:Ben Metcalfe Blog

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