REX in His Own Words: Chris Messina

Todd —  November 22, 2010 — Leave a comment

The REXpedition stops people on the street (Well, not really.  We find them on Skype), and asks, “What is going on here?”

Chris Messina is a well-known advocate of the open web, starting as a leader of the community marketing of the launch of the popular Firefox web browser in 2004. He is a board member of the OpenID and Open Web Foundations, and plays an instrumental role in advancing OAuth and safer online computing (more bio here). He currently works at Google as an Open Web Advocate.

Todd Hoskins:  If I told you we are living in the “Relationship Economy,” what does that mean to you?

Chris Messina:  I’d say that the relationship economy is one where I can leverage or make available the various contacts and connections that I’ve nurtured over some period of time.

So, if someone is willing to give me some shareable benefit, I might turn around and promote that benefit to my friends or colleagues, or other people that I’m affiliated with who might have some kind of interest in that benefit.  Obviously this is similar to word-of-mouth, but it’s somewhat more durable, and would take place over time.

Todd:  Openness has been posited as a force within the Relationship Economy.  As an open web advocate, do you see the web becoming more open as a naturally evolving phenomenon, or do we have to push, pull, and campaign for it?

Chris:  Openness is unfortunately one of those words that’s become somewhat geriatric, losing its teeth and forgetting what it means . . . There’s the Facebook “Openness” and Adobe “Openness” and Government “Openness” and they all mean different things.

When I think of openness, I think of “freedom”, “forkability”, and “interoperability.”  Regardless of the definition of “open” or “openness” that you use — yes, you must always fight for openness, and you must always fight for decisions to be made that are more transparent, more expansive, more liberal, and more inclusive.  This should be the case for both moral and economic reasons.

When I think of openness I also think of biology and the human body. The human body is an “open system” and thrives because of its openness.  The human body is constantly exchanging things it values little for things it values more.  Whether you’re talking about oxygen and CO2 or nutrients and waste, the body cycles – value in and waste excreted.

It requires openness to live.  And so it goes with the web, and with technology.  The raw materials of the social web, for example, are identity, profile, activity, and relationships.  And anything that locks up those raw materials impedes progress and stifles innovation and competition.

This is why I joined Google as their open web advocate, and why my work goes beyond technology (protocols and formats) — it’s about understanding why “openness” is essential to the future, and then devising plans and actions that can promote openness into the beyond.

Todd: So, in the web-as-body, ActivityStreams are the veins and arteries?

Chris: Well, not exactly   Blood is like SMTP or HTTP.  It’s a common carrier for all kinds of “messages” and nutrients.  ActivityStreams functions a little more like language, perhaps a pidgin creole for the things that people do in heterogenous systems.

ActivityStreams is designed as a simple container format — a “receipt for something you did” is how I describe it — for recording the activities conducted in different environments.

Now, you can have global and you can have local ActivityStreams.  So, within a community, perhaps The Well or GitHub, you’ll have verbs, actors, and objects that are all local and make sense within that context.  There will also be universal or global verbs, objects, and actors that transcend the boundaries of those kinds of confines.  The latter type requires interoperability between systems — that is, agreement on what to call a “tweet” or a “post” or a “status” or a “digg” or a “poke” — in order for these systems to understand what’s happening in other services.

ActivityStreams starts with those primitives on the one hand because that’s the trending behavior that we observed in social networks in 2008, and also because the actor-verb-object tuple provides a construct for telling the most basic of stories in a way that’s universal to all systems.

In terms of the evolution of social systems we’re at the amoebic or paleolithic era where we can barely discern what kinds of activities people are engaged in across the social web.  But as we harmonize our formats — making them more interoperable and the data more open — we’ll gradually evolve until the social web becomes much more sophisticated and intelligent.

Todd: Thanks, Chris.



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