Rethinking Social

Every freedom loving individual on the planet ought to be concerned about how the web is evolving. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, put it like this:

The web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles… The web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles… The more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social networking site becomes a central platform – a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it.

If we lock ourselves into the model of centralized data control, we risk succumbing to a tyranny of unprecedented scale. A tyranny of information.

A recent upstart, Diaspora, struck a chord worldwide with its promise to deliver a "privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network." It quickly raised an unprecedented $200,000 in Kickstarter crowdfunding, attracted droves of geeks to lend their able minds, and peaked the interest of mainstream media. The message was clear: we don't want a social monopoly.

I applaud Diaspora for planting the seeds of social systems reform. The world is now more aware of the arbitrary tradeoff of social data for social tools. People have begun opening their minds to the possibility of alternatives. That is no small feat.

Unfortunately, data privacy and control are tiresome concepts for the average social networking user. Many don't understand the risks and many who do simply don't care. It's not like they're paying to use the service, why should they complain? Better protections of privacy and more control of data are not compelling enough reasons to persuade 800 million people to adopt something else.

So what is? Tim Berners-Lee offered a hint:

The web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles…

The web is a decentralized system. A common set of open protocols and standards enables anyone to participate by publishing content and interlinking it with other content. It therefore evolves through the contributions of millions of people worldwide.

If our social systems were a set of similarly open protocols and standards, a new era of global innovation around how we store and consume social data would be born.

What if a developer could dream up a new social interface, build it, publish it, and immediately allow anyone to use it? Imagine watching a dynamic visualization of your friends' social activity as it relates to the latest internet meme.

What if users didn't have to forfeit their data to the company that built the latest social interface? Imagine clicking a link and immediately seeing your social data appear in some new way without popup boxes asking you to let company x access your data.

What if users could put their data on a variety of data storage providers who competed on services and prices? Imagine DropBox + Social Data.

New companies would be founded, new jobs would be created, and users would bask in the ever expanding array of services and tools that strive to help us make the most of OUR social data.

If that doesn't compel users to rethink social, nothing will.

2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Rethinking Social”

  1. Horrible pessimist November 19, 2011 at 3:47 am

    With the exception of possible interfaces and forms it sounds like making a personal html page and communicating via e-mail. Really a meta-app letting people communicate between different sites is more likely to de-centralize social networking. It could be an app if it weren’t way too late. Zynga sort of does it. A “trillian” for social networking sites would be even more centralized and that would be the eventuality either way. It all sort of lends itself to monopoly. I don’t know if a cloud sort of thing would be more or less susceptible to data mining. Your security sort of depends on everyone else’s in that case. Mylife.com or whatever always pops up when you google real people because every social networking site has been totally data strip-mined. It almost makes more sense to make facebook more customizable.

  2. Augustin November 19, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Hmm… you present some interesting points. To clarify, this wouldn’t just be a social feed aggregator where you could pull in data from all the social networks and publish to them all with a single click. That doesn’t solve the problems of privacy or control, nor does it let developers build interfaces that query your social data in interesting new ways.

    Also, since your data would reside on a server of your choosing, and that server wouldn’t need to allow anyone other than your friends to access it, data-mining wouldn’t be as easy. You’d never have to ‘Let this application access your data’ in order to use it.

    Security is another matter. Distributed systems need to be secure by design, and can’t rely on obfuscated “closed” code to be secure. That’s the topic of another post…

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