Tag Archives: Gmail

Doom and gloom upon the offing of Google Reader

This week, Google announced that it’s shutting down Reader. This is the first of Google’s “sunsets” that hits me personally – Reader has been a crucial part of my internet use for the better part of a decade. I happen to think, like Marco Arment, that in the long run the loss of Google Reader will probably be good for innovation in RSS readers and for RSS in general. Google’s hamstrung app has been just good enough for people like me, but non-approachable for non-geeks. A year from now, I’m hoping that there’ll be many more quality players. So, in the long run, I’m reasonably optimistic.

More immediately, though, a couple of causes for concern:

  1. Finding an alternative to Reader. My RSS reading habits are too ingrained for me to abandon them, even for a short time. More than that: following RSS feeds is beyond mere habit, but is check on my intellectual honesty. I follow many blogs whose authors I frequently disagree with, or even dislike. (Contrast this with Twitter, where I’m pretty fickle about whom I follow, and how many tweets/links I pay attention to.) So RSS is, for me, a partial antidote to the echo chamber tendency. That means that I’ve got to find a new app, and migrate over, and I’ve got to do it quickly.

    There have been a number of posts over the last couple days listing Reader alternatives. A number of them are cloud/service based, and for practical reasons (such as, um, Google Reader) as well as philosophical reasons (see below), I’m only considering alternative tools that I can run either locally or on my own server. A couple that spring to mind:

    • Fever. I’m interested in this one because (a) the screenshots make it look nice, and (b) it comes highly recommended by people I respect, like D’Arcy Norman. I like that it’s self-hosted. I don’t like the fact that its sustainability model is to charge for downloads. It’s not that I don’t think the author shouldn’t be paid – I would be happy to pay $30 or $300 for a great RSS reader app. It’s that the success of the single-developer model is contingent on the willingness of that developer to keep working on the project (paid or otherwise). I’m far more comfortable with software that is community developed under a free license, ideally using a set of technologies that would allow me to modify or even adopt the project if the main devs were to abandon it.
    • Tiny Tiny RSS. tt-rss also comes recommended by someone I respect (Mika Epstein, in this case). And it’s community-developed, which I like. It doesn’t look as pretty as Fever, but aesthetics are about fourth or fifth on my list of requirements.
    • PressForward. As Aram describes, the PF team (of which I’m pleased to be a member) is working on a WordPress-based tool that, among other things, does RSS aggregation and provides some feed-reading capabilities. PressForward is really designed for a different kind of use case – where groups of editors work together to pare down large amounts of feed data into smaller publications – but it could be finagled to be a simple feed reader. Mobile support is a particular pain point, as 50% or more of my RSS intake is done on my phone, and PF has nothing in place to make this possible at the present time. So, PressForward may not be quite ready for primetime, but I do think that it has promise.
  2. Get the hell off of Google. We all know that Google is a company with shareholders and profit goals to meet. Yet we often act like Google is some sort of ambient benevolent force on the web. Since I started Project Reclaim, I’ve been working on extricating myself and my data from the clutches of Google (among other corporate entities). Reader’s demise is a wake-up call that the time for dilly-dallying is over.

    For my own part, I still use a few Google services besides Reader:

    • Gmail. I don’t use Gmail primarily anymore, though many people do still email me at my gmail.com address, so obviously I have it open and I check it frequently.
    • Picasa. I use the Picasa desktop app on OSX to export photos from my cameras and organize/tag them. I also use Picasa Web Albums as one of my many photo backup services. (Seriously – I back up my photos to no fewer than six different local and cloud services. Nothing is more important or irreplaceable than my family photos.)
    • Drive/Docs. Aside from the occasional one-off collaborations, I use Drive to maintain a number of spreadsheets and other documents that I share with members of my family, etc.
    • Calendar. I’m not a heavy calendar user, but when I do use a calendar, I like Google because of its integration with my Android phone.
    • Chromium. Not Chrome, but still largely Google-reliant, Chromium is not my main browser, but I use it daily for doing various sorts of development testing.
    • Android. This is maybe the one that steams me the most, because at the moment there are no truly free alternatives. (Firefox OS, please hurry up.)

    In some of these cases, there are easy ways to get off of the Google services. In others, it’ll be a challenge to find alternatives that provide the same functionality. In any case, the Reader slaughter is a harsh reminder that Project Reclaim has stagnated too long with respect to Google services.

    More than myself, I’m worried about others – those who aren’t as technically inclined as I am, or those who simply don’t care as much as I do. Google’s made it pretty clear (as is their right, I guess) that they’re not an ambient benevolence. Those who rely on Google then, especially for critical services like email, should take this warning very seriously. Please consider carefully what you’re doing when you make yourself wholly dependent on the whim’s of Google’s product managers, and consider options that are either free-as-in-speech, or services that you pay for in a traditional way.

Project Reclaim and the email dilemma

One of the main 2011 goals for Project Reclaim is to get my email out of Gmail. Heavy reliance on Gmail raises a number of red flags. For one thing, email is central to my business and personal life online, and provides the best archive of my online past (get the important stuff first). For another, Gmail is ad-supported, in a way that has rankled since Gmail went public: it “reads” your email and serves ads based on what it finds. No one really talks about it anymore, but it still kind of bugs me – so I want to move to a non-free system (paying is better than getting something for free).

It’s taken me a while to make the move, though, for two main reasons.

  1. Email is tricky. Good, free mail server software is easy to find. But it’s not necessarily easy to set up and maintain. If the outgoing server isn’t configured correctly, your messages will get marked as spam. If you haven’t got constantly monitored spam filters on your incoming mail, you’ll be inundated with garbage. And the issues of backups and reliability, while certainly important in the case of (say) self-hosted websites, are many times more important with email: if the server goes down, emails may get altogether lost in the ether.

    I’ve set up and configured email servers before, and it hasn’t been very fun. When deciding how to solve the Gmail conundrum, I needed to take this fact into consideration. I started to do a bit of research on paid email hosting, and found good reviews of Rackspace’s hosted email service. The service is pretty affordable, and I knew from years of Slicehost use (now owned by Rackspace) that customer service and support would be good.

  2. I needed a good address. I own a lot of domain names, but most of them are lame, and none lent themselves very neatly to an email address. For instance, when your domain name is boonebgorges.com, what’s the email account name? ‘boone’? The cool factor there is pretty low. And I am a cool guy, so that’s important.

    Some of the obvious domains are taken. boone.com is wasted on dry-erase boards. gorges.com could never be wrested from the clutches of “one of the oldest family owned Volvo franchises in the United States”. But there was hope – or should I say habĂ­a esperanza – that I might get the fairly unused gorg.es. In fact, my brother and I had been working on that project for a couple of years, but it was only a few months ago that the owner finally relented, and the domain name was transferred to the Gorges boys.

So, about two months ago, I made the switch. For now, I just set it up as another account in Thunderbird (more on my Thunderbird setup). I created a generic “Archive” directory on my gorg.es account (to mimic Gmail’s All Mail) and pointed my ‘Y’ shortcut to that directory. I’m using K-9 Mail on my Android phone, which I set up to save the entire Archive directory, so I’d have good local email search on my phone. Little by little, I’m moving over my email correspondence to the new, awesome address. Bye bye, Gmail!

Making the Thunderbird interface more Gmail-y

As part of Project Reclaim, I’m gearing up to move my email off of Gmail and onto my own server. Email is, and long has been, central to my life online – it’s my main point of contact for so many personal and professional connections, and my email archives are the closest thing I’ve got to a record of my online activity. So I’m keen to make the move as smooth as I can.

For that reason, I’m handling the transition in stages. The first stage involves transitioning email client software away from the Gmail website.

Choosing a client

I’ve chosen Thunderbird as my alternative, for a couple reasons.

  1. It’s open-source.
  2. It’s highly extensible and customizable.
  3. It works across platforms. That’s important, because I’ll be migrating away from OSX.

Choosing Thunderbird is not without its sacrifices. For one thing, moving to an OS-native application, rather than an app that runs in a browser window like Gmail does, means that I’ll no longer be able to count on having a consistent UI and feature set between different devices. In some cases, this is not a huge loss. The UI for Gmail on my Android phone is really quite different from the normal web version, and it’s never bothered me very much. My biggest worry, though, is that I’ll have multiple workstations – a primary work machine and a netbook, for example – with different email setups. I’m hoping to mitigate the problem by coming up with some idiot-proof backup and syncing methods for the fairly small number of files that comprise Thunderbird’s configuration. (This’ll be necessary for other software transitions as well, like my gradual move to Vim. It’d be quite easy with Dropbox and some strategically-placed symbolic links, but I’m trying to break the Dropbox habit too :) )

It’s a considerable comfort that, now that I have a smart phone (and am thus no longer reliant on public or borrowed computers for email access), the vast, vast majority of my email use is centered on a handful of devices, all of which I own. The last time I checked my email on a device other than my own was probably three years ago. Weird, now that I think of it.

The other sacrifice is related to UX. I happen to like Gmail’s interface. In particular, I’ve grown quite used to Gmail’s thoughtful keyboard shortcuts, which make it possible to do nearly navigation without touching the mouse. Coming up with a reasonable facsimile of these shortcuts in Thunderbird would be the biggest part of my configuration process.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Thunderbird has pretty good keyboard shortcuts out of the box. I didn’t feel like learning a whole new system, though, so I wanted a way to map Gmail-style shortcuts onto Thunderbird. There used to be a Thunderbird extension to do just that, called GmailUI. But the GmailUI website suggests that the extension is only compatible with Thunderbird versions 0.8-2.0 (Thunderbird’s currently in 3.1), which would explain why the extension doesn’t show up in a search on tho Mozilla repo (the “Expression Search” plugin does come up, which is a fork of a part of GmailUI that I’ll talk about in a minute – but it doesn’t do keyboard shortcuts).

So I looked for a more general method for customizing Thunderbird’s keyboard shortcuts, and found it with Keyconfig. It’s pretty straightforward to remap keystrokes using Keyconfig (Tools > Keyconfig), though it can be a bit of a pain because many of the standard Gmail shortcuts (like j and k for up/down navigation) are already in use by Thunderbird, so that changing one shortcut often means making two. You might find it helpful to borrow my configuration, which I’ve pasted below. Add these lines to your user.js config file (create if it doesn’t exist):

	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_killThread", "][I][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_markJunk", "meta shift][J][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_markReadByDate", "meta shift][D][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_markThreadAsRead", "meta shift][R][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_newMessage", "meta shift][M][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_newMessage2", "meta shift][N][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_nextMsg", "][J][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_previousMsg", "][K][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_reply", "][R][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_replyall", "shift][R][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.key_toggleMessagePane", "][V][");
	user_pref("keyconfig.main.xxx_key74_SwitchPaneFocus(event);", "][D][");
	

Briefly, this does the following. First, it maps some familiar keystroke combos from Gmail to Thunderbird: j and k to up and down, and r and R to Reply and Reply To All. Second, because two-stroke codes from Gmail (like gi for Go To > Inbox) don’t seem to be supported natively by Thunderbird, I’ve mapped D to SwitchPaneFocus, which lets me get back and forth between the folders pane, the message list pane, and the single message pane, for easier navigation. As I get more comfortable with it, I might write my own extension that ports over some of the other most convenient Gmail shortcuts, but for now this covers a good 80% of what I might regularly use.

The other big shortcut missing from Thunderbird is y, which is the Archive command in Gmail. For that purpose, I installed Nostalgy, which allows you to move messages with keyboard shortcuts. I don’t think I’ve set this up in 100% the right way, but here’s how I’ve approximated Gmail’s y using Nostalgy. First, at Tools > Nostalgy > Keys, I’ve set ‘Save message’ to ‘shift Y’ and ‘Save as suggested’ to ‘Y’. ‘Save as suggested’ seems to work on a session basis; it suggests the folders that you’ve used since the last time you started Thunderbird. Thus, every time I start Thunderbird, the first time I want to archive a message, I use the more verbose shift-Y. A dialog at the bottom of the window suggests places where I might put the message; I select Gmail’s All Mail folder. Then, the next time I want to archive a message, I can use y by itself to go to the suggested (i.e. the last-used) location. Since I just throw all of my email into All Mail – no complex tagging or organization – this is all I need.

Bonus! Offline Access and New Email Throttling

Moving to a non-web-based email client is not all bad. For one thing, moving to a local application means that my email – archives and all – are available offline. I know that Google Gears and some of the new HTML5 goodies mitigate the issue somewhat with respect to Gmail, but offline access for a webapp is always going to be something of a hack.

On a related note, one thing that I have always hated about using Gmail is how it weaves together the process of checking for new email and accessing old email. I like to check for new mail at specified intervals only (once every few hours); anything more than that is extremely distracting. In Gmail, this meant closing the browser tab. Yet, fairly frequently, I find that I need to access an older email from my archive in order to do a specific task. In Gmail, this meant checking my new email as well. Now that I’ve moved to Thunderbird, I can access my archive without checking for new mail – the way it ought to be!

Setting it up this way was not straightforward. There are a few things you’ve got to do:

  1. In Tools > Account Settings > Server Settings, configure the ‘Check for new messages at startup’ and ‘Check for new messages every x minutes’ however you’d like. I have them both disabled, so that email can only be checked manually.
  2. Here’s the tricky part: Gmail, in its futuristic wisdom, uses a special protocol called IDLE to push new email to remote clients – bypassing the settings from step (1). (This took me half a day to figure out.) Disable this feature at Tools > Account Settings > Server Settings > Advanced > ‘Use IDLE command if the server supports it’.

I’m planning to spend a few weeks improving and getting used to this setup before starting the migration to self-hosted email.

Project Reclaim

Update: I have begun aggregating these posts at projectreclaim.net.

Lately I have been feeling increasingly uneasy about the state of my digital affairs. I am a leader on a number of open source software projects that pride themselves on, among other things, their ability to enable users to “own their own data”. Moreover, I am trained as a philosopher, and have spent a pretty fair amount of time reading and thinking carefully about the nature of data and our relationships with it. If anyone is in a position to develop and advocate for good models of digital independence, I am.

Yet, when I look around my digital world, I see instance after instance where I am, to a greater or lesser extent, completely reliant on the good will of commercial entities and their propietary systems. To wit:

  • My Twitter account is a big part of my online identity
  • The last five years of my private correspondence, personal and professional, is in Gmail
  • I use Dropbox for syncing documents between devices (like my blog_sandbox.txt file, where I’m writing this post!)
  • I use Picasa Web Albums to back up and share photos
  • I have a Mozy account to back up the rest of my important files
  • Until recently, I had an iPhone. I still use a Mac
  • I use Remember The Milk for task management
  • I store source code for all my projects in Github

Some of these are products; some are services. Some are free; some of them I pay for. And – for sure – some of the companies behind the products and services listed above are more evil than others. So I don’t want to pretend that my reliance on each of them is equally bad. But each item on this list plays a crucial role in my digital life, and each one of them operates in a way that is beyond my control, both literally (I can’t modify the source code) and more figuratively (questions about ownership, exportability, transportability are icky).

I’m planning to extricate myself.

Project Reclaim

In order to make it sound a bit fancier, I’m giving my project a name: Project Reclaim. ‘Reclaim’ because it’s a manifestation of my desire to fight the inertia that leads us to give up control over our computing experiences, my desire to reclaim control and ownership. ‘Project’ because this will be hard, and ongoing. And why give it a name at all? I’m hoping that, by being public about it – putting my experiences in a series of blog posts and tweets under a common tag – that I’ll be able to hold myself accountable, and hopefully guide others who are hoping to reclaim their lives a bit as well.

In short, Project Reclaim is the process of weaning oneself off of digital platforms that are closed source and/or under the control of others.

Methodology

How will Project Reclaim actually work?

  1. Assess the situation I’ll first need a way of figuring out which systems and platforms are worth moving away from, what their replacements should be, and in what order I should effect the transition. I’ve got a few rules of thumb.
    • Open source is better than closed source. I write open-source software for a living. I believe that, on balance, it makes better software. And I believe that using software where one has access to the source code is a necessary component of maximizing one’s digital autonomy. Thus: if the third-party system I’m currently using is also a benefactor of open-source communities (like, say, wordpress.com), it makes it less urgent to move away. And, when selecting replacements, select open source if at all possible.
    • Paying is better than getting something for free This might seem like a contrast to the previous rule, but I don’t think it is. When you use a free service, somebody’s paying the bills. Usually that means targeted advertising – think Facebook and Gmail. Paying service fees, on the other hand, and agreeing to the contract that comes with it, generally has the effect of making the relationship more transparent. Of course, this is far from absolute, but it seems reasonable in a broad sense. Plus, I like to support developers and services that are truly valuable.
    • Go for the low-hanging fruit In cases like email, there are well-established, straightforward (though not necessarily easy…ugh) ways of fending for yourself. No need to invent the wheel. On the other hand, some of the areas where alternatives are less obvious – social networking-type data springs to mind – also happen to be areas where I have some expertise and leverage. So, in those cases, it might be worth innovating.
    • Get the important stuff first My email history is more important to me than my Twitter history; the convenience of Github is more valuable to me than the convenience of Dropbox. Plan the Reclaim accordingly.
    • Get the vulnerable stuff first Recent statements by Twitter have made me think that the way I interact with the services is more subject to change in the upcoming months than, say, the way I interact with Gmail. That’s frightening. The more profit-hungry the company is – and, thus, the more disinclined to have the customer’s freedoms in mind – the more urgent it is to pull yourself out.

    Clearly, some of these considerations are at odds with each other. But they give a rough framework for deciding whether, when, and how to carry out the mission of Project Reclaim.

  2. Make the switch Here’s where the action happens: I do what I need to do to move myself to the replacement.
  3. Write about it This weekend I spent an afternoon on the problem of Twitter, and I ran into a ton of technical problems that remain unresolved. I imagine that there will be similar hurdles for each part of the project. I’m hoping that, by writing about the problems (and, where they exist, the solutions) I can help other people to take some of the same steps themselves, or even to spur someone really smart to come up with better solutions than the ones that currently exist.

What I expect from myself

My goal, ultimately, is to move away from third-party, closed-source services and platforms altogether. It might take some time. So I’ll make some interim goals: by the end of 2011, I’m hoping to have my email moved, my microblogging federated, my own backup system on my own server space, and my computer running an open-source OS.

Even if I manage to meet this goal, there’s a very real sense in which Project Reclaim will necessarily be an exercise in futility. I’ll always have to buy server space, and who’s to say that Amazon or Slicehost won’t go berserk tomorrow? I’ll always have to connect to the internet, which leaves me perpetually at the mercy of the ISPs, who are IMO more evil than all of the other service providers put together. It’s a depressing state of affairs: the kind of autonomy I want might be impossible given the way that the economy works. I take some solace in the fact that philosophers have spilled much ink over the problem of free will without coming up with a clear formulation of exactly what kind of autonomy would be worth arguing for. At least I’m not alone in my delusion.

That said, it’s a fight that I feel I have a responsibility to fight. If I’m going to continue to argue for the use and development of open source software, I have to start putting my money where my mouth is. And so, to me, Project Reclaim is less about my being a paragon of virtue, and more about my wanting to sleep a bit better at night.

Do I think that everyone should do this? People should prefer open solutions to closed ones, all things being equal. But generally, all things are not equal. Most people don’t have the time to write their own software, to run their own servers. For those people, decisions about their digital life are (rightly, I think) made more on the basis of aesthetics and convenience than lofty concepts like Autonomy and Ownership. But there are a few considerations that are perhaps relevant for the kinds of people who read my blog:

  • Open source developers who tout the importance of data ownership and other such freedoms have a special responsibility to model best behavior in these areas.
  • Academics, more than anyone, should be sensitive to the dangers of leaving the crucial pieces of one’s online self in the hands of corporate entities. That’s true for personal artifacts like email, but perhaps doubly so for scholarly work that ought to be part of a public trust.
  • Educators, like open source developers, should model best practices, encouraging students to take control over their digital identities.

So, while I wouldn’t belabor the point for the average Joe, I do think that people who consider themselves members of one of these groups – as most people reading my blog probably do – that they should think carefully about their relationship with the tools and services that enable their digital existence.

To freedom!

Automated and redundant Wordpress backup via email

The WordPress worm that was going around a few days ago got me thinking about backups. A lot of people harp about how you really ought to be backing up your data, but backing up something like Wordpress is a little more complicated than backing up local data, especially if you don’t know how to set up cron jobs. And even if you do, this only protects you from certain kinds of problems (malware, database corruption and the like), not catastrophic hardware failure (since it’s likely that you’re keeping the backups on the same physical machine).

backup

So I set myself up with with a very simple but apparently quite effective solution for Wordpress backups. Three parts:

  • The WordPress Database Backup plugin is a spiffy little plugin that lets you schedule snapshots of your entire WP database, with the option to include additional tables created by third-party plugins. Most importantly for my purposes, the plugin allows you to schedule backups to be emailed to yourself.
  • The plugin zips the database dump and sends it as an attachment to my Gmail address. I created a Gmail filter that takes all emails from that address, marks them as read, and archives them. That means that every day I have an up-to-date snapshot of my Wordpress installation on Gmail’s servers, instead of on the server where my blog is hosted.
  • Once a month or so (more frequently when the web interface goes down), I open up Thunderbird on my laptop, which grabs copies of all old mail via IMAP. Now I have copies of my WP database on my computer as well.

This is probably an obvious system that other people have implemented, but I haven’t seen many people write about it. Hope it helps someone.

What the Facebook debacle says about sharing

Allow me to take a few more swings at this dead horse.

Sharing - it used to be so easy

Sharing - it used to be so easy - via clappstar

Mark Zuckerberg, Head Honcho of Facebook, posted a blog entry yesterday about the uproar that followed the Consumerist’s comparison of FB’s old Terms of Service with the new. Luke over at Cac.ophony calls Zuckerberg’s response “totally inadequate”. I think I agree, but I want to take a closer look at the argument that Zuckerberg provides for the TOS being the way they are, as I think that it draws attention to a lot of unanswered questions about one’s relationship with content – and, in particular, the somewhat ill-formed concept of sharing – as it takes place in social spaces.

The first part of Zuckerberg’s argument:

When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with.

So far so good, I think. The act of uploading a photo or writing a Facebook blog entry is, I think, clearly an intentional act by the poster, a way of saying, more or less explicitly, “I want others to see/hear this content via Facebook”. If we posit a correlation between Facebook’s rights (I guess I mean moral rights here – I don’t know much about legal issues) and the extent to which the user’s action demonstrates an explicit desire to use Facebook for sharing content, Zuckerberg’s first point seems right enough.

Zuckerberg’s next point:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox.

He draws a parallel with the way that email works: when you send a message, the recipient gets her own copy, and you don’t get to take that copy back later, even if you wanted to. By extention, this is “the right way for Facebook to work”, Zuckerberg says. I don’t think it’s that easy, though.

If Zuckerberg is trying to legitimatize FB’s behavior in this regard by comparing it to email, then we should be able to establish that it’s OK for email to behave this way too. Is it? I have often (sad to say) wanted to take an email back within seconds of pressing the Send button. Sometimes it takes more time: there are emails I sent in college that seemed fine at the time, but now I would prefer that the recipient never again have the chance to go back and reread them. How obvious is it, from a moral point of view, that an email, once sent, should be irretrievable? Are we allowing the fact that it’s technologically difficult/impossible to retrieve a sent email to shade our moral judgment? Imagine that it’s the 18th century, and I’ve just sent a letter that I decided I want back. The only way to get it back would be to break into the person’s house and take away a physical object that I had given to the recipient. It seems to me that these circumstantial facts about retrieving a physical letter are at least part of what makes the act of retrieval wrong. But the circumstantial facts are far different with email, or at least they could be with the right software design. Thus, while I might have a gut feeling that a sent letter no longer belongs to me, the gut feeling really ought to be reassessed in light of the new circumstances presented by electronic communication.

In truth, my temptation is to say that there is something morally wrong with taking back an email that you’ve sent, above and beyond the technological considerations. It has to do with the fact that sending email is an explicit transfer of rights to the recipient. Considering just this point, Facebook’s claim that it – the medium, the messenger, rather than the recipient – has rights is dubious – Gmail (see section 9.4) claims no such thing.

Zuckerberg’s choice of words in this regard is peculiar, and telling: he talks about a person “sharing” a message with someone else, instead of “sending” it. My guess is that this is to make it more plausible that the posting of an item – let’s say, of a picture I took – is the same thing as sending a message. But this is far from obvious. If I ask you over to my house to look at my photo albums – certainly a legitimate sense of “sharing” my photos with you – it does not follow from my invitation that you are permitted to take copies of the photos home with you. You can look at them until I decide I want to put them back in the cabinet. This feels quite different from what happens when I send you a letter, whether electronic or otherwise.

It is this idea – that I get to decide when you stop looking at my photos – that Facebook is taking away in its new TOS. It might be true that, as a matter of practical, Internet fact, if you’ve shared content on a single occasion then you have ipso facto shared it unlimitedly for the rest of time. But just because this is the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things ought to be. Part of the justification for FB’s position is technical: when you post an image on a friend’s wall, another copy is created, so that deleting the “original” on your account does not automatically delete all other copies. Surely this technical limitation is easily overcome, though, through the association of all copies derived from the same original.

You might argue that actively posting a picture on someone else’s wall is essentially the same thing as sending them a message, and thus the same moral considerations should apply. Maybe that’s right. But not all “sharing” on Facebook is done through the explicit actions of the sender. If you look at a friend’s photo on Facebook, for example, there is a link underneath it to Share with others or to post on your own profile. It might be said that a person who uploads to Facebook has thereby implicitly shared with all potential viewers of the picture, but you need some argument to show that this kind of “sharing” is equally irrevocable, from a moral point of view, as the more explicit kind.

I guess all this is to say that we are going to have to figure out what happens to content ownership when the concept of sharing takes on these kinds of massive proportions. One radical approach is to do away altogether with ownership and to be totally open, dude. I like openness, despite the fact that I seem to be arguing on behalf of ownership in this post. But to make this move merely because we are stymied about how to solve the problem of massive sharing is rather defeatist – openness should be something we choose, not a last resort.

On the cloud

Google freaked out this weekend, which, in turn, freaked me out. I’m a pretty ardent user of Google’s cloud services. Gmail is the most important to me, as it’s where all my email from the past four or five years resides. Reader has streamlined my online reading process so much that’s it’s hard for me to imagine how in the pre-Reader days I managed to read even a tenth of what I get through now. So when Google hiccups – even when the hiccup is apparently unrelated to where I store my data – I get scared.

Neato

via Reza Vaziri

These Google fears came just a week after I read Jason Scott‘s delightfully titled “Fuck the Cloud”. I don’t really buy into all the too-simple “you’re a sucker if you use cloud services” rhetoric, and I think (as urged in a Twitter conversation I had with @GeorgeReese) that a lot of what Scott is complaining about is more about backups than it is the cloud. Still, this piece, along with my Google woes, was enough to get me thinking about how wise it is to depend on web services like I do.

My first reaction on Saturday morning, when Google was acting up, was to back my stuff up. I saved all of my Reader subscriptions in a local OPML file, updated my POP3 backups of my Gmail messages in Thunderbird, and saved local copies of my important GDocs. I was able to make these backups because Google has allowed it by embracing the right kinds of standards. And this fact – that backups can be made and exports done – is one of the things that makes me relatively comfortable using Google’s services so extensively.

This relatively straightforward exportability stands in contrast to the situation at some of the other sites where I create and store content. I’ve used Tweetake to export my Twitter activity to a CSV file, but the solution is far from elegant. For one, I don’t really like giving my Twitter password out to a bunch of sites. Also, I’m not crazy about the fact that I can’t really do incremental backups. Ideally Twitter itself would offer some streamlined way to export one’s tweets. Facebook is even worse. I feel uncomfortable using Facebook’s message/email system because I know that there will probably come a day when I want access to those messages but cannot get them.

I don’t necessarily blame Twitter or Facebook for their total failure to provide content exporting. There is a sense in which the kind of content being created in these spaces – or, rather, the meaningful units of content to which we attach value and thus would want to save – is quite different from the most discrete units provided by email. What’s really valuable in Facebook is not just what I write, but what others write to and about me and my friends. Only a total snapshot of my entire immediate network would provide the kind of value for posterity that I want. With Twitter the situation is perhaps even more extreme: like in Facebook, the content I value is closely related to the content created by others, but in Twitter these people are not necessarily part of my immediate network at all (like when you @reply to someone you don’t follow because of some term you’re tracking). Pushed to the limit, you might even say that only a snapshot of all Twitter activity would really capture its value at any given time, since part of the value of Twitter lies in the potential you have to mine the collective consciousness, to get a sense of the zeitgeist. When the content that you value is so holistic, the details of backing it up become dicey.

On a more local scale, it’s probable that standard export formats will emerge as services like Twitter become more popular, in the way that something like Atom or RSS can be used to backup or restore a blog. In this sense, maybe my worries about certain kinds of cloud data storage are the kinds that will go away with time. Or at least until the next new kind of content is invented.

There are some other aspects of the cloud question that I find interesting, such as whether one should really feel more comfortable with local backups than with remote ones, and whether paying for a service really makes it more reasonable to feel comfortable keeping your stuff there, but I’ll save that for another day.