Monday, August 06, 2007

Is the future of Social Networking Free and Open?

Can an open platform/protocol be the ultimate winner in the evolution of social networking? I've been arguing that that is just what will/should happen. But, I've gotten some strong arguments to the contrary. On the one hand, the most successful open communication protocol in the world, SMTP, has allowed billions of people to communicate openly and freely. There is no master gateway through which email must be sent. This is the model I think future social networks should have. I spoke with a Google engineer about an open social networking protocol, and his response was, "why hasn't it worked for Instant Messaging". Google has tried to make nice with the likes of Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft, but we still have these walled gardens, so that two people have to belong to the same monolithic IM platform in order to communicate. There have been some small attempts to form special inter-operating agreements between specific IM providers, but we still have no purely open, and universal standard for IM communication. Facebook is the first large scale social network to make an attempt at creating an open platform. Yet they are going too slow for many developers; there still exist restrictions on what you can do with the information you extract from the Facebook API, regardless of whether your users opt-in. And Facebook can unilaterally shut off any third party service provider, even if they have a devoted user base on Facebook that wants to use their application. I also don't think you can cobble together the integrated social experience of Facebook with free and open services that exist out there today (as suggested by this Wired article). What we need is a set of platform protocols that follow these principles:
  • The user is the owner of all his information. His friend list, his content, his interactions.
  • No social service should lock up a user so that he cannot switch to another social network provider, bringing all his information with him.
  • No social service should refuse to work any other service (with some exceptions for spam-like behavior).
  • Users should be able to opt-in to not only let their friends have access to their personal information and content, but also to allow third-party social service providers have access to their information and content.
The protocols we need go beyond simple micro-formats suggested for representing friend relationships, like XFN. We need real communication protocols to pass data back and forth between social services. The protocols need to have knowledge of user identity and should enable viewing and sending information based on permissions that users' have specified for their own accounts.
  • Portable identity system (identify a user, independent of the service provider).
  • Standardized information schema into which personal information, photos, bookmarks, friend lists, groups, communities, presence, and current status, can all be fit.
  • Protocol for querying and caching this information between services and third/party applications.
  • Mechanism for revoking permissions so that all previously cached data must be redacted.
  • Protocol for sending messages between users; either real time, or queued.
If such a distributed system existed, MySpace and Facebook could become just another (albeit the largest) social service provider, but without the monopoly-like control to lock up and control our interactions with friends and companies of our choosing.


Blogger Eric said...

Great blog post, Mike! Couldn't agree more. Right now, I do think that the Wired article is correct about the best social networking tools available - a blog. You can collect all of your own feeds and display them how you want (roughly). I find it kind of weird, however, that the article is posting about Plaxo's unreleased service and not even mentioning people who are already in that space and trying to make something happen.

The lack of reciprocal tethering to the people in your network (no friend model) is a problem, though, and it would be great if people could start adopting something like the XFN standard as a way of everybody playing nice with each other. As much as I think Facebook has a lot of cool stuff, ultimately, I don't want to be constrained by their service. Every day I feel that more... I hate receiving updates from my friends on multiple services through my email - what a hack.

8/6/07, 12:15 PM  

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