May 4, 2007

Mugshot: Social networking open source style

Author: Dmitri Popov

Now that we have open source beer, open source cars, and open source photography, a social networking service run by Red Hat and based around open source software comes as no surprise. The name of the project is Mugshot, and the official definition describes it as "an open project to create live social experiences around entertainment." That may sound vague, but it's actually a useful service, and there are quite a few things you can do with it.

First of all, Mugshot provides a single entry point to popular social networking tools such as Flickr, Google Reader, Blogger, Digg, del.icio.us, Picasa, YouTube, and others. Your Mugshot account page allows you to easily add Web services for use with your Mugshot page; all you have to do is to provide your account information for each service. Your Mugshot user page then acts as a kind of aggregator that watches the configured services and provides notifications when they are updated. For example, if you specify the URL of your blog, Mugshot will automatically add the recent blog posts to your Mugshot page. Enable and configure your Flickr account, and Mugshot adds your photos to the Mugshot page and provides notifications when you add new photos. If you choose to enable the Digg and del.icio.us services, your Mugshot page will display the articles you dugg and recent bookmarks.

Once your Mugshot page is up and running, you and your visitors can use it to stay abreast of your Web activities. In other words, your guests don't have to waste time visiting each and every service you use in order to see what's new: your Mugshot puts all the relevant information right at their fingertips. In fact, visitors don't even have to visit your Mugshot page. Using the Mini Mugshot, you can easily create a Mugshot badge, which can be embedded into your blog or Web site. There is also a Mugshot Google Widget you can use with your Google page or desktop sidebar.

Consolidating all your activities is only one (and probably not even the most important) aspect of Mugshot. What makes the service particularly useful is its networking and sharing capabilities. For starters, you can invite your friends to Mugshot by sending them invitations. Once an invited user has joined Mugshot, he is automatically added to your network. (You can see all the users in your network by clicking on the View My Network link.)

Another way to get social is to set up a group and allow others to join it. This can come in handy if you want to share stuff on a specific topic -- for example, open source software, gardening, or medieval history. You can add relevant RSS feeds to your group, effectively turning your Mugshot page into an RSS reader. For example, your "open source software" group can include RSS feeds from Linux.com, Slashdot, Distrowatch, and open source-related blogs. You can create as many groups as you like, and each group can either be open (anyone can join it) or by invitation (anyone can follow the group, but they need an invitation to join it).

My Mugshot - click to enlarge

Mugshot users as well as other visitors can comment (or quip, in Mugshot jargon) and vote on every item that appears on your Mugshot page -- be it a new blog post, recent photos, or an RSS article. This turns your Mugshot page into a place where people can share their thoughts on a particular subject and discuss the published items.

Web Swarm is another nifty feature that allows you to share Web pages with other users in your network or group. To make use of this feature, you have to install a Mugshot Firefox extension, which adds a Web Swarm icon to the browser toolbar. To share the currently viewed Web page, press the Web Swarm button, select the users and groups you want to share the page with, add a description, and press the Add button. When you choose to share a Web site with other users in your network, the shared Web site appears not only on your Mugshot page, but on their pages as well. As with any other published item, users can then comment on and discuss the shared Web page.

The Web Swarm extension is part of an optional desktop package that also contains the Mugshot Stacker utility. It acts as a mini desktop version of Mugshot. When started, Mugshot Stacker sits in the notification area and alerts you whenever a new item is published on your Mugshot page. You can quip about a particular item directly from within Mugshot Stacker. The Mugshot wiki provides precompiled binary packages for Windows and several Linux distributions, including Fedora, Ubuntu, Mandriva, and openSUSE.

Although Mugshot was developed with end users in mind, it also acts as a playground for developers who try different services and approaches to social networking. The latest addition, for example, is the Open Source Applications Statistics service. Once you've activated it, the Mugshot software keeps track of the applications you use and periodically uploads a list of these applications to the server. You can then see a list of the most frequently used open source applications at Mugshot's Web site. This service is turned off by default, and if you worry about your privacy, take a look at a description of the service before you enable it.

Since Mugshot is an open project in every sense of the word, anyone is welcome to contribute to it. If you are interested in participating or just want to get a better understanding of what makes Mugshot tick, take a look at Mugshot's wiki. Among other things, the wiki provides the latest downloads as well as a detailed overview of the server and client architectures.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, US, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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