Almost Famous: Chris Messina of Google

In a feature of “Almost Famous” we’ve dubbed “Need to Know,” All Things Digital talks with top players inside tech companies–much as we talk to emerging and innovative entrepreneurs–who are perhaps not as prominent as their influence suggests, but who should be.

This week: We took a trip to a little company called Google (GOOG) to talk with Chris Messina, Google’s open Web advocate. Openness? Google? We couldn’t pass this up.

Who: Chris Messina

What: Open Web advocate

Why: Chris has been in early on all kinds of pioneering open Web projects. He helped run Spread Firefox–Mozilla’s community marketing effort–co-founded the BarCamp user-generated un-conferences, and single-handedly invented the Twitter hashtag: #. No joke. He just made the move to the search giant.

Where: Factory Joe (blog); @chrismessina (Twitter); Googleplex (analog place)

Who Else: Open standards are Messina’s forte, but he’s been preaching the gospel of openness to many Google teams.

Five Stats You Won’t Find in His Facebook Profile:

Worst Job: You know, I’ve led a pretty padded life, but I guess my worst one was when I was a janitor in a print shop while living in Switzerland. I was living in an attic in this tiny town to attend this Swiss design school–which I didn’t like at all–and this is how I made my meager living while there.

Has a Geek Crush on: I first started learning Web design by reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s book. There are lots, though. More related to the stuff I’m doing now, I think John Panzer is a big unsung hero, he’s the one pushing the Salmon stuff (Google’s open comment project) forward.

Gadget of the Moment: I still love my first-generation Apple (AAPL) iPhone. It doesn’t have 3G and it’s slow as molasses, but I really like the form factor, the metallic finish, everything. It also allows you to take screenshots, which is the one thing really missing from Android.

Biggest Difference Being at Google: Even more email, if you can believe it.

Design Geekiness: My favorite font ever is Pennsylvania by Christian Schwartz. I also like Bello, Flama and Tungsten.

Bio in 140 Characters

Born in New Hampshire, he trained as a communication designer at Carnegie Mellon. He left for California and has been into the open Web ever since.

The Five Questions

What does being an open Web advocate at Google mean? Does it feel like you are working for “The Man”?

Generally what I’m doing here is a lot like what I used to do, actually. I have contact with a lot of different developer teams, and I talk to them about how they can use open standards in their work. Right now though, mostly I’m working on Google Buzz, doing developer relations and helping design the Buzz APIs. We’re trying to create these technologies based on stuff from the grassroots communities where these things already exist, as opposed to inventing our own standards. We document everything on the Google code site and then we just talk about it. It’s a little bit of an evangelism role, in the sense that we have to go out and be a part of the community and be a router for information back into Google.

Big companies seem to have their own agendas and needs to be met, and what I’m realizing now is that a lot of times, they also don’t have time or a way to go out and find the places where these needs are and these tools are already being developed. There are a lot of people who are really hungry for this information, but maybe just didn’t know where to go.

So how do you see Google Buzz as a part of the social Web landscape, now that you’ve been on the inside?

We approached it from a “pieces that are loosely joined” perspective so that we can spit out smaller communities that are self-sufficient, rather than one big monolithic project like Facebook Connect. We built Buzz so that Google can be one place that hosts the underlying technologies, but the capabilities can be spread and used by anyone who wants that social functionality.

The goal is to create a much larger social Web that is dispersed, as opposed to another monolithic silo that sort of sucks in a lot of activity and doesn’t let anything out. Facebook is just the most recent silo, there have been lots in the past. AOL (AOL). Prodigy. A lot of times they don’t mean to be that, but it just happens.

How do you see the competing philosophies of openness and proprietary technology and information at play on the social Web?

I think the way that I look at it is that facilitating choice is actually a good way to ensure you remain competitive. Also, right now, the social Web is in such infancy that competing on what is available now seems so premature. I’d rather see us spend the next five or 10 years building out the social Web so that we have good standards for identity, good standards for authentication and open ways to bring your friends with you to any site on the Web.

Because we’ve never had this social data before, there’s this mentality that it’s solid gold, and we should be hoarding it keeping it from everyone and only letting out little bits. In reality, I think markets work best when there is a flow of data. If I can’t take my data out of one network and move it into another, like I can move credit card balances from one to the other, then I think we are inhibiting the types of things we should be building, which will be much richer.

I already sign into 10 Google products a day with the same account. Is my Google account going to become more like Facebook Connect?

Well, the technology is there, but it’s more a question of motivation. It’s actually a problem I’ve been working on for the last two or three years. The first question is, how do you provide choice to people when they want to log in (what do you ask for)? The other question is, why would they use any one service or other, given the choice?

Facebook has solved that problem by just eliminating the choice. You just choose Facebook Connect, click a button, and it will be fine. And it works pretty well.

A barrier for us is that our tools are built on standards like openID and OAuth that were designed by people who cared a lot more about privacy. As a result of that, a technology based on openID doesn’t automatically come with all the social data that make modern applications work. We are actually working with Facebook on this problem, because it turns out the hardest thing to figure out is just what to put on the user interface–how do you quickly ask people what they’d like to share? We want to avoid making Web sites look like the side of a Nascar.

Google’s push into mobile is based on open standards. How do you see that proliferating??

You know, even the iPhone is actually just a platform that interacts with a bunch of open standards and accepted systems. It relies on 3G, sends email, SMS, takes pictures that are compressed and connects to other devices via Bluetooth–they are all open standards and protocols that have enabled these great tools. I think people are going to want more. I’m intrigued by Android, and it, plus the devices it runs on, are really getting there.

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