Open Standards: Losing our independents

On hearing the news that my friend Tantek had accepted an offer to work contract at Mozilla as a Web Standards lead, I remarked via Twitter that now none of the ‘high profile open standards’ advocates remain independent.

This caught the attention of a number of folk, including GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram who wrote about my comment this evening. (a post which ended up being syndicated to Salon.com and NYTimes – congrats Om, Mathew and co on those distribution deals btw)

Indeed I was referring to the likes of David Recordan (now at Facebook), Joseph Smarr (now at Google), Eran Hammer-Lahav (now at Yahoo!, albeit for sometime now) Will Noris (now at Google) Chris Messina (now at Google) – and now Tantek Çelik (now hired by Mozilla)

All of these folks have made significant contributions to the Open Web and Open Standards movements while either being independent, working at a startup or working at a company which itself had little active involvement in open standards (SixApart in the case of David R and Plaxo/Comcast in the case of Joseph S). That’s significant because their motivation behind their labour and efforts was (I believe) altruistic and not to forward the interests of a specific vendor, employer or other sponsor.

Since making their many significant contributions independently to the Open Web, all of them have been hired by larger and/or more significant entities. All of these companies are clearly are interested in benefiting not only from the influence these individuals have in the community but also their board seats/key positions on projects such as OpenID, oAuth, Portable Contacts, Open Web Foundation, etc.

Clearly this must create a conflict with each of their previous independent endeavors. In response to my tweet, Google engineer Adewale Oshineye commented on my Google Buzz “[Y]ou could say that the ‘open web usuals’ have all found ways to make an even bigger impact.”

I disagree and here’s a stark example of why, involving Adewale’s own employer Google.

Social API panel at Google IO 2010, photo by Pat Hawks

Last week I attended a panel session at Google IO 2010 on social network standards and APIs, which included Chris Messina representing Google and specifically the Google Buzz team. Having reflected on Facebook’s current woes due to a perceived lack of respect for user privacy, panel moderator Kara Swisher asked Chris to elaborate on the virtues of Google Buzz and the way that Google have strived to protect user’s privacy. What seemed to be an intentionally ‘softball question’ towards her conference host, actually had a deeper, almost perverse, dimension to it given Chris’s staunch personal perspective that there is no such thing as online privacy.

As Chris wrote back in 2006:

“personal privacy is an oxymoron. you know less about yourself than the mass of services and companies out there that collect, individually or collectively, information about you and your activities, for their own selective proprietary uses

you think you have privacy left to protect?

privacy today in general is a fallacy: it’s an impossible dream that we should’ve woken up from some time ago.

repeat after me: “PRIVACY … IS … A … DREAM.”

not for you. not for me. only for the government, big corporations, disappearing persons.”

Do read the rest of it this in his post “Pry, To”, along with “Privacy? What privacy?”, “The Krypton of Privacy”.

It was pretty uncomfortable to listen to Chris wax lyrical about how Google understands why user privacy is important and the various steps it was taking to ensure users were aware of the privacy options Google offered.

Now before you think I’m performing a character assassination on Chris, please be clear: I agree with him. I think the concept of expected privacy in any social media setting is an illusion.

But the problem is that you have radical individuals, ones who were compelled to spend their own time ripping up and recreating the way we handle stuff like authentication and contact exchange, being forced to remain ‘on message’ with their new corporate masters.

Why is this?

Aside from the tensions alluded to above, the issue no one is talking about is that there are slim returns for being independent proponents of the Open Web. While you spend your evenings and weekends working on specifications and evangelizing these brave new ideas, there are plenty of companies who are looking to profit from the good work achieved.

I’m a member of the OpenSocial foundation, having worked on the project while I was contracting with MySpace (yes, not independently). While I have not been under contract with the former social network for several years, I still feel some affinity and sense of responsibility to maintain OpenSocial, having (in a small way) helped to create it in the early days.

However, I’m immediately bought back to reality when I remember that my unpaid time participating in work groups and/or potentially being on the board is going to help the likes of Zynga, Slide, RockYou, etc continue to innovate and generate further $Millions out of their use of OpenSocial to deliver their profitable social games and apps.

It’s not that I won’t work on Open Standards or Open Source projects for free. But simply that the returns others are making feels disproportionate to what the individuals doing the actual groundwork are getting back. While joining the likes of one of these companies could be one way of continuing this work while receiving some-what fair remuneration, it wouldn’t be the same as I would have to make decisions based on my given employer/client’s needs and not those that made the best sense for the ecosystem as a whole.

(And rather tellingly, to the best of my knowledge neither Zynga, Slide or RockYou contribute at all to Open Social or any other Open Standards project they rely on)

Ultimately I don’t know why Chris Messina ended up accepting the place at Google. The offer of a prestigious employer, intelligent peers and a guaranteed pay check may be enough – but to me that feels like selling out because you can no longer represent what you really believe in. When Chris began to answer Kara’s question on privacy in Buzz it seemed like he’d had to give up much of what he really believed in so that he could regurgitate Google’s talking points that his handlers in PR had fed him earlier.

Instead I wonder if there were more fundamental reasons why he joined Google – ones that you can begin to understand. Being an independent is hard and usually financially unrewarding. It’s a tough economy, maybe he wants to settle down with his girlfriend and set up home, I don’t know. There are all sorts of personally legitimate reasons.

But it shouldn’t have to be like this. The ecosystem as a whole (users, developers, vendors, startups, VCs, BigCo’s, etc) desperately needs independent participants like the Messina’s, Recordon’s and Smarr’s – and we can’t expect the best people to stick around looking out for our interests while others profit from the good work created.

How we resolve that, I don’t know. It’s kinda for the community to decide.

UPDATE: This post continues into the comments where Joseph Smarr responds to my post and I follow up with further thoughts.

CC flickr photo by Pat Hawks

11 thoughts on “Open Standards: Losing our independents

  1. Ben your post is right on….To me it seems that Google, Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, etc have come to an understanding that they needed to eliminate the ability of “Open” standards to level the playing filed for all, and to do this they have Co-opted the standards as well as the thought leaders…

    Open standard thought leaders lose their credibility when they are employed by companies with a vested intrest in controlling standards….

    I think that it is time to change the model for “Open” so that there is a way to “Employee” thought leaders and developers for the Greater Good…..Why cant we have an “Open” version of Face Book that generate billions and employees “Open” thought leaders and developers; some of the revenue can be used to support other “Open” projects as well as standards initiatives….I m a proponent of Open Source and Open Standard…but I m disappointed that we have managed to become share croppers for companies that generate billions off of the work and give little back in return….I think that in oder for “Open” initiatives to independently survie we must aggressively compete with companies for users, customers, and revenue….but for the “Greater Good” of members and the Open Community…

    http://www.factoetum.com/factoetum/List_of_Technology_Icons

  2. Ben-I’m glad you’re passionate about the Open Web (so am I), and of course the community needs to “keep us all honest”, so thanks for that. But I honestly don’t think any of us have “sold out” or “given up what we really believed in”. I also don’t think we were acting any less “altruistic and not to forward the interests of a specific vendor, employer or other sponsor” than we were before. In all the cases you mention (certainly I can speak for myself), we chose to work for companies whose own business interests were well-aligned with an open social web, and that’s still true today. So of course we care a lot about the open web above-and-beyond the needs of our employer, but that was true before, and it’s still true now, and in both cases we’re staying at the companies that let us do what we want and also find that work beneficial to themselves. It’s win win. The only difference now is we have a different set of “chess pieces” to play with. And remember that “open” doesn’t win by default–people have to work hard and come together to make it happen. I think we’re all in a position to have a major positive impact on the open web now, and having Tantek at Mozilla now only makes that more true (he joins awesome guys like Mike Hanson and more who are focused on the same great ideas).

  3. BTW, your OpenID authentication for comments isn’t working for me. I suspect a delegation bug. You should look into fixing that–the Open Web isn’t very compelling when it doesn’t work. ;)

  4. Hey Joseph, thanks for leaving a comment

    So look, on the one hand I get it. From a “30,000 foot” perspective everything looks well matched and aligned.

    It is definitely true that Google is doing great things across the Open Web and even beyond the web – I’m a massive fan of Android, which is essentially Open Mobile and soon Open Set-top Box. Brilliant. And it’s not like you have gone to work for someone like Microsoft which pays lip-service to Open Standards, using them only when they must or if there is a massive developer PR win for them to be had (sorry Angus).

    But if you drill down to a more granular level, then actually there are differences and issues. And it becomes painfully clear when an individual like you or Chris are rolled out to represent Google publicly and you must remain on message to Google rather than your original views. My example about Chris at IO is a painful example of that. The talking points on privacy Chris was given by Google were clearly not inline with what I know to be his personal viewpoints on the matter.

    This isn’t just about you and Google either – lets look at David Recordon’s post on Facebook’s Open Graph API. In my opinion he was clearly shilled by Facebook to respond to Chris’s (accurate) accusation that it didn’t further the Open Web at all. I bet we all wonder to what extent what David wrote actually matches his personal viewpoint. But what is even more troubling is that he did it on O’Reily Radar, which is an example of Facebook wielding their employee’s influence (to my point on these companies also employing people for their position and influence in the community).

    If you and Google were totally on the same page on everything, the community would never have had to rally Google to adopt oAuth, OpenID, ActivityStreams and so on. Sure, your interests and Google’s business interests may be “well-aligned” – Google’s future in Social Media is aggregation and so it makes perfect sense for Google to get behind as many open standards as possible to ease interoperability and friction-free content ingest.

    But they are never going to be totally aligned with you. They just won’t. What are your thoughts on the propriety-ness of GData vs Atom or RDF? Google loves pushing GData where it can, even though there are often valid open alternatives (and if there isn’t, lets make one). From my own experience with OpenSocial, early proposals were full of non-open GData and Google Gadget Spec at the payload level, and this only changed because the might of MySpace and other partners who pushed back. GData is a great example of Google asserting “old ways” thinking where it feels it can get away with it.

    But all of this misses the point of my original post, which is that we should better support the work of folks like you while you are independent (and/or at companies that don’t present a conflict of interest to the Open Web work). If you want to go work at Google or Facebook or wherever, that is fine. But I feel that all of you ended up at those places due to circumstance and situation rather than by your own personal desire – otherwise you’d have been there a lot earlier.

    BTW thanks for pointing out the error in the OpenID plugin. Spending some time investigating, it looks like my host recompiled PHP without php-xml, which apparently is the cause of the error I got when I recreated your problem. Probably another reason I should move this blog over to my VPS :)

  5. I think you’re completely wrong in using Tantek and Mozilla as an example of the kind of conflict you’re trying to highlight here.

    Maybe his hiring prompted you to think more about it but comparing Mozilla, a global non-profit dedicated explicitly to THE OPEN WEB, to Google, Facebook, and other mega-advertising corporations is just plain wrong.

    – A

  6. While my employer may disagree (but I doubt it), I consider myself very much independent. Anyone who ever talked to me knows I have a mind of my own (and I am never shy of sharing it). When I joined Yahoo! two years ago the explicit agreement was that I get to keep my opinions and my voice. Yahoo! doesn’t have any coordinated effort with regards to standards and the company never forces any policy on its engineers. We we nowhere near as active as we should be, but those who are, get to call themselves truly independent.

  7. Eran, thanks for leaving your comment.

    I’m just wondering… do you appear at developer/etc events on behalf of Yahoo!?

    And so, I’m just wondering how you handle issues where your personal view on a given matter differs from the Yahoo! official view.

  8. I usually make my affiliation known, but distance myself from the company when expressing views. Yahoo! doesn’t really have official views on these matters. The company is supportive of the open web, and adopts the bits that make sense to it. OAuth is a great example where I am always on the record for not representing the company. Allen Tom handles that part. However, Yahoo! does pay me to move OAuth forward and serve the community. It is benefit by association (assuming being associated with my work is a good thing).

    When I participated in the Open Web Foundation work, I relayed Yahoo!’s legal views and negotiated changes for them, but I made it clear I was not arguing for myself (even though I did not disagree with it).

    If you examine the work of Doug Crockford and Mark Nottingham, you’ll see similar patterns.

    As for your article, you might find my related post relevant: http://hueniverse.com/2010/05/open-vs-fast-good-vs-evil-google-vs-facebook/

  9. Hey Ben,

    Let me respond to your cheap shot first, and then give some broader on how the changing landscape of independents is affecting my role @ MSFT.

    re. your crack “And it’s not like you have gone to work for someone like Microsoft which pays lip-service to Open Standards, using them only when they must or if there is a massive developer PR win for them to be had (sorry Angus).”

    Thanks for the shout out, and I’m glad there are people out there like you who feel strongly about this space… even if they aren’t fact based. I’m not sure how you concluded that Microsoft only pays lip-service to the open web (open specifications), given that we have implemented most of the open stack (Portable Contacts, OAuth WRAP, ActivityStrea.ms) and are actively involved in the development of the specifications mentioned above and also the legal framework (Open Web Foundation) making most of this possible.

    From my point of view (as a product manager at Microsoft working on the Windows Live APIs):
    – there are certainly less people without big company backing now.
    – I find it super hard to believe that people who work for big companies can perfectly separate “this is me on my own behalf” vs. “this is me on my employer’s behalf”.
    – When we design the way partners can work with Windows Live, we crave feedback real industry experts, that gets a lot more tricky when they all work for companies of similar scale and business model. In the past it was a lot easier, there were several companies like “Switzerland”.

    Assuming the independents continue to get hired by big companies, I’m hoping in the Open Web space we’ll see more collaboration in the industry due to a greater separation of secret sauce/competitive points and the technology. Using Portable Contacts vs. a unique snowflake doesn’t create business advantage, the broad usage floats all boats and makes life easier for developers.

    glad you raised this,
    thx Angus.

  10. @Angus

    You’re right that Microsoft has done a lot in the Live and it’s other online propositions, with the Open Stack and others being nicely implemented in places and clearly your own personal involvement has seen a lot of this occur (I would point that OpenID is a clear key part of the Open Stack and seems to be missing from Microsoft’s Live, Bing and other online propositions).

    But I still feel this is Microsoft ‘embracing open’ because it has little choice in terms of landscape and traction… Away from web/online, Microsoft is one of the most closed and proprietary businesses out there.

    I think the work you do on live is seen by a lot of the open community because it is the closest touchpoint, but it is not a massive business department for Microsoft – and the stalwarts (Windows, Office, etc) remain very closed.

    Furthermore, Microsoft Open Source License remains a joke and the attacks on Android (via spurious patent issues) seem to be a clear example of ‘putting up interference’ towards one of the two mobile operating system that are absolutely pounding Microsoft in the mobile space.

    Have a read of http://techrights.org/2010/05/25/microsoft-sco-and-then-acacia/ for more examples.

    So with this in mind, I don’t think it was a ‘cheap shot’. If Microsoft was just the Live business unit with all the good work you do Angus, then I would say I was wrong. But when I consider all of Microsoft’s business landscape, I reaffirm my position that Microsoft is paying lip-service by being “open” in the areas it is in a corner over and totally ignoring the opportunities and frustrating in the key business units like Office and Windows.

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