The IndieWeb as a minimum viable social web ecosystem

July 9, 2013 | 1 comment

I wrote a post as a submission for the W3C’s upcoming Workshop on Social Standards: The Future of Business.

Although there have been significant advances in the field over the last five years, there remains a need to prove the business value of decentralized web technologies. To many of us involved in both the industry and the movement, this seems silly: after all, the business value of other decentralized technologies, like email and the phone system, are hardly questioned. Nonetheless, in a world where centralized data siloes regularly receive multi-billion-dollar valuations, the onus is on those of us who are building more open technologies to demonstrate their worth. Note, it is not enough to argue their worth: we must build, ship, and actively demonstrate a profitable product or service with a business model where the decentralized social web is an inextricable component.

I believe that these compelling business models exist, and that they are most easily discoverable in the enterprise. However, belief is not demonstration: we must continue to test and iterate them. During this exploration phase, this means that, our software and underlying protocols must be easy to write, adapt and change. Ease of development is more important than sophistication; we must not create our own technical lock-in before we even ship.

I posted the whole piece on Werd.io, and it also made it to the front page of Hacker News.

Making billions of dollars from the federated social web

August 28, 2012 | 4 comments

Diaspora was pretty exciting. A Kickstarter campaign that promised it all: a platform created “for everyone to have full control over their data and to empower people in to become responsible, secure, and social Internet dwellers”. They raised over $200,000, which at the time was the largest Kickstarter funding round ever. Neat!

Yesterday, Diaspora announced that they were becoming a community project. That means that the wider open source community will be responsible for its direction; the original team will be involved to some extent, but are now involved in projects like Makr.io, which just made its way through Y Combinator. (Makr.io is released under the same open source license as Diaspora: here’s the GitHub repository.)

The federated social web is a holy grail for many of us. It’s a simple idea: rather than ceding control of our data and activities to a monolithic, monopolistic third party, why don’t we create an open market for services we can use, which can all interoperate? Those of us willing to set up our own servers would own our own data; others would use the servers set up by their schools or employers; others still would join the hosted service of their choice. The result would be a more innovative, web-like application web, where niche interests could be better served and people could choose the applications and interfaces that best suited them.

It goes far beyond Facebook-style social sites: the potential is for deep interoperability between every application on the web and beyond – and, potentially, identity spaces where we could keep our personal information safe.

Back in 2005, I tried to make the case in a letter to the social web hating journalist Andrew Orlowski:

If a thousand sites depend on Flickr, what happens if Flickr goes down? Wouldn’t it make a great deal more sense to think about standards for data transfer and availability to allow for Flickr-like data all over the Internet, rather than in one place – effectively a peer-to-peer network (or networks) of tagged resources? That way one can still grab information and manipulate it, but with zero dependence and a high tolerance for network failure. Rather than there being one nebulous Microsoft Office 12 For Web, there could be ten thousand office applications that all use the same standards and allow for data transfer perhaps with storage services elsewhere. The answer to “how bad do you think it will get” is “exactly the same as now” if we allow one service provider to create a monopoly for a particular type of service. As ever, the solution is open standards with a framework that anyone can use. This is obviously not going to lead to billions of dollars for any one provider, so it’s probably up to the open source movement to create.

Returning to that letter seven years later, I think I was wrong about one thing: I believe it is possible to make billions of dollars from interoperable social web applications – and there’s no need for mass public adoption of apps using federated social web standards to do it.

I’m convinced that business software should be using federation protocols, as long as those protocols have built-in access permissions. Imagine if your organization – a government department, say, or a corporation – could selectively create shared spaces for joint projects with other organizations, for as long as the project existed. Imagine if you could collaborate in more fluid ways, where applications were more like documents that you could introduce into a project when you needed them. Imagine if email was smarter. Whereas decentralization in public consumer apps is an ideological feature, in enterprise apps it has a solid business case and adds measurable value. Businesses will become more profitable by using federated apps.

On hearing the news about Diaspora, StatusNet’s Evan Prodromou made a very sensible plea:

I only have one favour left to ask: please, for the rest of us who are still working full-steam on federated social networks, don’t fall into the comforting fiction that the problem is insurmountable. It’s not; it deserves our attention and support. You didn’t waste the last two years on something pointless and unattainable. Your work matters.

It might sound like hyperbole, but I still believe it could change the way we do business, and ultimately how we all communicate.

Update: In the comments, Johannes Ernst points to his post about why decentralized software is 10x harder. I think he’s right about the problems that need to be overcome. But check out his note at the bottom: watch this space.

You can’t empower users by targeting ads

August 19, 2012 | Leave a comment

Scott Hanselman has a great take on platforms and ownership on the web:

  • Why doesn’t someone make a free or cheap social network for the people?
  • Why can’t I control my content?
  • Why can’t I export everything I’ve written?

[...] All these questions are asked about social networks we don’t control and of companies who don’t have our best interests at heart. We are asking these questions in 2012?

[...] You want control? Buy a domain and blog there.

His whole post is worth a read. But I think this goes far beyond blogging.

The “cloud”, at least as it’s popularly thought of, is really just a user-friendly, web-based take on mainframe computing, which was super-popular in the seventies (before personal computers took off), and had a resurgence in the early nineties (through the likes of AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe). Applications are stored on servers, and you access them through thin clients (in this case, the browser). It’s been a valuable way to circumvent IT departments, stop caring about upgrades and pesky computing issues like viruses, level the playing field by making it irrelevant whether you’re using a $300 Asus or a $2000+ MacBook Pro, and bring software to the masses like never before. Unfortunately, it’s also been an opening for people to abuse the trust inherent in that relationship, and create models where users are exploited in ways they may not have foreseen.

There are some key differences between cloud computing and the mainframe model of old, even leaving aside the obvious accessibility and ease-of-use gains:

  • Anyone can build an application.
  • Anyone can run their own mainframe.

It’s certainly true that most people don’t want to build applications or run their own servers. However, it’s also true that inside any medium-to-large company you care to think of, there will be a dizzying array of string-and-blu-tack semi-applications written in things like Microsoft Access. This largely doesn’t happen on the application web: somewhere in the mix, we’ve lost the control and interactivity that allowed people to use software on their own terms.

Now, sure, typically those Access databases are a mess, are stored in hard-to-find places, and duplicate work within an organization. In every non-tech enterprise I’ve ever worked in, it’s been a terrible situation; muddled and complex. But that’s what we’re here for as technologists: to create tools that empower users and improve their lives. (Contrast that with farming users and harvesting their lives, which is becoming the dominant business model on the social web.) Where are the tools that allow users to build their own solutions and find their data, easily and on their own terms? Why are people working on ways to deliver ads instead of those problems? Why can’t a non-technical user procure a server with the applications they need, under their control, as easily as buying an app on their iPhone?

The irony is that these kinds of applications have a much higher chance of making their founding entrepreneurs billionaires than trying to be the next Instagram. They’re not as cool, perhaps, but they are the foundations of real businesses, that take money from customers and create real value in return.

I know people who are making great strides in these areas, and I’m bullish about their future success. But it’s fascinating to me that more people aren’t following suit.

In the meantime, if you want control, definitely buy a domain and blog there.

Occupy Facebook: innovation in the era of social protest

December 29, 2011 | Leave a comment

Occupy UMWired reports that a group involved in the Occupy movement is working on its own decentralized social networking platform:

“I don’t want to say we’re making our own Facebook. But, we’re making our own Facebook,” said Ed Knutson, a web and mobile app developer who joined a team of activist-geeks redesigning social networking for the era of global protest.

Dave Winer notes that it probably won’t succeed:

There is no market for that. Facebook is the Facebook for the 99 percent. The goal should be to make something open and non-monolithic that provides many of the most valuable services of Facebook without the silo walls. It should not be something that an individual does, or a small group laboring heroically, rather it should be something that the Internet does.

In principle, I agree with Dave. It’s a fundamental mistake that a lot of people make when they build a social site. I used to spend a fair amount of my time at Elgg dissuading people from trying to make the new MySpace (which was the hot thing at the time), and inevitably, none of the neo-MySpace generic social networking sites worked out. Where open social networking did work out was for specific use cases: connecting people inside charities, providing platforms for reflective learning in education, rallying around causes or products.

However, that’s also an argument for why a social engine for Occupy might succeed. If it’s geared specifically at the needs for protest, while using existing technologies and simple solutions where appropriate standards don’t exist, it may become the first broadly-adopted decentralized social platform. From the backbone of Occupy using it, I can easily imagine other progressive organizations and individuals picking it up, eventually spreading through the academic sector – until it finally reaches the commercial world. Sure, there’s no market for that, but there’s a drive and motivation.

In an age where laws like SOPA are considered – where the threat of sites being yanked off the Internet without due process is real – decentralization in platforms underpinning progressive causes makes a lot of sense. You can easily imagine the “retweet” or “reshare” feature found in the likes of Twitter or Tumblr being used to create a copy of information so that it spreads across the network like an old-school Usenet post; a kind of social multicast which ensures that nothing really dies. Some nodes may live in the cloud, some on dedicated server clusters, and others on always-on home computers linked via a Comcast router; the same free speech, everywhere, indelible and impossible to control.

That’s a future I can get behind, and a platform I’d love to be involved with. In comparison, taking on Facebook just seems so small.

Occupy photo by Sasha Y. Kimel, released under a Creative Commons license.

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