For the last few years we’ve experienced a renaissance of human connectivity through the web. The rise of social networks and APIs have allowed us to connect and share information with one another in ways we could hardly have imagined only a few years ago. But as these services mature, their need to generate revenue is beginning to expose fundamental flaws in the ways we have established this connectivity. The fundamental openness of the web is under attack from all sides, from ill-conceived copyright regulation to bandwidth capping to a renewed focus on monetization through advertising by the major social networks. While these will all continue to be areas of debate for some time, I believe now is a critical time for anyone who uses the social web to get involved in the conversation.
A few weeks ago, Twitter made waves by indicating its renewed focus on becoming a media entity and locking down the user experience of its service. Many people immediately began engaging in a conversation about what this means for the individuals who use this service (I certainly had my say). One well known entrepreneur, Dalton Caldwell, has stepped up with an audacious proposal to compete with Twitter. I commend Dalton for this effort, and I admire the speed and resolve with which he is attempting to respond. However, I don’t believe his current plan is nearly audacious enough.
What Dalton and many others see (myself included) is that there is something fundamentally wrong about the concentration of power in the hands of a few corporate social networks that will inevitably have to make sacrifices in providing the best experience for their users in order to satisfy their true constituents – their investors and their advertisers. Dalton’s current proposal seeks to shift this balance of power away from these entities and into the hands of 3rd party developers. But that is not enough. Large entities, small startups, and individual developers all play a necessary role in a vibrant web ecosystem, but we are losing site of the most important thing – us. The users. The individuals. We need to acknowledge that any social system that doesn’t fundamentally empower the individuals that comprise it will ultimately be replaced by something that does. It is time to return balance to the force.
Whew, okay. So what am I really talking about here? I’m talking about ownership of identity and content. The way the social web has evolved thus far we’ve had a really haphazard handling of both. What this has meant in practical terms is that I have an identity on Twitter, I have an identity on Facebook, I have an identity on Foursquare and whatever else. On every service I need to recreate my connections. On every service I need to manage permissions for how my content is shared with others, both on said services and between them. The fundamental problem is not the managing of these things (it’s an issue we can’t get around, but we can change how it’s handled). The fundamental problem is that these services are structured from a viewpoint that they – not you – own your identity, your connections, your permissions and your content (I’m not talking about what their terms of service say, I’m talking about the effective reality of how they operate).
For the most part these services have decided to play nice and allow users to import their connections and share content from one to the other, but that isn’t always the case. The important realization to have here is they don’t *have* to, because you create your identity within their system and they are simply doing you a favor by allowing you to bring it somewhere else until they decide it no longer serves their interests. There have been many instances of services deciding to restrict other services from importing your connections. Twitter already restricts how much of your own old content you can retrieve, and they can play favorites with who gets to retrieve your content, in what quantities and at what speed.
I could go on about the implications, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to turn to my version of an audacious proposal for an open social web. In fact, this is more of an audacious goal than a proposal, because I don’t want to try to elaborate on technical requirements in this post and I’m hoping the technorati will have something to say about how to actually get this done.
What we need is an open architecture that provides the following:
- Individuals own and manage a universal web identity (or multiple identities) independent of any service provider.
- Startups provide services to assist users in managing and augmenting their identities.
- Individuals own and manage an address book of other identities they are connected to, which is independent of any particular social network.
- Individuals own and manage a collection of permissions for how the content they create can be received / accessed / augmented through particular channels. This might mean a type or piece of content is only available to some identities through some services, or available to anybody or available only to the content creator.
- Startups provide services to assist users in managing their address books and their permissions.
- Individuals own and manage a data store of the content they create.
- Startups provide services to assist in creating content, distributing content based on the individual’s permissions, and replicating that content back to the individual’s personal archive.
What you may have picked up on is that this model changes the nature of the relationship between web startups and users. In the programming world, we have a concept called Model-View-Controller. It’s an effective way of building software by separating code according to data storage (the model), visual interface (the view) and the logic for the exchange and manipulation of information between the data store and the visual interface (the controller). If you think of social web services in a similar manner, right now most of these networks are seeking to own all three parts, but they shouldn’t. Users should own and manage their data and the logic for how it is exchanged with others. Startups should focus on providing the best experience (essentially the best “view”) for empowering users to do so.
The technical implementation of this architecture is left as an exercise for the reader. JK! Well, I’ve got some ideas for how this can actually be done, but I do hope that if this model resonates at all good implementation ideas will be forthcoming from the community. I’ll share my own in a subsequent post. I’m sure many will point out that something like this has been tried before and that is likely true, but sometimes you need not just the right ideas but the right timing. I think this might be the time. While this is an approach that existing social networks undoubtedly would not like, I believe it can replicate all the existing functionality they provide, while instituting a much needed balance between all parties.