April 5, 2005

Stretching the Lessons

A response to Marc Hedlund’s Reading Yahoo! 360° through “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat”

First, I must say that I’m personally flattered that Marc Hedlund and Clay Shirky think that The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat is “fantastic” and “Best. Essay. EVAR.” I’ve never been called a hero before. :-) Frankly, the paper is showing its age, so I was quite surprised that Marc chose it to frame his thoughtful and lengthy critique of the Yahoo! 360° service. You see, in the spring of last year, Chip and I started this blog: Habitat Chronicles in part to archive and transcribe the “Habitat Redux” (ppt) presentation, where we take our original paper to task and talk about the new lessons learned since then. Chip and I haven’t transcribed everything yet, so that Marc may have missed some of the hindsight, reinterpretations, corrections, and retractions is understandable.

Despite our best efforts at clear communications, The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat has become a bit of a social software Rorschach Test: In it, people see some wisdom that was not intended, or was quite accidental. Marc’s critique does suffer a bit from this effect and in a few places even acknowledges it, but he goes further as he re-interprets several of the lessons.

I welcome all thoughtful critiques of my work (new, and old), and think that several of Marc’s prescriptions are correct for Yahoo! 360°. But, since his critique used The Lessons as framework in ways that I find personally challenging, this seems like the right place respond.

Identifying the Customer

Marc says:

… Yahoo! Mail or MSN Passport is a bad idea, since the service’s goals will diverge from yours over time … an email address in your own domain will serve you better than one @yahoo.com. Great stuff, especially now that domain name registration is effectively free.

This statement typifies an attitude that separates us digirati from the rest of the world.

My mother [sister/nephew/etc.] can barely manage her web-based email. How on earth would she manage her own domains, servers, and what would motivate her to cough up the additional money to pay for these services? I run a server farm from my garage but can’t get AOL to accept a connection from my mail server. Likewise, pobox.com bounces all mail from my machine as coming from a dynamic domain. I get spam from people trying to trick me into using their domain registry with deceptive mailers that look like bills. Why was my own email domain good idea again? There is a definite cost/benefit trade-off calculation here.

It seems presumptuous to tell everyone that the free web-based email provider that they use is not good enough – that they should pay for so called ‘effectively free’ services that are significantly more expensive and complex – when all they want to do is send baby pictures to their relatives. The presumption that you understand other people’s cost/benefit calculus better than they do was at the heart of the final and most important of the Lessons: Get real. For millions of people, web mail is plenty good enough.

Stretching The Lessons

How better, then, to look at Yahoo! 360°, than to take these lessons learned nearly two decades ago, and apply them to the brave new project? Yes, let us arrange the deck chairs to spell Habitat, and see how they feel.

  • A multi-user environment is central to the idea of cyberspace.

On the surface, Yahoo! 360° seems to have learned this in kindergarten. But the world is different than it was then, and there is not one Habitat, but many. It connects you to your friends with Yahoo accounts, and not to any other friends you might have…

We’d like to believe that eventually we’d be able to share with any friend the same way we can email with any friend, but look at Yahoo Messenger and its competitors, and that’s not the future you’ll see.

Yahoo! 360° is built fundamentally on the idea of sharing – what is more multi-user centric than that?

During Marc’s visit to preview the project, the development team shared that more integration with non-Yahoo! services was consistent with the goals of Yahoo! 360° and already on the product roadmap. Look at the recent release of web service APIs, deep support of RSS over all its services, acquisition of Flickr, and initial availability of RSS feeds on public blogs for evidence of this commitment. It is not a matter will or understanding that it needs more integration. It is only a matter having the resources and time to implement.

  • Communications bandwidth is a scarce resource.

Lessons talks literally about modem speed when it talks about bandwidth, but it also talks about attention bandwidth…Today, the problem with attention bandwidth is the number of applications that want my daily attention…RSS comes out of 360 only through blog postings, one feed at a time (no “show me blog posts by all of my friends,” as Flickr would have it); other system messages aren’t available at all without logging in…

The original lesson doesn’t mention attention at all, but I’ll take the bait anyway :-).

Yahoo! 360° is designed with the idea of reducing to one the number of places you have to go to get the latest photos, blog entries, reviews, favorite songs, group postings, messages, etc. That it currently fails for his case is a concern, but already there are customers that are telling us that we have significantly reduced the number of separate sites that they have to ‘hand out’ to their friends and family.

  • An object-oriented data representation is essential…

…360 represents data in HTML only; no access allowed unless you’re logged in through a browser…[The Lessons] hint at a web services API. My usage of my data might be arbitrarily elaborate; allow me to communicate with the service at a behavioral level rather than through your presentation…

Stretching this lesson to talk about web services APIs is probably appropriate, but not exactly the original context. I still believe that online services should offer object-level semantic interfaces, where it makes sense. And it makes sense for Yahoo! 360°.

Yahoo! 360° will have more feeds and APIs as soon as we can get them working. I can’t think of a service this comprehensive that had full web services APIs on their first day of Beta. Even Flickr took the better part of a year.

  • Detailed central planning is impossible; don’t even try.

Relationships between people in 360 — the social networking part — are bi-directional, as with Friendster and Orkut…

Sharing and the free flow of communication are not built around awkward social questions. Let me browse around, see what there is to see, and choose the things I like enough to want to see more. Let me send out my ideas and my pictures and whatever else to people who haven’t joined and haven’t linked to me, and may never…

The original lesson was a call to let the users create their own content, instead of depending on a single content creator (aka the bottleneck) to meter out the experience in a linear form. As originally written, Yahoo! 360° exemplifies this goal: There is only user-generated content.

As to the critique of bidirectional links: there is much debate on this topic – there are some things (such as permissions management, gathering recommendations by degree, etc.) that are simplified for users by establishing these kinds of relationships. Though no one in my family, nor any of my strong ties, has any problems with this connection structure, the desire to observe other’s public activity anonymously is a valid request and is currently enabled for public blogs via RSS feeds. The product team is considering other one-way connection schemes as well.

  • You can’t trust anyone.

A central point of 360 is its controls for permissions and… the privacy interface creates an expectation that it will actually do something to protect my privacy… The idea that a site like Yahoo can give me actual control over the distribution of my ideas and photos with a popup menu is absurd on its face; if the idea is sharing, then sharing will find a way. You can’t trust anyone but the promise of the site is that you can.

The original lesson explicitly limits its scope to client-server interactions, like an API. It is a software security lesson, not a distribution of information lesson.

As to the claim that Yahoo! 360° protecting your information is “absurd on its face”, I beg to differ and propose a challenge to prove my point: Marc – Please send me a copy of pictures of the gift my daughter made last Christmas for a friend. They are available through Yahoo! 360° and Yahoo! Photos and are protected only by “popup menu” settings. You do not know who has permissions, and even if you can guess, they don’t trust you.

Do Linux file permissions (set from an even more primitive command-line interface) mean that those files aren’t protected? Come on.

Marc closes with…

What 360 gets right is that it isn’t about anything in particular; it’s a blank piece of paper with some wrinkles and lines. What users do with it, even in its closed-garden, api-less, feed-free incarnation, is their own choice, and they may well find a way to make the tool better than its designers originally intended.

This is no accident. Yahoo! 360° did learn Lessons from Habitat (and hundreds of other projects, papers, and products). What we didn’t do was get every feature/integration we wanted working before we put it out into the market.

But, the proof is in the pudding – watch the way Yahoo! 360° evolves and see for yourself.

F. Randall Farmer

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