Lessons from DrupalCon: Twitter, RDF, OpenID, and more…

I’m spending the bulk of this week at DrupalCon Boston 2008, a conference for web developers who use Drupal, an open source content management system (which, by no small coincidence, is what gnovisjournal.org runs on). Most of the actual proceedings are probably not of interest to gnovis readers, because they are aimed at Drupal geeks, but I’ve kept my ears open for the echos of CCT-friendly ideas, and outlined a few below. I’ll be blogging in much more detail on my personal website, www.sleepcamel.net , throughout the week.

Twitter: My friend at last.

Off and on, for the last few months, I’ve been trying to love Twitter, but finding it to be more trouble than it was worth, and not particularly satisfying. However, I’d heard many stories of people finding it really useful at conferences, so I was determined to be proactive here. It didn’t take long. About twenty minutes into the first panel, I was having troubles hearing a part of the discussion. So I found a twitter user who was sitting closer to the front and asked him to clarify. Less than 30 seconds later, he’d answered my question and offered further clarification. While this exchange is itself fairly uninteresting, it is also a conveniently simple example of the power of a tool like Twitter for (1) locating groups or categories of like-minded people, (2) contacting them, either individually or collectively and (3) organizing very quickly. In many ways, this is just the extension of cellphone-based text messaging (which has a well-known value for political/activist organization) onto a platform-independent delivery mechanism with social networking.

Twitter also played a crucial role in identifying and publicizing a huge typo on the conference schedule (the time and place of the keynote address), locating spare batteries for video cameras, and summoning a specific attendee from one session to another. I’m still skeptical of it’s overall usefulness, but Twitter is definitely great for conferences, especially ones that are laptop dense.

RDF: The Real Semantic Web

At his State of Drupal Address, founder Dries "The State of Drupal is <strong />" Buytaert gave some cool demos of uses of RDF (Resource Description Framework), including a site which placed his Boston friends (pulled from one data source) and concerts they might like (pulled from another data source) on a map of Boston, so he could make a more informed decision about how to spend his evening. It was much more impressive than it sounds. Anyway, the movement towards RDF, for Buytaert, represents an evolution of the web away from "infinite extensibility" to "infinite interopterability." What that really means, as I understand it, is a shift away from the current trend of "social network silos" (social networks that do cool things, but are cut off from other networks) and towards increased sharing of data between sites. This has all sorts of cool applications, but also raises a lot of ethical and logistical challenges.

On a side note, linguistics fans should read up on RDF, particularly the notion of the "triple." There’s a term paper in there somewhere.

OpenID: The key to digital trust?

I frequently get excited about OpenID for its cool-factor, but am only now starting to understand its implications. Among other things, OpenID brings to mind this old gnovis post: Pursuing Reliable Email: How can we leverage the user? In that post, whatknows proposed an email model built on trust (to grossly over simplify). OpenID, while it can’t be called a "trust network," nonetheless brings similar qualities to the web at large. Looking way ahead, for instance, I can imagine a world in which a site that I shop at doesn’t need to know my address to ship my order. My OpenID would give them only the minimal information they need to identify me, and give UPS the minimal information needed to calculate shipping and ship the package, and neither the shop nor UPS would know BOTH sets of details. The potential for increased privacy is tremendous, and with a net increase in usability (although usability is OpenID’s biggest challenge, too.)

Google & Open Source

Chris DiBona of Google spoke on Tuesday about the history of the open source movement and Google’s enthusiastic commitment to open source. Among the key takeaways was his observation that "Open source is FAST." He wasn’t just referring to the fact that, for example, Linux consistently outperforms Windows in terms of speed… he was also addressing the responsiveness of open source communities. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said that, no matter how much money is involved, no corporate customer service system will ever be able to identify and fix problems as fast as a distributed group of obsessed programmers.

(Ironically, I was 20 minutes late to his talk because of poor corporate customer service: it took me four separate calls to United Airlines just to locate a cancelled ticket so that I could put the $ towards a new one.)

In any case, I have to whole heartedly agree with DiBona, although he was certainly preaching to the choir.

I’ve still got two more days to go here, but I guess I’ll save my (future) thoughts for another post. I hope everyone is enjoying their Spring Break!

Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.