The EFF has a persuasive anti-Facebook rant titled An Introduction to the Federated Social Network which bemoans the perils of centralization of social networking under the aegis of one company (You can replace "Facebook" with "Orkut," "LinkedIn," "Twitter," and essentially tell the same story). The core arguments from the article are excerpted below

But federated social network developers are doing two things differently in order to build a new ecosystem. First, the leading federated social networking software is open-source: that means that anybody can download the source code, and use it to create and maintain social networking profiles for themselves and others. Second, the developers are simultaneously collaborating on a new common language, presumably seeking an environment where most or even all federated social networking profiles can talk to one another. 

What will that likely mean in practice? To join a federated social network, you'll be able to choose from an array of "profile providers," just like you can choose an email provider. You will even be able to set up your own server and provide your social networking profile yourself. And in a federated social network, any profile can talk to another profile — even if it's on a different server.

Distributed social networks represent a model that can plausibly return control and choice to the hands of the Internet user. If this seems mundane, consider that informed citizens worldwide are using online social networking tools to share vital information about how to improve their communities and their governments — and that in some places, the consequences if you're discovered to be doing so are arrest, torture, or imprisonment. With more user control, diversity, and innovation, individuals speaking out under oppressive governments could conduct activism on social networking sites while also having a choice of services and providers that may be better equipped to protect their security and anonymity.

As someone who’s been noodling on social network interoperability for the past four years this is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. However there needs to be some reality injected into the unbridled bashing of existing social networks that we have today. There’s a reason why you read about Iran's Twitter Revolution and Japanese school children using Facebook to communicate with their parents during the earthquake yet hear virtually nothing about Diaspora or Status.Net being used in similar ways to impact the lives of millions of people.

The first key argument made by the EFF article is that popular social networks aren’t Open Source so you can’t download the source code and run them on your own server. The interesting thing here is that this is actually attempting to buck a trend. Most people don’t want to host software because it is a pain in the ass to deal with. Even businesses don’t want to do this which is why “cloud” is such a hot buzzword and enterprise microblogging tools such as Yammer and Salesforce Chatter are hosted services not on-premises software. More importantly, the entire point of broadcast oriented social networks is being able to communicate with a lot of people which encourages network effects and the sort of winner take all dynamics that we’ve seen people lament over Facebook about. Why would a user create an account on or any other hosted instance of Status.Net when they can create one on Twitter and reach a lot more people? Social networking isn’t like blogging. A blog is a solitary item which only needs the publisher to exist so one person being able to download it and throw it on a server and getting value out of it is true. On the other hand, a social network by definition needs lots of people using the service to be useful which makes the ability to download it and throw it on a server for your own use much not terribly useful.

The second argument is that there should be protocols that enable interoperability between social networks and this is one I firmly believe in. In fact, this is the real problem. If I can’t use my self-hosted social networking tool to talk to my friends on Facebook and Twitter then it isn’t a useful social networking tool. This is similar to the early days of email when you could only send messages to people on your network or who used the same software as you.  Being unable to subscribe to @shitmydadsays from my Facebook account or dm my wife from Twitter may sound trivial but it is a fundamental impediment to social networking reaching its full potential as a way for people to share and communicate with the people they care about no matter where they are. Without interoperability we will continue to see the power law caused by network effects continue to play out and the sorts of innovation talked about by the EFF article won’t come to fruition since given the choice of being able to communicate with others and some innovative functionality on a particular service, most people will choose friends over features.

The interesting question is whether we’ll see this logjam broken by smaller social networking services banding together in an interoperable way thus creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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Categories: Social Software