Yesterday, musing about traversing my social graph through blogrolls, I suggested using OPML’s include attribute as a way of adding the blogrolls of the blogs I follow in my own blogroll. Ideally using a spec compliant OPML reader, you’d be able to seamlessly navigate from my blogroll, through the blogroll of one of the blogs I follow, to the blogroll of someone they follow, and presumably back to me at some point.
It does require having an OPML version of such blogrolls available. Peter publishes his blogroll as OPML as I do, allowing a first simple experiment: do includes get correctly parsed in some of the Outliner tools I have?

Adding an include into my OPML file

This little experiment starts with adding to my list of RSS feeds I follow a reference to Peter’s own OPML file of feeds he follows. I already follow two of Peter’s RSS feeds (blogposts and favourites) which I now placed in their own subfolder and to which I added an outline node of the include type, with the URL of Peter’s OPML file.

Screenshot of my OPML file listing the RSS feeds I follow. Click to enlarge. On line 22 you see the line that includes Peter’s OPML file by mentioning its URL.

Trying three outliners

Cloud Outliner (which I in the past used to first create outlines that could then be sent to Evernote) does not parse OPML includes correctly upon import. It also doesn’t maintain any additional attributes from OPML outline nodes, just the text attribute.

Screenshot of Cloud Outliner showing incorrect import of my OPML file. Click to enlarge.

Tinderbox like Cloud Outliner fails to load OPML includes as per spec. It does load some of the attributes (web url, and description, next to the standard text attribute), but not any others (such as the feed url for instance, the crucial element in a list of RSS feeds). It looks like it only picks up on attributes that are directly mappable on pre-existing default attributes within Tinderbox itself.

Screenshot of how Tinderbox imports my OPML file. It keeps some attributes but ignores most, and for includes just mentions the URL

Electric Drummer does correctly import the entire OPML outline. As Dave Winer is both the original creator of the OPML specification and more recently of the Electric Drummer app, this is consistent. Electric Drummer picks up on all attributes in an imported OPML file. Upon import it also fetches the external OPML files listed as includes from their URLs, and fully incorporates them into the imported outline.

Screenshot of Drummer, which incorporates the content of Peter’s OPML file I linked to in my OPML file. Click to enlarge.

Opening up options for tinkering

So at least there is 1 general outliner tool that can work with includes. It probably also means that Dave’s OPML package can do the same, which allows me to tinker at script level with this. One candidate for tinkering is, where a blogger has a blogroll, just not in OPML, to use the OPML package to convert scraped HTML to OPML, and include it locally. That allows me to traverse sets of blogrolls and see the overlap, closed triangles, feedback loops etc. I could also extend my own published blogroll by referencing all the published blogrolls of the bloggers I follow. For you my blogroll would then support exploration and discovery one step further outwards in the network. In parallel I can do something similar for federated bookshelves (both in terms of books as in terms of lists of people who’s booklists and their lists of people you follow)

Dreaming of Tags
Shortly before waking up one morning, while camping in the Austrian Alps in the past weeks (as seen above) I had a dream about tags. Or rather I dreamt that my brother in law had created a database in which each data item was treated and useable as a tag as well. In my dream I was very enthusiastic about this idea. When I woke up Elmine asked me ‘what does that mean, that everything is a tag?’. We kept coming back to the topic, and at the end of the day had a conversation around it over a couple of Weizen beers.

Tags do Double Duty
Tags serve two functions. First they are descriptors, and in that sense subservient to the piece of data they describe. But they are also pivots, i.e. turning points in your path through data. A pivot allows you to see the same set of data, or a different set of data which overlaps the current one, in a different view.

If you go to the picture above and follow the tag ‘huben’ on the right, you are presented with a number of pictures that are also tagged ‘huben’, so you can navigate to a different photo within the context of ‘huben’ and so on. Pivots are the forks in the road of your surfing.
When everything is a tag as in my dream, then everything is a pivot as well. This reminds me of the view on data-items the people of Mediamatic have: everything is a thing. So a thing can be a tag, but also a list of tags, or the entire Flickr-database, or any part thereof. In my dream everything was a tag, a pivot.

Pivots in Social Software Triangles
My description of social software as triangles, which got quite a good response at the time, put tags as pivots in the center view: social applications allow you to navigate from one app to another through their tags as pivot points.

From a Flickr photo to a point on a Yahoo or Google map, to a location in Plazes, or to photo’s taken geographically nearby. The thing is, I cannot directly jump from a Flickr photo to the corresponding location in Plazes. I could if the Plaze itself was the tag. In my 2006 posting I already indicated that where now usually a tag is in the triangle, there basically could be anything. As long as the other two points are a person and a object of sociality. So you could theoretically jump directly from a picture to an event to a place to a review to the author back to the picture again. If tags could be more than just a descriptive word they would be better pivots.

(image from the triangle posting last year)

Need More Pivots!
Hence I concluded that my dream was basically a call for more pivot points in social media. So that we can navigate our web apps better, and build better personal information strategies.
Question remains who has the rights to the concept of a database where everything is tags: me because it was my dream, or my brother in law as he came up with it in my dream and showed me a working prototype 🙂

When I wrote about the dinner with Marc Canter here some 2 months ago I also mentioned thinking about social software as being composed of different triangles.

The notion stems from how I use Flickr and delicious. I track individuals and their bookmarks and through those two pieces of info I get to know their use of language as well as their general areas of interest for the day. But I also look at how the stuff I bookmark has been tagged by other people. Are these people already familiar to me? Different language use (in the tags) may hint towards different circles of people and communities.

You see that in both cases I don’t really look at the bookmark itself, and I certainly don’t use it as a singular piece of information. It is merely an object around which I look for existing relationships, and scout out possible new ones. An object of sociality that has served its role as soon as I used it to find new people, or connect to already familiar ones.

It works much the same way for Flickr, though the aspect to get a quick glance at what my existing relationships are up to is more important to me here.

In general you could say that both Flickr and delicious work in a triangle: person, picture/bookmark, and tag(s). Or more abstract a person, an object of sociality, and some descriptor. In every triangle there always needs to be a person and an object of sociality. The third point of the triangle is free to define as it were.

This becomes more interesting once you start using the descriptors to move from one object of sociality to the next, or when the descriptor is an object of sociality itself. Now you can hop through different applications while still doing the same thing you previously did inside one application: build connections to people based on their current interest, albeit a picture, a location, an event, a bookmark, a blogpost or a document.

We generally call the stacking of apps like this mash-up. But in this case more importantly it allows us as people to seamlessly wander from one application to another while not being interrupted because you have to consciously migrate from one ‘channel’ to another. It is not mash-up to bring more functionality into one new application based on existing ones, it is mash-up to more closely follow your own routines while building and maintaining relationships.

Plazes for instance puts itself in the place of the tags in Flickr, and presto, now pictures are tied to geographic locations and vice versa. Through which you then can find (new) people again.

To me this also means that self-proclaimed social applications that do not offer you the possibility to explore all sides of a triangle, aren’t useful as a social medium. A bookmarking service that does say how many others bookmarked the same thing, but does not let you explore who these people are or lets you see who uses what tags, only the tags used by themselves, doesn’t do much in a social sense. By maintaining the triangle you make sure that individuals keep their face in the masses even when you aggregate info. (You can always drill back to a person and her personal set of in this case bookmarks and tags)

You can enter any triangle through a single point. This is the most basic use of an application. I store pictures, I bookmark, I write, I geotag. But from that you can start exploring the sides of the triangle, finding new connections to people either based on the object of sociality, or by browsing the descriptors and hopping to the next object of sociality.

Social software I think is social because it puts relationships in the center view, and less the information that flows through these relationships. The possibility of triangulation allows you to also extend and broaden both existing and new relationships into new information domains, and thus increases the likelihood of new networks of relationships and meaning emerging from the background noise.

Photo Value of Triangulation by Roland Tanglao during the Seattle Blogwalk. (CC0 public domain)