Reading Yahoo! 360 through The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat

by Marc Hedlund

Related link: http://360.yahoo.com/



[Disclaimer: Both Randy Farmer and I worked at Lucasfilm, but not in the same decade, not during the same Trilogy, and not on the same projects -- we met for the first time last week at a meeting I describe below.]



We were initially our own worst enemies in this undertaking, victims of a way of thinking to which we engineers are dangerously susceptible. This way of thinking is characterized by the conceit that all things may be planned in advance and then directly implemented according to the plan's detailed specification.


--The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat,
Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer


It's been about three years since I wrote "Is it really My Yahoo? Or is it theirs?," now recognized as the seminal declaration of electronic independence for the privacy community (that is, all three of us have read it). In that article I argued that tying your online identity to a commercial service like Yahoo! Mail or MSN Passport is a bad idea, since the service's goals will diverge from yours over time, and the switching costs of identity are very high. I traced my own relationship with Yahoo! from its early, heady excitement through to the tearful, plate-throwing breakup (a jump that Google is sharking even as we speak), and stated the obvious point that an email address in your own domain will serve you better than one @yahoo.com. Great stuff, especially now that domain name registration is effectively free. In the years since I wrote the piece, though, more and more companies have succeeded by getting you to invest your online identity -- your email address, your social network, your wishes and dreams -- with them. They all want to "own the customer," and the customer, dear reader, is us. My original article could now be part one of a five-part mini-series: "Tonight on American Database: Am I really LinkedIn? Or am I chained in?"



No one would watch that mini-series. No one cares. Or more accurately, people value connecting with each other online and using great online services much more highly than they do privacy. (Until they get robbed. A privacy freak is just Scott McNealy after an identity theft.) At least, so it would seem from the success of these ravenous, customer-owning companies. They scan your email to festoon it with ads; they pitch you with the purchases of customers "like you"; they follow your cookie crumbs around the net, better, they say, to present you with "relevant" marketing. And you take it. Yes, you suck it up. Invite me to GMail, please! My kingdom for an invite!



Oh, I kid.



Now comes Yahoo 360 -- invite-only, of course, for discipline is complete when the subject-line disciplines itself -- and my fingers itch to write "Does Yahoo 360 Mean I'm Completely Surrounded?" But why, why bother, I ask you! It's just not an interesting article any more, if ever it was. Yes, Yahoo distinguishes itself from Google through the depth of the profiles it holds on its users -- the customers they own, or want to. Yes, here Yahoo brings together their knowledge of you with unified services you can use to tell them still more. It's Big Brother with a Bang at the end! Or not! The privacy community and I will get together around a very small table and tip over our coffee cups with the vigorous nodding of our heads. Let's just skip all that, here. Let's leave it aside. Let's talk about something else, rearrange the deck chairs and hope the water's not too cold. Heaven forfend that our profiles, crawled and indexed and blogged and networked, should be updated with the opinions expressed herein, marked with the "privacy freak" bit, leaving us forever without invites to the Panoptical Ajax Apocalypse.



The people at Yahoo somehow must not have read my world-famous declaration, for they invited me down to Sunnyvale last week for a sneak preview of 360. (Okay, really they invited Tim, but still, they didn't bar the door when I arrived in his stead, as would have I in their shoes.) While declaiming that we, the influencers, were not their market for this product, they were nonetheless interested in our feedback and reactions (or at least in making us feel included and heard), and asked us what they might do to make 360 more appealing to us and our crowd. The product is primarily a blog tool, but it's also a social network and a photo sharing site (but not that one) and an IM and Not-IM messaging tool and a few other things to boot. It is a platform for sharing, sharing your thoughts and identity with a select group of friends, or with the world at large, as you choose.



Opinions in the room were mixed; I came into it skeptical and left more skeptical -- not that it would do well, which it will, doomed, perhaps, to moderate success; but that I could think of a reason to recommend it or a need it would fill better than other options. (Joyce Park, once fired by Friendster for blogging, allowed that a "show everyone but my boss" setting wouldn't be unwelcome.) But you don't need me to tell you their opinions -- go read their blogs. Which is why we aren't the market; we already have identities online. Yahoo 360 is for those who don't.



It turns out that one of the lead people on the project is Randy Farmer, co-author of a fantastic paper called "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat," and thus one of my long-time heroes. Lessons recounts the experiences of Lucasfilm Games making a graphical, multi-user online environment in the mid-1980s, and it stands as a great analysis of what makes online communities thrive or fail. How better, then, to look at Yahoo 360, than to take these lessons learned nearly two decades ago, and apply them to the brave new project? Yes, let us arrange the deck chairs to spell Habitat, and see how they feel.




  • A multi-user environment is central to the idea of cyberspace.



On the surface, Yahoo 360 seems to have learned this in kindergarten. Of course a multi-user environment is what matters; it's twenty years later, we know! But the world is different than it was then, and there is not one Habitat, but many. 360 connects you to your friends with Yahoo accounts, and not to any other friends you might have. The social network, the sharing controls, and the IM integration all depend on established residence in the State of Yahoo. Diplomatic relations with AIM and Friendster are not maintained. Lessons tells us:



Nobody knows how to produce an automaton that even approaches the complexity of a real human being, let alone a society. Our approach, then, is not even to attempt this, but instead to use the computational medium to augment the communications channels between real people.


Do you know real people who only socialize with Yahoo members? Our lives our complex, and so are the online lives of our societies. Of course, we all join services and press our friends to join them, too -- but Yahoo is not some startup with a point product; 360 today encompasses nearly all of the sharing and social networking functions for which there is an existence proof. Presumably it will grow still larger with sharing tools over time. We'd like to believe that eventually we'd be able to share with any friend the same way we can email with any friend, but look at Yahoo Messenger and its competitors, and that's not the future you'll see.




  • Communications bandwidth is a scarce resource.



Lessons talks literally about modem speed when it talks about bandwidth, but it also talks about attention bandwidth -- how much communication you can receive and still keep up. Today, the problem with attention bandwidth is the number of applications that want my daily attention. Email, IM, My Yahoo (or My Way, if your privacy bozo bit is flipped), Now Playing on Tivo, then Bloglines, and now 360. RSS comes out of 360 only through blog postings, one feed at a time (no "show me blog posts by all of my friends," as Flickr would have it); other system messages aren't available at all without logging in. So much for limiting the download time from 360 -- instead, it's given me yet another inbox with which to keep up.




  • An object-oriented data representation is essential.



Here Lessons might seem dated, but again it is not -- it talks not just about the programming model but also the way objects in the system are represented and communicated. 360 represents data in HTML only; no access allowed unless you're logged in through a browser. Does that seem object-oriented in the way Lessons means?



The goal is to enable the communications between machines take place primarily at the behavioral level (what people and things are doing) rather than at the presentation level (how the scene is changing). The description of a place in the virtual would should be in terms of what is there rather than what it looks like. Interactions between objects should be described by functional models rather than by physical ones. The computation necessary to translate between these higher-level representations and the lower-level representations required for direct user interaction is an essentially local function. At the local processor, display-rendering techniques may be arbitrarily elaborate and physical models arbitrarily sophisticated.


Take this forward and translate it to today, and it hints at a web services API. My usage of my data might be arbitrarily elaborate; allow me to communicate with the service at a behavioral level rather than through your presentation. Several times during the discussion of 360, participants referred to Flickr; I suggested that Yahoo have Stewart Butterfield, Flickr CEO and newly-acquired Yahoo employee, give them his talk from Etech on "Opening up and Letting Go." The many Flickr API applications help Flickr grow and become more interesting even if the users of those applications never once visit www.flickr.com.




  • The implementation platform is relatively unimportant.



Lessons makes a fantastic call for graceful degradation based on platform capabilities:



[...D]efining a virtual environment in terms of the configuration and behavior of objects, rather than their presentation, enables us to span a vast range of computational and display capabilities among the participants in a system. This range extends both upward and downward. As an extreme example, a typical scenic object, such as a tree, can be represented by a handful of parameter values. At the lowest conceivable end of things might be an ancient Altair 8800 with a 300 baud ASCII dumb terminal, where the interface is reduced to fragments of text and the user sees the humble string so familiar to the players of text adventure games, "There is a tree here." At the high end, you might have a powerful processor that generates the image of the tree by growing a fractal model and rendering it three dimensions at high resolution, the finest details ray-traced in real time, complete with branches waving in the breeze and the sound of wind in the leaves coming through your headphones in high-fidelity digital stereo. And these two users might be looking at the same tree in same the place in the same world and talking to each other as they do so.


At the larger level, Yahoo gets this better than its competitors. Yahoo News and Yahoo Search work nearly as well on my Treo 650 mobile phone as they do on my 20", high-resolution, T1-connected desktop. But again, 360 is a walled garden, closed in both through membership and browser representation. How much better would this service be if it were a platform for sharing across all of my network identities? How great would it be to have one sink on the network where I could push and pull data as I needed it in whatever format? Oh, yeah, we already know how great it would be, for photos at least. 360's platform is single-implementation when it should be multiviewable.




  • Data communications standards are vital.



Those who do not learn the lessons of Habitat are doomed to repeat them, indeed. In 360, we see this problem, the lack of communication standards, expressed most acutely in the IM sidebar, which lists the online status of all of your buddies -- excuse me, your Yahoo buddies. You can IM them and send them messages in the system (messages which are like email but not email, so that you have yet a third voice with which to speak to a subset of your friends). Why do I need a web view on my IM buddy list when I have that list on my computer already? If 360 becomes your home, perhaps that would be useful.



The fault here is easy to see with a thought experiment. Let's say Yahoo 360 were implemented today by a startup, a company without ties or loyalty to an existing body of users. Would they make the same decision? Is it in the best interest of new users to 360 to have their Yahoo buddies be the only ones available for sharing, or is that more in the interest of Yahoo?



Data communication standards are vital, and the lack of them has kept IM from becoming a platform for innovation as email and the web have become. 360 suffers from the lack of a standard just as would any startup, but it hasn't sought out a solution, as would a company that needed new users to survive.




  • Detailed central planning is impossible; don't even try.



Relationships between people in 360 -- the social networking part -- are bi-directional, as with Friendster and Orkut. Are you my friend? Why haven't you answered my request to be your friend? I know I'm not really your friend, but I'm a fan of your photos, so will you say that I am? What kind of friend are you, an acquaintance or a parent or an ex? Describe in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about... your mother.



Sharing and the free flow of communication are not built around awkward social questions. Let me browse around, see what there is to see, and choose the things I like enough to want to see more. Let me send out my ideas and my pictures and whatever else to people who haven't joined and haven't linked to me, and may never. Draw me in with the lure of the riches I can see should I want to; don't make me plan out my social interactions in advance.




  • You can't trust anyone.



A central point of 360 is its controls for permissions and sharing -- seemingly, a vigorous nod at the table of privacy control. With each post, photo, or message, I can assign permission to view that entry to any group or groups I want. I can define groups however I want, and a pulldown will allow me to give 'Work Buddies' or 'Kurosawa Fans' or 'Known or Suspected Democrats' access to my thoughts, media, and missives on a highly selective basis. The user interface for this, currently at least, is very heavyweight -- I have to explicitly say what groups get what, and I have to remember who is in which groups. (Planning a surprise party for a member of an existing groups will require creating a new group minus the surprisee.) What I really want is a "do what I mean" interface -- just make it so that I don't have to think about it, but still my boss doesn't see the critical comments about his powerpoint.



Of course, that interface doesn't exist, nor would it help, really, if it did. Why? Because you can't trust anyone, remember? The heaviness of the privacy interface creates an expectation that it will actually do something to protect my privacy. You mean I flipped all those menus and clicked all those buttons, and still I'm fired for that post about my boss? The idea that a site like Yahoo can give me actual control over the distribution of my ideas and photos with a popup menu is absurd on its face; if the idea is sharing, then sharing will find a way. You can't trust anyone, but the promise of the site is that you can.



So there we are. I suppose all that ranting at the beginning, about Big Brother with a Bang, gave away a bit about my biases as I sat down with Yahoo 360 and took a look. I don't like it as a platform for sharing; it isn't an open platform, one that would let me add my data as I want, take it out as I want, and use it across the network as I want -- on some other blog, in some other interface, with some other friends, combined with some other data -- and based on the source, a big company that sells ad space, why would they get the user interaction just right? It might well be that the only proper incubator for such a tool as I describe is a startup that has no choice but to give users what they want.



But that's okay. Really. Yahoo is a big enough name and a big enough force that it will get 360 in front of a huge audience. That audience will take it and do whatever they want with it, including things Yahoo may never have considered. Yahoo'd probably love that if it were true. What 360 gets right is that it isn't about anything in particular; it's a blank piece of paper with some wrinkles and lines. What users do with it, even in its closed-garden, api-less, feed-free incarnation, is their own choice, and they may well find a way to make the tool better than its designers originally intended. To quote the rousing closing paragraph of The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat:



In a discussion of cyberspace on Usenet, one worker in the field dismissed Club Caribe (Habitat's current incarnation) as uninteresting, with a comment to the effect that most of the activity consisted of inane and trivial conversation. Indeed, the observation was largely correct. However, we hope some of the anecdotes recounted above will give some indication that more is going on than those inane and trivial conversations might indicate. Further, to dismiss the system on this basis is to dismiss the users themselves. They are paying money for this service. They don't view what they do as inane and trivial, or they wouldn't do it. To insist this presumes that one knows better than they what they should be doing. Such presumption is another manifestation of the omniscient central planner who dictates all that happens, a role that this entire article is trying to deflect you from seeking. In a real system that is going to be used by real people, it is a mistake to assume that the users will all undertake the sorts of noble and sublime activities which you created the system to enable. Most of them will not. Cyberspace may indeed change humanity, but only if it begins with humanity as it really is.


Apply that paragraph -- and the whole paper -- to Flickr, and you will see how 360 could have and still can, perhaps, succeed at by learning from Habitat. The only question is whether Flickr, post-acquisition, will infect Yahoo, or the other way around, and what will come out the other side. Will it really be Flickr? Or was it all just a dream?