reputation scores in different areas.  Those scores are determined by which formulas you choose to use.  You can also see your internet of things (devices, pets, objects) is on the bottom right, while you’ll also be able to create gaming characters using your own data.

ss_profile

 

Quests

You can complete quests within Galapag.us to gain experience.  Some tasks will be data-gardening for other people, some will be to introduce gaming elements, others will be to visit lesser-seen parts of the site.  But mostly the quests should be geared towards helping others.

ss_quests

 

Status Bar

I love github’s command bar. I want users to be able to do most everything through the search bar.

ss_searchbar

 

Tribes and Their Genomes

Tribes are important to our identities. formulas serve as their DNA.

ss_tribes

 

Universal Reputation Lookup

The left-side widget can be opened on most pages to see what reputations the people named on them have.  I intend to allow people to look up reputations from just about anywhere.

ss_widget

 

 

API/Sandbox

Galapag.us will have an API to access one’s data, as well as common stats such as state population census results, zodiac signs, and global stats.  Plus a place to test the routes, within the sandbox:

ss_api

 

So with all that, please go help alpha test at https://galapag.us/login to begin your exploration of identity and reputation.  Thanks, and come to the ITP Spring Show if you can!

Facebook Privacy Stats Discussion

My friend Kevin Donovan sent me a link (thanks Kevin) to this post (by Fred Stutzman) criticizing a NYTimes article (by Randall Stross) about how Facebook is affecting privacy boundaries for different age groups.

Personally I think the post is a bit too harsh on the NYTimes article (along with Michael Zimmer‘s), but provides excellent data points in his criticism.

Stutzman quotes some excellent data (see his post for references):

Stross simply has this one wrong.  Instead of misguided intuition, let’s look at the numbers.  In the Summer/Fall of 2008, Jacob Kramer-Duffield and I ran a survey of undergraduate Facebook users.  We employed a list-based simple random sample, with 494 respondents.  When asked the question Have you changed the default Facebook privacy settings to give yourself enhanced privacy in Facebook?, 72.47% responded “Yes.” To the question Based on your Facebook privacy settings choices, who do you allow to see your Facebook profile?, 50% answered “Only my Facebook friends.” (1)

It’s good to see that Facebook users are beginning to learn how to use the many settings Facebook gives them to control their privacy, such that the percentages have changed dramatically.  It had been weird to see so many Facebook users unresponsive to the privacy tools given to them.

I also liked Stutzman’s final comments:

First, Facebook defaults have changed over the years, so a default now may have been a modification in the past.  Second, Facebook’s audience is increasingly international, so we must remember that norms will vary significantly across nations and cultures.  Third, privacy is not in Facebook’s business interests.  Less privacy = more content, so it may not be in Facebook’s interest to craft a privacy statistic that reflects current norms.

But Stutzman concludes with this:

Young people didn’t simply decide to give up privacy.  Rather, the studies show that social network sites, in their early iterations, created a very meaningful sense of close community.  Young people disclosed not because attitudes about privacy instantly and simultaneously changed, but because they felt very comfortable with their audience.

Hmm.  It seems as though Randall Stross was just saying that older people do not take as freely to sharing their lives publicly as younger people would.  Is that horribly wrong to say?  While there is more resistance among older people, sure, many will eventually adapt (I’ve been getting my dad to share more online).

But generational memory and identity are hard to break; try as we might, there will be many of the older generations who will just never change, and will never want to share online.  They grew up in a different world, and it sticks with them.  I’m not saying Stutzman is wrong — I would just like to see him add generational memory to the study of old vs. young people.  I’d argue that kids these days are being wired to accept a future flesh/digital hybrid world…one where a radical transparency and accountability system exists and there is little privacy except for the most intimate parts of our lives.

Building Online Communities

[Before I begin, I just wanted to link to this O’Reilly Radar post that shows how Facebook continues to blow away its competition, with 175 million users worldwide.  Another conflicting post from another source has a different number of total users, at 222 million.  Facebook is posting great growth numbers abroad and in the US — I say all this because I believe Facebook is taking over the planet in social networking shortly before the personal data jailbreak is to occur.]

Somewhere between researching my final orals exam topic of “individualized identity and reputation for international development” (for my MSFS degree) and studying how to design both a competitive and collaborative ecosystem for my start-up, I came across some very cool pages at Yahoo!.

Yahoo!’s developer network has available some tips and examples of how to build competition, reputation, rankings, leaderboards, and other social interaction devices into a web site.

Check some of them out:

YDN (Yahoo! Developer Network) has grouped these and many other categories loosely under “Reputation” in one of its menu hierarchies.

These pages have some interesting linkages.  From one post it links to:

“The famed #1 book reviewer on Amazon.com (who does claim to be a speed-reader) posts, on average, 7 book reviews a day. So not only does Harriet have time for reading all these books, she can also whip off reviews of them pretty quickly, too.”

Another example:

“Avoid even slightly offensive names for levels (e.g., Music Hotshot! or Photo Flyguy!)

  • These may be learnable with appropriate supporting material, but remember that reputations are also a form of self-expression and odds are good that a sizable portion of your community won’t want to be identified with frivolous, insulting or just goofy-sounding labels.
  • Ambiguous level names like these tested very poorly with some of our users.”

What’s interesting to me about all this is that it provides some basic examples of when to use certain systems and when not to.  Sometimes you may not want people to be competitive, because it may detract from their desires to collaborate.  What I read between the lines is that different cultures will adopt different preferences for how their self-designed systems will create and generate the maximum value and benefit for them.  Such a system might not be of maximum utility to another culture, however.

This implies that systems may need to be designed that are flexible to different peoples’ values.  It also implies that certain web sites may work where they were previously thought not to, just by providing an alternate version specific to that culture or tribe.  The easiest example of this to visualize would be language-localized versions of web sites.  Facebook adding Arabic and Hebrew versions recently will bring in many more Arab- and Hebrew- speakers through this alone.  But other cultural dimensions beyond language have yet to be addressed.

Not too long ago, I attended the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami.  It amazed me to see just how involved companies like Yahoo! and Facebook are getting into building online communities.  I also picked up some cool Yahoo! schwag including a foldable map that shows all of Yahoo!’s APIs and services.  Pretty impressive.  What’s even better, these companies are being extremely open about all of this.  The social networking community looked nothing like this when we first began our research not too long ago in August!  Pretty awesome!

Studying Russia

[To round out my research, I need to study the BRIC countries — however I realize I do not have the time to give them much more than a cursory look in all their dimensions:  demographics, political economy, sociography, history, culture, religion, etc.  So I thought if I were to look at them through the lens of how it might affect the expression of their cultures/countries online, that might be sufficient.

Now, please, I am not a regional expert by any means, so if I overgeneralize or say something blatantly wrong, please correct me in the comments but don’t take what I write personally — I’m only going off what I could find online, mainly through Wikipedia.  Here’s Russia’s Wikipedia page, for example.]

Russia

Government: Parag Khanna argues in “The Second World” that Gazprom, Russia’s oil corporation, controls Russia and the government, with Vladimir Putin running a revivalist, nationalist agenda.  It is, as Khanna says, a petrocracy, one that is acutely sensitive to oil prices.  Russia is not politically free, but it is economically free — if you’re rich, you’re living well.  The rest of the country has languished.  Journalists who have attempted to investigate the government have been intimidated or murdered.

International Affairs: Russia continues to be a formidable security presence, exerting its influence on former Soviet satellites and in throttling Europe’s exposure to natural gas and oil.  However, it seems reliant on Europe for investment, and is being trumped by China on its eastern borders.  Russia’s military has not benefited from oil/gas profits — thus its ability to exert leverage has become even more concentrated in its ability to control natural resources.  It can be argued that Russia now looks with embarrassment as China as a successful Communist model.

Demographics: According to Khanna, 2/3 of the Russian population lives near the poverty line.  Russia has an aging population that is emigrating from the country if possible.  It is still well-educated.  HIV/AIDS and other health problems have surfaced as health care systems languished.  Russia is in danger of losing its eastern provinces (providing most of its land mass) to China, whose economic success and cultural roots prove far more inviting.  3/4 of Russia’s economy is concentrated in Moscow.

Religion: Russian Orthodox 63%, agnostic 12%, atheist 13%, 6% Muslim.

Telecom: Russia has very low penetration, at 14%.  According to comScore, the Russian internet market grew 25% in 2007, making it one of the fastest-growing (and largest) markets in the world.

Social Media Usage:

In Russia, there are two major social networking sites (SNSs):  Odnoklassniki and vkontakte.  Odnoklassniki is primarily for students to find each other, while Vkontakte is a blatant Facebook rip-off.  Both have the same percentage reach of the overall internet market.  The difference is that Vkontakte users spend 689 average minutes on the site per month, whereas Odnoklassniki users only spend 120 average minutes on their site. (comScore)  This means that although both have similar statistics, Vkontakte usage is richer, and, in the long-run, will grow faster.

One blog post says,

“What’s more, some users try to demonstrate to their friends that they no longer use Odnoklassniki and have moved to Vkontakte by displaying a graphical image as their avatar or one of the photos reading “moved to Vkontakte” to avoid the automatic filters for the text messages – but such photos are quickly deleted by moderators of the network anyway.

“I have to admit this looks like a creative way to avoid migration of your users to your competitor but at the same time I have a feeling it should be frowned on at the very least. For example, I have seen Odnoklassniki buying ad space on Facebook to display to the Russian users and a Facebook advertising team representative told me that their ToS for the advertising program did not prevent competitors from paying to reach the users of the social network.”

Noticeable is that Facebook has almost no exposure in Russia, although it only added language localization in June of 2008.

Questions

Odnoklassniki seems on the surface to not be appealing in a broader sense than networking among students.  Facebook started off this way, however, but expanded for wider social networking.  Vkontakte is exploiting the success of Facebook, but in an inferior manner — fewer controls and features.

Furthermore, I disagree with the blog post that suggests the only option for Facebook is to buy its clone Vkontakte to take the users and grab much of the Russian market.  I would predict that if Russia’s integration into the larger internet community grows, Facebook will quickly syphon users away from Vkontakte.

Some Effects of Cultural Context

Over on my reputation research blog, I wrote a long piece, mainly to do with Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers”.  I felt the post was also relevant for this blog because Gladwell talks about how cultural history affects modern-day events, design, and culture.

For instance, Gladwell writes that some Asian civilizations, being primarily rice-growers, approach problems the same way they grow rice.  Rice must be nurtured extensively, carefully grown, and constantly improved.  Wheat and corn growers, on the other hand, are not necessarily required to plant seeds perfectly spaced apart, to build perfect soil or mud/clay for the crop, or to spend lots of time maintaining the crops.  What Gladwell says is that rice-growing civilizations have been measured to spend more time thinking about a problem before giving up than wheat- or corn- growing civilizations.  They have more patience and determination to be good at things like math.

He also talks about how, until training accounted for the problem, Korean Air had a massive problem with communication among its pilots and first mates.  This led to a spate of crashes, and black box recordings showed that a cultural context where one does not question authority, and does not speak directly, instead using hints or suggestions, is not good for an industry where if the crew doesn’t make direct, well-communicated decisions, its plane will end up smashing into the ground.

So check out my post, and read Gladwell’s book.  It’s fascinating.  The premise is sort of what I’m hoping to get out of my research into how international values shape social networking sites within the context of privacy and identity.

On Negative Identity

Over on my reputation research blog, I wrote a post that applies to our Yahoo! work too.

It’s on the concept of “negative identity”:  perhaps social identity formation consists of an element of defining yourself by what you are not.  That is, you don’t always actively define your identity in terms of all the things you like to do, but instead, by who you are not and by what you don’t like.

Most social networking sites tend to allow users to define themselves only by what they are:  that is, what are your favorite hobbies, music, movies, etc.?  Who are your friends?  But you don’t really use social groups on social networking sites to keep other groups out, do you?

Anyway, check my post out.

Exponential Times

Watch this video on how technology is affecting our world (thanks to Itzbeth for the link!):

Not that readers of this blog are unaware of this, but we live in exponential times where technology is pulling us kicking and screaming into a future that our cultural institutions are not equipped to deal with yet.

Be fast, be flexible, be adaptable.  The stats on labor (many of today’s top jobs did not exist a decade ago, and the number of jobs in one’s career is skyrocketing compared to past generations) are impressive within the context of a collapse in an American auto industry that guaranteed pensions to its retirees.

Also the massive growth within the BRIC countries will add new layers of complexity, ingenuity, and vectors for innovation that we can’t imagine right now. Perhaps through social networking sites will be the only way that we will be able to organize and visualize the enormous changes in ways that we can process. Old traditions and institutions will be tested, but we will have to rely on an underlying value system that those old institutions previously provided to keep some sort of semblance of stability and order.

That’s a lot of what this blog and our research is about.

Identities and Censorship

Pseudonymity

One excellent point brought up during our breakfast presentation in the CCT lounge (their journal, Gnovis, posted a write-up of it by Margarita Rayzberg) was that one coping mechanism for lack of privacy controls on an SNS or within an intrusive state is to create fake profiles and characters and pseudonyms in order to operate online.

(Outside our discussion, I want to quickly add, why Asians are more comfortable with avatars, pseudonyms, and anime in representing themselves online?)

Anyway, in my privacy controls post, I showed just how extensive Facebook’s privacy controls are.  This allows people to feel more secure about putting more information into Facebook’s databases because, whether they use those controls or not, they feel as though they can control their own data.

But Brazil uses Orkut, which has fairly weak controls relative to the rest of the spectrum of SNSs (Myspace excluded).  I am not sure if Brazilians fear government intrusiveness into their day-to-days, since I haven’t done the research yet, so if they are using fake profiles quite often, then it might be because they are uncomfortable sharing info that those in their peer group or real life may view.  We see this phenomenon here in the US with Myspace users.  Younger users are encouraged to create fake profiles to hide from their parents, unauthenticated classmates, and other outside, threatening players in their lives.

I would argue that pseudonymity has an unappreciated role online.  Anonymity has been with us since the start, back to “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog”.  Certainly much has been made about verified identity online, to facilitate trade and commerce — it wasn’t long ago that people refused to shop online for fear of fraud, an irrational fear as it turned out.

Pseudonymity has been discussed at length as well, as most outsiders see it as escapism from reality and compensating for missing traits in real-world personality.  But it also allows, at the identity layer level, for a blend of authentication and anonymity to make up for the lack of identity tools to properly set the level of privacy you’re comfortable with online.  You may want to be anonymous to all those who know you in real life, but you want to be known online within a certain community.  So you take a handle or nickname and create a reputation around it.

Censorship

The Yahoo!/ISD fellowship was originally created with the help of Michael Samway, Yahoo!’s VP and general counsel of human rights efforts and a former Georgetown MSFS alumnus, in response to a case of censorship by the Chinese government with the collaboration of Yahoo!.

The NYTimes this weekend published a long article called “Google’s Gatekeepers”, which describes a case involving Google’s YouTube property and Turkey’s blocking YouTube because of videos from Greece that defamed the founder of modern Turkey, which is a crime there.  This spurred a look into how Google decides which videos get taken down and why.

What should companies do about issues such as this?  Should they concede to governments’ wishes in order to stay in the market, particularly one as delectable as China’s?  If they decide to stick to principles of free speech and user protection, they risk being banned, while their competitors could decide to concede and gain the lost market share.

For now, multiple stakeholders have formed the Global Network Initiative in order to collaborate and work together to ensure freedom of speech and privacy; it remains to be seen who will cooperate with the group and who will break apart, and whether they can exert enough leverage on governments to back off from censorship.

The Little Guy

What I am primarily concerned with in my research is how all this affects the little guy.  You, me, those in BRIC countries.  How do different countries’ users approach social media usage, knowing the risks they take both socially and from their governments?  From some discussions I’ve had (but with nothing concrete to back it up), it seems as though Chinese users have a good sense of where the line is when saying something potentially risky in the government’s eyes.  It’s hard to draw such a line when it comes to what one can say within his social network, though, since there are many more actors and attitudes and roles of relationships with that person.  In other words, what you would say if you knew your mom was listening and what you would say if your best friend or boss were listening would be markedly different.  At least you know in China fairly reasonably what you should and shouldn’t say in order to get the government censors concerned.

With that in mind, I think my privacy model holds well, although I’ve learned from our CCT chat and various other discussions to modify some of the language and words used, since each word has very specific meanings and inferences.

Your True Identity

The last thing I want to talk about here is with regards to hiding your true identity, as in your real life identity.  In my “What’s Shaping the Internet” class (also in the CCT department), one of my colleagues did a presentation on Chinese censorship.  One thing I started thinking deeply about through the pre-class reading was that foreign companies use tunneling and encrypted networks to pass through the Chinese firewall (or “Golden Shield”) in order to phone home to their offices.  Both technically (encrypted tunneling is hard to defeat or wiretap) and commercially (if foreign companies have no privacy, then they would object and would pull business out for fear of losing trade secrets or more), encrypted networks and VPNs within China seem untouchable.

This ability can’t necessarily be said for regular Chinese citizens, who must find a secure connection to use in order to start tunneling securely.  But it brings up the interesting question:  how much tunneling do Chinese citizens engage in?

And would it really help them as far as SNSs go if they could tunnel out?  SNSs are huge in China and by statistics we’ve discussed earlier, Chinese use social media far more than Americans do.

But at some point, can you really escape who you are?  If you could post about yourself on computers based in a country that protects free speech, you’re still at some level talking about metadata that links back to your identity back home.  If you were to scrub all your information of your real name or pseudonym, it would not take much work to find out where you live, what you do, and who you know.  It would then not be much of a stretch to find you.  Your personal data is horribly non-anonymous whether you’re Publius or Joe Klein.

So we’re led back to the beginning of this post, resorting to using pseudonyms to create completely fictional characters that anonymize our real life personas.

Hiatus

Apologies for the interruption in posting regularly.  It’s the end of the semester and I can’t speak for Gaurav and Pav but I’ve had a lot of on-going semester-long projects.  The Mumbai attacks hit close to home for Gaurav and Pav and I kept up with Gaurav’s tweets and posts during the Thanksgiving break while watching TV coverage and reading the spotty journalism online.  Certainly there was a communitas and online awareness during the Mumbai hostage situations that’s unique to our times.

In mid-November, Gaurav gave a presentation during a Georgetown CCT (Communications, Culture, and Technology) breakfast chat. The CCT program, by the way, has a really cool blog called gnovis which covers interdisciplinary issues such as culture, technology, media, politics, and the arts. Add it to your RSS feed!

I assisted in covering a few slides for the presentation.  Our topic was how cultural context affects social media usage in the BRIC countries and in the US.

Gaurav posted the excellent slideshow he presented, so you can check it out:

This presentation was very useful for us because the CCT students are not only already well-versed in the subject we covered, but also pointed out areas we completely overlooked, studies we used that have blind spots, and presented an argument that we should look more carefully at how the different BRIC countries and the US view issues like privacy, openness, and sharing.

So these issues I will be researching for my future posts, particularly how the word “privacy” does not translate well into other languages and is fairly confusing even in English.

I also plan to study the individual countries to see if I can isolate characteristics applicable to my studies on privacy and openness vs. closedness.

It should also be mentioned that discussion within the web developer community regarding identity, sharing data across sites, and privacy vs. advertising is extremely hot right now, so I will try to post more summaries of good stories I see out there on that front.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, and here’s hoping you have a happy holiday season, wherever you are.