Blaine Cook Introduces Us To Webfinger

Blaine Cook was in charge of building Twitter for the first couple of years of its existence before moving on to pastures new. At the moment, he is working with Osmosoft which is the open source innovation arm of BT. Last month, he came to Galway, Ireland to speak at BlogTalk 2010 about another one of his current projects, Webfinger.

The current situation that we have at the moment with the walled gardens of Facebook, Twitter, and so on can be likened to a type of sharecropping. In that scenario, you get to work on the farm, but you don’t get to own the farm. The owners of the social networking platforms, like the landowners of old, get to call the shots, and at any point you can lose your farm. Or, in our modern world version, you lose access to your accrued data and any kind of community you may have created. As Blaine says, “It’s a very tenuous situation to be in.”

How do we manage having control over our network and be able to create rich networks?

“Social networks are premised on this idea of the network effect. If you have a single fax machine in the world, it is not a very useful device. But if everybody now has a fax machine, it is now a very powerful communications device. So, if you’ve got one user on your social network, it’s not a useful social network. But if you’ve got all 150 million users from Twitter and 500 million users from Facebook, you can use your social network for, potentially, a much more powerful and engaging story. You can build much richer communities.”

So how do we get away from relying on Facebook and Twitter, and actually move towards a more internet-like approach where people can construct these networks themselves?

“The analogy from the past is that in the semi pre-internet days when the Internet existed but most people didn’t have access to it, there were a couple of providers: CompuServe, AOL, [Minitel in France, and a few elsewhere.] They all had e-mail facilities, but you couldn’t e-mail between them. If you wanted to send a message to someone and you’re on CompuServe, they had to be on CompuServe. Eventually we ended up in a situation where now we just use e-mail. These other networks don’t matter… because we moved to a technology, SMTP, the infrastructure that powers e-mails nowadays.”

How do we replicate this transformation with the current stage of the Web?

“How do we make it so that if I set up a photo sharing site I can share photos with someone that is on Flickr? Or say if I use software for my conference planning, I can share my conference planning on Lanyrd with someone not on Lanyrd without having to sign up with Lanyrd. There’s plenty of these sites and I don’t want to sign up for every single one of them, and I don’t want to duplicate my social network and do all of this work multiple times. These are the questions that have brought me to working on Webfinger.

“There is another challenge. Even if we accept that it’s okay to have one social network in charge of the whole world, the reality is that our real world existence is much more complicated than that. The reality is that we have very diverse interactions with people. You’ve got co-workers and you have family and you’ve got friends. If you’re a school teacher, you have co-workers and you have students. So we have all these complicated relationships with different people, and we actually present [ourselves] in a different way to them. We are performers in our own social existence, and we put on different masks and different identities to carry out these different interactions.

“Facebook is like a wedding from hell. Because it’s everybody you know, everybody you’ve ever met is just kind of hanging out. And if you were ever in a physical social space that would be like Facebook, it would be the most horrific experience you’ve ever had. Your mum who’s sitting next to your boss who’s sitting next to your first girlfriend who’s sitting next to your current wife, and then you have a couple of students from school or something. It’s a really, really broken situation.

“Really what we want are diverse networks that allow us to communicate in more rich ways and more specific ways.”

So where does Webfinger come in?

“The first problem that comes up is how do we deal with naming people? How do we deal with names and how do we address people? We have addresses for people in terms of postal addresses, through phone numbers, e-mail addresses. Your postal address is one of the first things you learn as a child. I am sure today kids would learn their phone numbers and e-mail addresses very early on. But we don’t have that for the social web.

“So, when we are thinking about these identity questions, the most important thing in all of them is not the technology that drives them, the data formats or any of the technical bits – that’s very, very secondary… There’s literally dozens of different ways to approach the technological side of things. But I think we lose sight, too often, of the social side of things… The thing that brought me specifically to Webfinger and the way that it works is thinking about how people use the Internet.

HTTP addresses and web URLs don’t really make sense to people. You have people googling for Yahoo and yahooing for Google. They don’t get the URLs but my grandmother is perfectly happy to e-mail me. She does that all the time, and she understands how to write down an e-mail address and contact me that way. What I wanted, essentially, was the usability of an e-mail address where you have a name and a place.

“So, how do we take this e-mail address which is name at place, and turn that into web URLs? Because we know how to work with web URLs. We know how to build technologies around them that allow us to do identity, to do data exchange, RSS and Atom feed syndication stuff – we know how to do that.

“Webfinger is really just a way to translate e-mail addresses to web URLs and that’s it… it takes literally minutes to set up for the simplest cases, so it is something that is very, very accessible. We’ve designed it to have minimal impact on the technology we need to use in your site to make it work, so it’s very adoptable.”

Webfinger is now supported by Google, Yahoo and AOL, and there is a chance that Microsoft may join the fray. At the beginning of the year, there were almost 1.5 billion e-mail users, which is an enormous base to bootstrap from. We will be talking to Blaine in the next couple of months to see how things are progressing.

You can watch this video of Blaine explaining more about Webfinger at BlogTalk 2010.

Henry Story And WebID

Henry Story was until recently a Social Web Architect at Sun Microsystems. Previously, he worked on Babel Fish, a machine translation service at AltaVista. The babel fish was a small creature featured in “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. When placed in the ear, it could translate all known languages. The author of the book, Douglas Adams, was also involved in the project.

Henry is the creator of WebID, and on a recent visit to 091 Labs in Galway, Ireland, he took some time out to tell us more about it.

Why is WebID important?

“Currently social networks are closed systems. You have to be part of a social network to friend or communicate with anybody on that social network.

“This isn’t the case for telephones. You notice the oddness of this when you start thinking about previous technologies. You can have a telephone number from any company. You can call anybody in the world in whatever telecommunications network they are part of. You don’t even know what provider people are using. The same with e-mail. You can e-mail anyone, anywhere in the world. It’s a cross-organisational method of communication.

“We have this situation with social networking. You can’t leave your social network. You can’t make a friend on another social network. You are tied. Whenever you want to communicate with someone you have to join their social network or you have to convince them to join your social network.

“So there’s a centralisation process. But centralised creates lots of problems. If a social network goes down, and one third of the social networks have disappeared completely, then all your work and all your relationships disappear too.

“Also, Facebook can’t provide for all the different needs of social networking. What we are really looking for is how we can create a distributed social web and that’s what WebID solves.”

So how does it do that?

“WebID is inspired by OpenID. OpenID allows you to type the URL of essentially what should be your homepage and use that to create an account. You then use that to log into any provider using one password which you never send to the relying parties – the people you are trying to log into. The only person who knows your password is your OpenID provider.

“OpenID was initially inspired by the Friend of a Friend (FOAF) project. The FOAF project allows me on my homepage to describe who my friends are and link to them in the Semantic Web way. Your Facebook is marked up with something like microformats. A successor to microformats is RDFa, and that would allow you to link to your friends. All your friends would have a profile on their server and you could link to them via their profile and say that you know them.

“That’s very nice because they can describe who they are, where they are, what their interests are on their page and keep that up to date. You can always be up-to-date with their information because all you have to do is have a robot fetch that information, read it and give you the latest version.

“The problem with the semantic linking of profiles is mainly that it is completely open. The information is visible to everybody. There are people who have a bit of a problem with that. People want a bit of privacy, a bit of intimacy, so they can develop new ideas and play around without having to think about the critical eye of society.”

You were working on a developing a protocol for an address book to solve this problem when you made a remarkable discovery. What was that?

“It turns out, amazingly enough, that HTTPS has all that built in.”

HTTPS allows for secure transactions over the Web by means of cryptography and the use of digital certificates. These certificates authenticate the user’s public key with the encoded key.

“In a usual HTTPS session you connect to a site and the site through cryptography tells you who it is.

“In the X.509 certificate, there is a subject alternative name ‘field’ that was placed in the certificate. Nobody has ever used it, so we just put the WebID in there. So when you click on the certificate, the certificate is sent with your WebID to the server. The server then fetches the document at that WebID and it verifies that you own the private key of the public key with which you just authenticated to the service. So in two HTTPS connections you get to do exactly what OpenID does [in seven] and in a web friendly manner.”

Henry will be speaking at Open Coffee Galway this Friday at 11 AM.