The Intentional Cloud: Say What You Mean, Become What You Say

Our personal clouds today are mostly made of passive data. Some is our stuff: words, pictures, data, other digital objects we create and then share online in public or in private. This stuff represents us to the world. It forms our web identities.

Then there's other people's stuff: words, pictures, data, other objects that refer to our stuff and so to us. When our stuff connects with their stuff, those connections represent us to the world in another way. They form our web reputations.

We can't manage or control the data clouds that form our own identities as well as we'd like. The active services that will put us in charge of our stuff mostly don't exist yet. But they'll come, and our personal clouds will be more than just passive stores of data. Agents in the cloud will protect our data, mediate access to it, help us form our identities, and -- in collaboration with agents that manage other personal clouds -- help us form our reputations.

I'm thinking it'll be a while yet until that agent ecosystem boots up. (Ask AT&T, they tried to get things going in 1997.) Meanwhile, though, our personal clouds needn't be purely passive. When we infuse passive data with active intention we begin to develop agency.

Some nice examples of that kind of intention emerged last week, during my mini-residency at Virginia Tech. Here's one. For a class on Internet law, I was asked to discuss intellectual property on the web and the uses of Creative Commons licensing. To prepare for the class I reviewed my own web presences. In most cases I have intended what the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licenses say. You're free -- indeed encouraged -- to share my stuff with attribution. If you'd asked me, I'd have said that my WordPress blog, my Flickr account, my YouTube account, and my Slideshare account did say that. But they didn't. If you want to wrap Creative Commons licenses around your stuff, you have to declare that intention. I hadn't. Now I have.

In another class I mentioned the following experiment. Coin a word that isn't yet indexed by any Internet search engine, and post it in a public document. Wait a while, then search for the new word. You'll find your own document, which now extends your identity, and perhaps also other documents that cite yours and expand your reputation. One student, lisskane, took my advice:

When it comes to the World Wide Web, our imagination is our only limit. We decide what we want to make. Who we want to share it with and what we want it to mean. Take words for example. Dackolupatoni: when you Google that, nothing comes up. But here is our experiment. Let's search it in a few hours and probably this will come up. Which is recursion. And then that person can be linked to this. And it goes on and on. Now isn't that cool?

Yep. Lisskane's identity has now grown a new aspect. It's she who coined that lovely word, and then used it to explore a deeply magical property of the web. She has also influenced her reputation, insofar as others who have now used the word acknowledge and reflect on her experiment.

We can always at least say what we mean. And sometimes we can agree with others to mean the same thing. In my town, for example, another experiment is in progress. The city government has launched a tagging initiative. And it has made an agreement with the local newspaper, The city's data cloud and the newspaper's data cloud will intersect at certain points. One point of intersection is the tag WestStDamKeene, which finds both newspaper articles and city documents about the same public issue.

Semantic markup is another way to say what we mean. I used to talk about microcontent, then there were microformats, now there's The idea was always to master our own search indexes. Technologists love to wrangle about the best way to do that. Microformats? RDF? RDFa? I no longer care how it happens. I only care that it happens. I want everyone to understand that we can use our personal (and organizational) clouds to express our intentions in ways that shape our identities and reputations.