Joining web namespaces

The other day I read the following statement in the Economist:

Sensitivity of the data will decide if an application is suitable for processing in the cloud.

The writer does not mention, and probably is unaware of, the principle of translucent data. In a translucent database, the data is encrypted and thus opaque to the operator of the database. Users of the data share keys to unlock the data, and can do anything with cleartext copies that they keep locally. Can real and useful applications be built in this kind of regime? We don’t really know, because hardly anybody has tried. But if it turns out to be possible, it could become a foundation of cloud computing.

I wanted to advance the story. In particular, I wanted to help make a connection between that statement in the Economist and the idea of data translucency. I’ve written about translucency on my blog, and those entries are tagged on delicious. But nowadays the attention stream flows mainly through Twitter. So I composed this tweet:

Economist: “Sensitivity of the data will decide if an application is suitable for processing in the cloud.” Unless the data is #translucent.

There’s a limit to what you can do in 140 characters. That tweet uses all 140, but still falls short of what I wanted to do:

  • Quote from the Economist
  • Link to the Economist
  • Colonize a formerly empty hashtag namespace (#translucency)
  • Connect that namespace to its delicious counterpart

Inevitably I failed to do all that in 140 characters. Reflecting on the failure, I made this LazyWeb wish:

I wish I could tweet the command “join to #translucent and #translucency”

I’ve had some success joining tag namespaces from different domains. I mentioned the idea in this entry, and a commenter (engtech) provided a nifty solution based on Yahoo Pipes. I have since used it to keep track of items tagged icalvalid on blogs, on delicious, and on Twitter.1

My LazyWeb wish came from that experience, plus another which I wrote up in an entry entitled To: elmcity, From: @curator, Message: start. That entry describes how elmcity curators can now use Twitter direct messages to send commands to the elmcity service. The mechanism harkens back to Rael Dornfest’s brilliant Sandy, a service that acted as a personal assistant and responded to a repertoire of command messages.

Sandy lost her job when Rael went to work for Twitter. I’ve wondered if she would be rehired there. If so, a command like the one I proposed might be an example of the kind of thing she could do.

On further reflection, I’m not really sure what such a command would mean, or whether it would make sense to use Twitter to send it, or indeed whether it would make sense for Twitter (rather than some other service) to respond to it. But I’m in an exploratory mood, so let’s explore.

It would be straightforward to create a service that would take the Yahoo Pipes trick to the next level. Instead of editing and saving a Yahoo Pipe, you’d just command that service to merge the set of feeds for some tag. That command might best take the form of a URL:

As is true for my combined icalvalid feed, the result formats could be HTML for viewing and RSS for feed splicing. As the creator of the joined feed, I’m aware that it exists, and I can cite it when I want to direct people’s attention to the union of the namespaces.

But suppose I wanted the joined namespace to be more discoverable than that? Here’s where it might make sense for Twitter to be involved. If a hashtag search on Twitter did the join, it could be made evident to the followers of the person making the join request, or even to anyone searching for the hashtag involved in the request.

This is almost surely too indirect and too abstract to ever make sense as a mainstream feature. But it’s fun to imagine. If I’ve made an investment in a tag on delicious, or WordPress, or somewhere else, I’d like to be able to bring those items to the attention of people who encounter the corresponding Twitter hashtag.

The general idea behind all this goes way beyond Twitter, of course. Waiting in the wings is a whole class of services that reconcile different web namespaces.

1 That feed used to include a mix of items marked [DELICIOUS] and [TWITTER]. But the Twitter items are less durable and seem to have aged out of the combined feed.

Tinker to Evers to Chance, Tripit to Dopplr to Facebook

A few months back I observed:

Tripit, meet Dopplr. Dopplr, Tripit. You two should really get to know one another.

Richard Akerman replied:

You can feed TripIt’s ical output into Dopplr, I hear (I haven’t tried it)

That remark should have rung a loud bell for me, but somehow it didn’t. Then, yesterday, in conversation with James Senior, the bell rang. We were talking about how many services publish and/or subscribe to iCalendar feeds, how few people know that, and how much latent capability is being left on the table. Paraphrasing James:

I’ll give you a perfect example. I use Tripit, it’s a wonderful service. You email it your travel itinerary, and it organizes all your information for you. But I’ve been frustrated not to be able to share that information with my friends on Facebook. I also use Dopplr, and Dopplr talks to Facebook, but Tripit doesn’t. Then I realized that Tripit publishes an iCalendar feed, and that Dopplr can subscribe to iCalendar feeds. So I made that connection, and now my Tripit events are showing up in Facebook.

Brilliant. Look:

How did I miss that? Me, of all people, Mr. Splice-Everything-To-Everything, Mr. Find-Unintended-Uses-Of-Software, Mr. Cosmic-Significance-Of-Pub-Sub, Mr. Champion-Of-The-Underutilized-iCalendar-Standard, Mr. Computational-Thinking?

Because wiring the web is still too abstract, too convoluted, and too non-obvious — even, sometimes, for me.

The phrase wiring the web comes from Ray Ozzie, by the way. At ETech in 2006, demoed a concept called Live Clipboard. From my InfoWorld writeup:

Subscribing to an RSS feed, for example, has never conformed to any familiar user-interface pattern. Soon copying and pasting RSS feeds will feel natural to everyone, and Ozzie hopes the copy/paste metaphor will also make advanced capabilities more accessible. Consider my LibraryLookup bookmarklet. Dragging it onto the browser’s toolbar isn’t something easily understood or explained. Using the clipboard as the wiring junction will make a lot more sense to most people.

The same metaphor can accommodate what I’ve called lightweight service composition and what Ozzie calls “wiring the Web.” He showed how RSS feeds acting as service end points can be pasted into apps to create dynamically updating views. Virtually anyone can master this Tinkertoy approach to self-serve mashups.

This was, and remains, a crucial insight. From now on, we are all going to be wiring the web in one way or another. And we’re going to need a conceptual frame in which to do that — ideally, a user-interface metaphor that’s already familiar. Maybe it’s as simple as copy/paste. Maybe it’s more like Yahoo! Pipes or Popfly blocks. Whatever it turns out to be, we need to invent and deploy a universal junction box for wiring the web.