On grappling with meta-information in the internet

By: 
Tom Callahan, Mark Allman, Michael Rabinovich, and Owen Bell
Appears in: 
CCR October 2011

The Internet has changed dramatically in recent years. In particular, the fundamental change has occurred in terms of who generates most of the content, the variety of applications used and the diverse ways normal users connect to the Internet. These factors have led to an explosion of the amount of user-specific meta-information that is required to access Internet content (e.g., email addresses, URLs, social graphs). In this paper we describe a foundational service for storing and sharing user-specific meta-information and describe how this new abstraction could be utilized in current and future applications.

Public Review By: 
Stefan Saroiu

For most users, the Internet is increasingly becoming like a messy drawer. It is full of notes, lists, scraps of papers, old photos, new photos, tools, and so on, that users have accumulated over the years. Users have two choices. The first choice is to use a collection of item-specific organizers (i.e., content-specific applications) – such as an organizer for photos, an organizer for notes, and one for lists. The second choice is to hire a person (i.e. the “cloud”) – the external organizer who will clean up and keep track of everything. The first choice is difficult and the second requires delegating trust. Both are suboptimal. This paper tries to clean up the messy drawer. The authors put forward an architecture for dealing with meta-information – all these user-generated content that people hang to. The system is a combination of a personal naming system (DNS) and a distributed file store. It provides unified personal naming, user-directed actions on receipt of communication, sharing application state across devices, and sharing application configuration across devices. The paper is quick to point out that many of these solutions have been implemented as point-solutions already and the main contribution is to simply show the power and extensibility of the architecture. Although the paper brings together a collection of well-known techniques, the paper’s main goal (as the authors themselves point out) is “to start a conversation and not close a door.” The reviewers themselves went back-and-forth on weighting the paper’s motivation against its lack of technical novelty. In the end, this paper felt like a good fit for CCR because it does its job well – it starts a conversation around the need for organizing meta-information in the Internet.