In the last few days my interest has been captured by the world of life-streaming. After a few days of nosing around in various online sources I have discovered that we seem to be in the middle of a whirlwind of activity in this area, so it seems like an opportune time to look at what is being done and see how it compares with this author’s humble opinion of the potential in this area.
Lifecasting: Most people are familiar with the concept of surveillance. We have all at some point stood in our corner store and, while waiting for the credit card machine to process our transaction, noticed those black orbs in the ceiling that record our behavior in that homely welcoming please-come-again way. In contrast, imagine if you were wearing a camera around your neck that recorded everything you did, that would be sousveillance – the recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity. Today, sousveillance has evolved from the trail-blazing work of Steve Mann to the type of first-person reality video-feeds that you can experience on the Justin.tv website. This whole area of recording and transmitting video of one’s daily life is generally referring to as “lifecasting.”
Lifestreaming is different and it emerges from the interaction of two areas of technology: (a) RSS and (b) social networking software. First RSS. Suppose that you are really interested in technology. For some inexplicable reason you lust to know the latest developments as soon as they occur. You frantically go to the top 50 technology blogs (yes there are at least 50!) every day to see if anything new has been launched. That’s a lot of effort, a lot of open windows/tabs and sometimes half of the blogs you visit may have no new news. RSS helps to solve this problem. The best way to conceptualize RSS is to separate the content on a website from the website itself. So on the one hand you have all the bells and whistles that constitute a website, buttons and tabs etc. Then on the other you have the content – raw text that describes say the newest product released by Apple. An RSS reader checks with the websites that you are interested in and if there is new content it pulls it down from the website and shows it to you in your RSS reader. You don’t have to go to the website anymore – any new content is automatically pulled down and displayed to you in your RSS reader.
If you have been in anyway sentient over the last 3 or 4 years you will have heard of the phenomenon of social-networking software. One of the earliest and best-known examples is Flickr. Flickr is a website that allows you to upload photographs and share them with others. One of its features is that it tells you when your friends have uploaded new photographs. So imagine that I have a friend that really enjoys tasting new beers. Every time he drinks a new type of beer he photographs the label and uploads the photograph to Flickr. So for example, I can see that on Tuesday he had a Hooegarden and on Thursday he had a Pilsner Urquell. This trail of activity is known as an activity stream. Now this friend of mine also has good taste in music. He is also a member of iLike, a music-centered social network and so whenever he plays music on his computer his profile on the iLike website shows the songs that he played. So if I go to that website I can see that he listened to Morrisey on Tuesday and Nirvana on Thursday. This friend of mine is a member of a number of other social sites such as Twitter (where he shares random thoughts, usually about his boss), and Delicious (where he shares his bookmarks) etc. The problem is that I have to go to 5 or 6 sites to see what he is doing. RSS again steps in to solve this problem. His behavior on each of the sites produces an activity stream and I can you use RSS to pull this activity into my RSS reader. Nothing terribly new so far. The concept of lifestreaming however uses RSS to take all of these events on all of these activity streams and presents them in chronological order. Now I can get a much better picture of my friend and I can clearly see the pattern whereby he spends most of his time researching and bookmarking websites about scuba-diving, has arguments with his boss, listens to depressing music and heads out for a beer. Clearly its time for an intervention.
But lifestreaming is also interesting from the point of view of the producer as well as the consumer. From my point of view, I am really interested in meeting other people who like to think about these new technologies and how they can be used in fun cool ways. So I want to show people the types of things I am reading, thinking and writing about. When I find something interesting I bookmark it on Delicious and tag it as related to say lifestreaming. This helps others who are also interested in this area to find this information. When they do, they can see that I am also interested in the area and they can leave me a message through my website. Another advantage of lifestreaming is that it is a low effort way of communicating that interest. For example, it has taken me a half an hour to write this blog entry and now that you have read this far you know that I am interested in lifestreaming. You could have gotten the same information by looking at my bookmarks on Delicious and I could have spent my half hour doing something more productive like playing Civilization IV or shaving the cat.
There are a number of web-based applications that propose to help you create a life-stream by combining your activity streams from the various social networking websites. Mark Krynsky at the Lifestream Blog has compared many of these applications on a matrix that you can check out on his site. So over the weekend I began a slow march through each of the many applications searching for some html code that I could cut and paste and put into my website that would show visitors what I’ve been up to and show my Mom what I have not been doing. It was a disappointing exercise. Most of the applications did not offer an html badge that you can cut and paste into your website. Those that did (like FriendFeed) offered to display only a part of your feed through such a badge and even that was surrounded by an ugly graphic border that may match their website but which does not match mine. Search as I could I could not find an application that let me do what I wanted to do. In addition I began to get really annoyed by the requirement that my website visitors go to the application website to see my lifestream – imagine if half way through watching an embeded YouTube video on a blog, you had to stop and go to see the rest of it at YouTube. It felt all the more like a strong-arm tactic because this was my meta-data!
What these web-based applications need to realize is that their business is not in selling the steak, its my steak. Their business, to the extent that there is one in this space (and I think there is) is in selling the sizzle. The RSS activity feeds are the raw data – you need to do something special with that before you can require that people go to your site to view their own activity streams. Otherwise, someone will just put together a pretty nice model on Yahoo Pipes and then that’s it. You have to add value. Now I know that behind each of these companies there is a collection of cool guys trying to push the envelope and do something cool so rather than just complaining let me try and make a contribution. One way to sizzle the steak is to make the process of reviewing lifestreams more enjoyable. I began to think about this and after about 5 minutes I came up with the idea of a lifestream browser. And no Flock isn’t it – Flock shows activity streams by user per application – what we need is a web-based RSS reader that shows activity streams per user and per application.