Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

I'm in the drive-through line at McDonalds -- because if I don't deforest the Amazon, who will? -- and the SUV in front of me has the license plate "VEG KIDZ".

Daddy, I'm so _hungry_...

And I can only imagine the cruelest father in the world, raising his kids vegetarian so he can then strap them into the car, go grab a Big Mac and eat it in front of them.

I wish I'd thought of that.

Bzzzt!

Though now I'm afraid that iPods and Virgin Mobile phones will electrocute me.

You know what today is? Today is Unjustified Self-Esteem Day! Isn't that great? Today is the day that you cast aside the insecurity, the doubts, the tiny nagging voice that tells you that you have no idea what you're doing and soon -- any second now -- everybody is going to find out and point and laugh and make you want to curl into a little ball and die. Oh, no. Today is the day that you can fully embrace whatever half-assed notion occurs to you -- Unjustified Self-Esteem Day, for instance -- and insist against all arguments and odds that it's a great idea! How could it be anything else? You thought of it, and you're just an incredibly amazing person! You can do no wrong! You are a churning juggernaut of unjustified self-esteem! You are great.

Unless you're the sort of person who feels unjustified self-esteem on a regular basis. Then it's Fully-Justified Self-Loathing Day. Try spending some time where you belong, jackhole.

Inherent in the permissioning systems of every social software application is the fundamental notion of inclusion. Or, alternately, exclusion. Especially exclusion.

Because social software is high school, all over again.

Since I can't see what's going on behind the doors I'm not invited through, I know -- just know -- that there are people back there, laughing and drinking beer and probably having sex and talking about me and, and, and screw them! I'm perfectly fine, sitting here reading science fiction and waiting for "Matlock" to come on Channel 5 at 11. Perfectly fine. I choose to be here. They're all dumb and drunk and having sex and I wonder if there's any ice cream in the fridge and, oh God, I'm not going to fall asleep on the sofa tonight trying to watch porn through the scrambled signal. I'm not, I'm not. Screw them.

This, um, may just be an issue for me.

Social software applications are a lot like the old Eastern European governments, or the Bush administration. They want to know who you know and what your relationship with them is, and they're not above harassing you endlessly to get it. "Ve know you hav relatives livink en MySpace und ve vant you to categorize zem as Family!"

And, OK, that's what makes social networks social. The computer needs to have things spelled out for it, defined by simple relationships. Also like the Bush Administration.

But at least residents of totalitarian governments only had to answer the questions once. ("Ve know you hav-- Oh, vait. Mien bad. Ve already gotten you.") With social applications, simply labeling someone a friend isn't good enough -- you have to tell everybody, over and over and over again.

If I'm friends with, say, disreputable playboy and gadabout Andy Baio (or if I was before this post) and have gotten him to admit the fact to Flickr, it's annoying to have to coerce the same admission to Vox, and to LiveJournal, and to LinkedIn, and to Eventful. Aren't computers supposed to be good at sharing information? Doesn't it have weekend plans to get around to being free? What ever happened to FOAF anyway?

Single sign-on, the holy grail of cross platform user simplicity, will probably never happen -- TypeKey and OpenID and Passport and LID and Liberty and God knows how many more attempts at it notwithstanding. There's too much power in locking users in. And that means that the metadata attached to those users -- like, say, their social relationships -- aren't going to be shared between providers, either.

But as that metadata becomes more complicated, more useful and more valuable, re-entering it into every goddamned site that you want to selectively share information from is going to get real old, real fast. ("Flickr, meet Vox. Vox, Flickr. Vox, Flickr and I go back a bit and you should get him to tell you who all my friends are-- What? Well, why not? Well then, what about Upcoming? LiveJou--? Oh, for Christ's sake!")

And, admittedly, these complaints are largely theoretical coming from someone with three two friends. But given the power of social data -- and the features that can be driven by it -- the information is too important to be locked up in proprietary databases. If single sign-on isn't going to happen -- and it isn't, given that even Vox doesn't use either of Six Apart's SSO protocols -- then at least give us a common, reliable and simple way to import and export the data. FOAF, something new, it doesn't matter. Just don't make me go through the tedious process of begging people to acknowledge our friendship again.

Because I think I'm on thin ice as it is.

Computers hate people, and with good reason. I'd hate me, too, if I were a computer.

People -- human beings, all of us, to a one -- are messy, ugly, disastrously disorganized creations. We don't make sense -- don't fit into comfortable categories, don't follow reliable rules, don't have any sort of structure to how we function, communicate or express ourselves.

Computers hate that. They can't cope with it. The idea of trying to catalog anything but the simplest metadata about people in a format that's easily parsed by a computer is ridiculous. It's hard enough getting a few pieces of information specifically designed for machines right, much less the swampy mess of human-to-human interaction.

Not that people haven't tried, of course. Tried and failed, again and again and again.

The history of "social software" -- an important part of this nutritious Web 2.0 start-up -- is composed almost entirely of spectacular failures to capture all but the most rudimentary relationships between people. Most are divided into two camps: laughably simple and laughably complicated.

Too-simple social software has been the more successful to date, because it's actually usable. While too-complicated software attempts to stuff a doughy blob of human interaction into the square hole of the third-normalized form -- "This person is a friend," "This person is a friend if he's buying," "This person isn't a friend, but will get all pissy if don't add him," "This person is an asshole" -- too-simple software punts on the problem of actually reflecting reality and divides the world (usually) into four giant camps: me, my family, my friends and everybody else.

To which a functioning human being -- loose in the real world -- can only say: Ha.

Which family? Nuclear? Biological? By law? Former? Which friends? Work? School? Neighborhood? Electronic? Various combinations of all of them? Each of these groups can and do have competing agendas and competing reasons to access information, and each must be handled differently. Anybody who thinks that "the family" is a single, cohesive unit has never lived through a Thanksgiving dinner.

Flickr and Vox and LiveJournal and Upcoming and all the rest of the simple-social software products are produced by very smart (and attractive!) people, and they know that their division of relationships into four boxes is unrealistic, but they've apparently given up on doing anything about it. But the answer is staring them right in the face.

Flickr, for instance, pioneered the move away from insanely complicated and incomplete organization hierarchies by using tagging, and letting the user decide what their organizational structure would be. I was dubious of tags a couple of years ago, for all the boring semantic reasons. But they've proven to work spectacularly well: instead of trying to capture and catalog the whole of creation, simply give people the tools they need to do it themselves, for themselves. Don't try to get the computer to understand the world, because it never will. Let the human's do the work of cognition and evaluation and just return the damned database records. Easy, simple and "good enough" in exactly the right way.

So why not apply the same approach to social permissioning? Let the users decide. Don't make them force their lives into arbitrary categories -- give them the tools they can use to build their own. Not "Family," but "My parents" and "My sister's family" and "My wife's crazy grandmother who gets jealous if she sees too many pictures of my kids with my family" and God knows what else. Oh, sure, use the four classic groups -- "Me," "Family," "Friends" and "World" -- as defaults and that will satisfy some significant portion of users. But don't limit everybody to that overly-hierarchical, overly-simplistic worldview. It doesn't work.

Human beings (and their relationships) are complicated, messy, ugly things. A smart computer would want nothing to do with them. But if social software is going to insist on wading into the muck, it's going to have to be willing to get messy, too.

Because otherwise the hate is going to flow both ways.

Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.

Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic and Buzz Clock), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "Things I Learned About My Dad" and "Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard").

My e-mail address is greg@eod.com. I'd love to hear from you!

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