Anthony Bailey (anthonybailey) wrote,
Anthony Bailey

Contacts: Let's keep all this between ourselves

I want to describe how I like contact(s) information on the Net to work.

I say "contact(s)" because I have complementary ideas regarding both the contact details for a person, and the details of who their contacts are - you can say "friends" or "social graph" for the latter if you like. To oversimplify: I want the information sources to be distributed, and to delegate to individuals as authorities for their own details. I find that most current technologies don't share this ideology; however, I can still use them to act in tune with it.

An introductory note: I'm going to talk about people "owning" a web page. What I mean is that they have significant control over the main content of the page, which is published under as permanent an URL as possible. They definitely don't have to serve the page from their own machine, or from a host that they rent - a page on a social network or in an ISP's basic web hosting area is fine. The URL can be under someone else's domain, so long as they have confidence it will last a while. (IMHO aside: own the domain.)

My suggestion about contacts assumes some kind of a homepage/identity baseline: that people own some page that is about them - such as a blog, or a presence on a social network. Their homepage URL is then a decent identifier for their identity online. For bonus points, they can prove that they are the person who owns that page through OpenID, or Facebook Connect, or similar. All this is standard for many people online already, and it can easily enough be true for anyone else who cares to make it so.

My stance is that I want to own my contact information - because I believe I'm best placed to be the central authority it. I want to publish it as a resource located on or somewhere that is discoverable from my homepage, in a standard format. (Until the world stabilizes a bit, probably in multiple formats, all views of the same underlying data.) I'd like others to do the same. It's up to them exactly which details they publish. If they care to, they can even restrict access to some information, making it "friends only". (IMHO aside: most privacy is squeamish.)

I also want to own my contacts information - the list of other people that I know. For each of them I want to store and publish a homepage URL, and also a name - given how neither or those identifiers is completely permanent. I also own how I personally would describe my relationship with these people. This perspective need not be reciprocated.

But, I don't want to own my contacts' information. I want to delegate that to them! In as much as my contacts list is an address book, it should be so only through indirection: to find out about a contact, go to the homepage I have linked for them, and discover the contact information that they themselves have published there.

Most current systems do not assume such delegation: I am expected to own other people's contact information, as well as mine. I presume this is a deliberate compromise in order to gain critical mass (of contact details published online in general and on the vendors network in particular.) My own disdain for such practicality comes partly from not finding much need for an address book per se - perhaps if my network(ing) were better this would be otherwise. But, even allowing for that, I don't see the delegation I desire called out as an ideal or an aspiration anywhere in the design or implementation of current systems. Evangelizing this, and exploring how to get there from here, is the motivation for this and my next blog entry.

There are a two main reasons I want things to work this way.

  • Firstly, there is the golden rule: if I want to own my contact details, I should should grant other people the right to own theirs.
  • Secondly, I'd rather not have the hassle of complicating my own records with other people's details. Let the person who knows best update their information in a single place, and I'll get their latest details by going there. This also avoids my having to take responsibility for choosing which of their details to publish. Given current preciousness about privacy, this side-steps a potential minefield.

There is a yet more open approach that I have refrained from advocating. In a truly distributed wiki-wiki-world, one could argue that an individual's opinions on information about themself should not be sacrosanct - that we should seek a consensus of everyone's opinions. On most truths, I'm all for this kind of emergence. But when it comes to how to contact an individual I think having them be the single authority is too useful a shortcut, and it may have psychologically benefit, too! Letting the rest of the world speak for those as yet offline, though, could be a decent strategy to cover the gaps between where we are and where I want us to be.

Talking of such strategies: next time I'll write about my current implementation of the plan I advocate using existing contacts technologies - hCard, XFN, FoaF, PoCo, et al.

I have some further opinions that are related to the discussion above but would have distracted from its core, so I've moved them down here.

Own the domain: If you're going to own a page of significance to you, I would advocate controlling the domain name of the URL you publish it under. By all means have another party host the content, just point your own URL at where the page currently is. That way you can change the service/hosting provider without losing the URL by which people find the page.

Most privacy is squeamish: Although many are nervous about publishing it, I think much contact and other "personal" information is most naturally public: going ex-directory is weird. The impact of problems that might arise from publishing e-mail, mailing address or biography is overestimated. You're getting spam anyway. Stalkers are rare. The existence of the concept of "identity theft" occuring through knowledge of simple everyday facts - like a birthday, a hometown, a mother's maiden name - is a symptom of immature authentication procedures, a laughable security through not-even-obscurity. Lastly, contact details are useless without at least some users - and trying to control how others use and copy bits is a mug's game.

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