Q&A: Throwing sheep at Plaxo's Joseph Smarr

The chief systems architect at the contact management system tells CNET News.com about his vision of, in a sense, one social identity to rule them all.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
10 min read

MIAMI--Joseph Smarr, chief systems architect at Plaxo, has become somewhat of an icon of social media's future. An ardent supporter of open standards, Smarr is arguably one of the biggest proponents of Google's OpenSocial who can't officially claim to be a Googler. So it's fitting that Smarr has played a prominent role at the Future of Web Apps conference; CNET News.com had a chance to catch up with him on Thursday and find out some more about what "open" really means and what's next at Plaxo.

Plaxo was the first major social site to implement Google's OpenSocial. How has that been going?
Smarr: OpenSocial itself is still kind of a work in progress... (Critics) said OpenSocial was announced and then, "There's nothing there, what happened?" But I think it's important to remember that the timing had more to do with the fact that they (Google) saw all these companies saying, "Oh, we need our own platform" and there was all this fragmentation. That message of saying, "Wait a minute, guys, you don't all have to do your own thing, why don't we get together and do something together?" You sort of had to say that soon enough that it wasn't too late.

When you talk to developers, what are the most frequent questions you get about OpenSocial?
Smarr: I think a lot of them are very interested in the sort of viral aspect of it because a lot of developers are doing this stuff because they really want to get in front of a lot of eyeballs...Facebook imposes all these limitations about how many invitations you can send out, who you can invite, who can see the stuff. They're obviously doing that to prevent abusive use of the stuff, but it also potentially curtails legitimate use of it as well.

For example, a site like LinkedIn or Plaxo, which caters in general to a more professional demographic, less kids, that sort of thing, there might be less of everyone wanting to throw sheep at each other and that kind of thing. You might be able to give people a little more rope to broadcast things, to show each other. I think everyone hopes through OpenSocial that they can encourage the right kind of sharing.

So would you let people throw sheep at each other on Plaxo?
Smarr: It's unclear. But we do want Plaxo to be genuinely useful and about staying in touch between real people. I think there's lots of things we could've done.

How has Plaxo evolved since you've been there?
Smarr: Well, I was their first employee. I've been there six years. When I joined, we were still being incubated out of Sequoia (Capital)'s offices while they were trying to close the first round of funding...it's been a fascinating ride.

So what's the transition been like from focusing on straight-up contact management to growing and evolving as the Web has become more social?
Smarr: The world really changed around us. If you think back to 2002, when we conceived of and launched Plaxo, there was no social networking, there was no Friendster, there was no Flickr. This notion of living your life online didn't really exist. So I think in a way the business plan was oddly prescient. It was like, there needs to be this software that lives in a cloud that helps you stay in touch with people even though you're all changing jobs and using different tools. It wasn't called social networking, but it was (the same) pinpoint.

Joseph Smarr
Joseph Smarr, Plaxo chief platform architect Plaxo

Facebook's obviously having some issues these days with the "app spam" controversy. That's sort of parallel to what Plaxo had some problems with early on. Would you say that they could learn a lesson from what you guys experienced?
Smarr: I wouldn't say that that's the case. I think the high-level lesson is there's always this tension in start-ups between making everything very one-at-a-time opt-in but then having a hard time to actually get growth going, and trying to get things accelerated and do the right thing for your users but in a way that actually helps things take off. We've certainly learned over time about when it's okay to go a little faster and when you have to sort of pull back.

Do you think that people would have the same "acquaintance spam" problems with Plaxo if it had emerged now rather than circa 2003?
Smarr: The stuff that has happened since is so much more egregious than anything we ever did. We were one of these victims of being one of the first people to do it right, and people weren't used to it. So many of the social networks now will like, pull in your address book and just e-mail everybody without telling you, and use these very misleading tactics, and we never were trying to be shifty. I sort of marvel at what's gone on since then...how many e-mail notifications have you gotten from Facebook or Twitter? If you actually look at the volume, just because of how many people use these things, it's just huge amounts of e-mail.

Smarr: Exactly, right, bacn. And that's what we think is one of the real opportunities with the stuff we're doing now with trying to make an open social Web where everyone can communicate. Why does everyone ask me to confirm that I'm your friend as though I've never used any other site in my life? It's only because they don't talk to each other, the users aren't empowered to take the connections they made in one place and use them in another place.

We've got all these initiatives and coalitions and standards that are starting to emerge. There's OpenID, DataPortability, OpenSocial, and the like. You're getting all these different standards. Are they going to run into compatibility problems?
Smarr: I think the good news there is that because most of these are these community-driven efforts, there are all these people who are talking to each other all the time. All these people who started OpenID and OAuth and OpenSocial and DataPortability, they all started for different reasons, and yet they're all converging into this shared vision of a user-centric online identity kind of thing, and that's one of the proof points in my mind why this is really the right way to go, why we can tell it's going to win. The pieces just fit together, not because they were designed to, but because they all sort of have got the same vision...(it's) just like a perfect storm. They're all happening at the same time, and they're all filling in the right pieces. It's really cool.

How often are you faced with privacy concerns? Silicon Valley might be thrilled about having a single identity online, but some people might find that a bit daunting, frightening even.
Smarr: Privacy is at the center of everything we talk about. It's not just about people seeing stuff you didn't want them to see, it's also about maintaining the right level of professionalism and signal-to-noise ratio. So it's kind of like, people that I'm doing technical stuff with here and then they're putting up photos of their kids. It's not that they don't mind me seeing a picture of their kids, but that's not the relationship I have with them.

We really think Plaxo's going to become a kind of dashboard for the social Web where you sort of help manage and maintain relationships across all these different sites, see all the activity there.

But if people have to curate their online identities like that, couldn't that lead to more fragmentation because people are seeing different faces of each other?
Smarr: The problem is, right now, you can't have it either way. Right now it's fragmented whether you want it to be or not. A lot of these technologies are going to let you sort of consolidate your online identity. Now it's either public or it's private, but this is going to allow you to share different things with different people. I think it's going to work really well. It's certainly something users are going to have to learn how to deal with, but users have to learn how to deal with a lot of stuff online. But it's fundamentally what users want.

Has there been any fallout over the whole controversy that took over blog chatter earlier this year when Robert Scoble was testing a Plaxo script on Facebook and got his Facebook account banned?
Smarr: The main takeaway from that was that as much as people want control over their data and the ability to make it portable, there still are some legitimate debates to be had about, say, if I'm sharing info with you in one context. How much should I be in the loop when you take it into another context? We thought it was a more cut-and-dry issue. I think ultimately you still want to be able to take people you've met in one place and put them in another place, so I don't think there's anything too crazy going on there, and we're trying to do the same thing. But it's still interesting how that all works. In the physical world, if you give me your business card, you wouldn't tell me "Oh, you can put it in Outlook, but don't you dare put it in Lotus Notes."

The meta-goal of a lot of what we were doing was to raise awareness and get people talking about these sorts of issues. That, I'd say, was a resounding success.

Wait, so did you know that Scoble would get banned from Facebook?
Smarr: No, that didn't play out at all the way we had originally intended. Scoble was being an early alpha tester of this feature since he's got 5,000 friends on Facebook and that's sort of a good "stress tester."

Yup, and everyone knows he's got 5,000 friends.
Smarr: And he's obviously been very much a vocal supporter of the kind of stuff we're working on. But then it triggered some rate limit on Facebook and got his account shut down, and then he blogged about it...when we woke up (the next day) we were kind of in damage control mode all day. I think if we'd gotten a chance to tell the story the way we wanted to, people would've seen that there's sort of less than meets the eye here, that this is a useful and genuinely good and not privacy-scary sort of thing. But we certainly did intend it to be a conversation starter, but we were also actually trying to build a useful feature for our users. It's one of our most-requested features.

Speaking of people with a lot of contacts, there's been a lot of press about how Bill Gates has stopped using Facebook and now he's signed on to LinkedIn. Does he use Plaxo?
Smarr: I actually don't know. We don't spy on our users. It's not like Facebook where anybody can access anybody's user records. We do have, I think, a lot of prominent people who use Plaxo, because we get anonymous statistical samples within Plaxo (about job title). "CEO" and "president" and "executive" and that kind of thing are at the top. So you might think of contact management as something that people at high levels would delegate to admins or something like that, but it's clearly like, being successful has a lot to do with really staying in touch and knowing people, right, so it's something that these people all sort of do themselves.

So how could Bill Gates use it?
Smarr: Bill Gates is such a special example it's hard to know exactly, but I think he, just like anybody else, meets all these people and wants to see what they're doing, it's a really hard problem to stay in touch with all of the online content in particular that people are doing. In particular, if he had friends or colleagues or family he wanted to stay in touch with, I'm sure even he has aggregation problems. People are putting up photos on Flickr or Picasa or Microsoft or whatever it is, and just being able to say, you know, "Ray Ozzie posted vacation photos" would be really useful.

Recently there were some rumors that you guys had gotten bought. Where did that all come from?
Smarr: It's Silicon Valley, I don't know, it's a very gossipy town and especially whenever they smell money in the water, everybody kind of goes crazy.

Invent a theoretical company who would be your dream buyer.
Smarr: I don't think we need to be bought by anybody. I take it as a testament to the fact that what we're doing is useful and relevant that all these people were talking about, "oh, these guys should be buying Plaxo." Nobody was saying "That's stupid, they're not doing anything useful." It's kind of like reading your own obituary in a way.

What are we going to see coming up? Is the focus now going to be on getting OpenSocial in there, getting the developers on board?
Smarr: That's one piece of it. Actually, the DataPortability piece is really what I think the future is for us. Pulse is doing great in its own right, but we really see the evolution of that. We really think Plaxo's going to become a kind of dashboard for the social Web where you sort of help manage and maintain relationships across all these different sites, see all the activity there. There's just so much to do there. It's so fragmented right now and most users aren't just using any of it right now because it's so hard to have to create your profile and do everything from scratch and stay in touch and all that. The fact that we can live inside the tools that you use every day, on your phone, on Outlook, all these Web sites, means that I think we can take all these people who are using that daily pattern and show them this whole world of content. That's got such legs...It feels like we're on the cusp of a whole new era of the Web.

If you had to give one piece of advice to Mark Zuckerberg, what would it be?
Smarr: Open is good for business. I don't think Facebook has anything to fear from being closed down to user control of data. I think they get that. A lot of them really do believe in openness and transparency, they just have to get there in stages. Ultimately I think they'll be a great beneficiary of this.