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.

Community ownership and social networks as markets

March 24, 2012 | 2 comments

Johannes Ernst just put me to shame by writing this blog post while sitting next to me at Elgg Camp San Francisco:

[...] But there’s a stronger undertone from speaker after speaker talking about their projects. It’s about how the community wants and needs to own and control their social network (instead of just merely having a little section inside a worldwide social network). And how the community wouldn’t be as strong if they couldn’t. About the community needing to evolve the communication tools in parallel to how the community evolves. About how it is almost impossible to “work together” with others on a general-purpose site like Facebook, and how even high school students automatically switch to their school social network when attempting to get something done.

You can read the whole post here.

I spoke a little about ensuring the longevity of communities, which is something I’ve begun to think about in a general context: if you’ve established a community site and attracted a solid social network of people, how do you ensure that the community remains vibrant in six months, or three years, or a decade from now? How do you make sure, to put it bluntly, that maintaining a community remains worth your time?

In the same way that a community site augments the social experience for a network of people, I’m interested in explicit market features that augment the online social experience. For example, open source communities like the Elgg community itself: what if the Elgg ecosystem could crowdfund features and plugins?

This also speaks to community ownership. Why monetize a community using AdSense – content piped in from third parties outside the community, which may or may not be relevant but certainly are less passionate about the community’s topic – when you could empower the community to do this for itself? Why not allow online communities to be truly self-sustainable?

It’s been an interesting day, and I’m looking forward to talking to people afterwards. I’ve set up a collaborative latakoo How I Fly site here, for participants to collaboratively share video footage of the event.

Double-plus Google: finally, a mass market enterprise social network

June 28, 2011 | 1 comment

I’ll spare you the summary post for Google+; you can get that on TechCrunch, Mashable, the New York Times and in about a thousand other places. It’s a social sharing component that’s directly integrated into Google, enhancing everything they do. It puts privacy front and center using a long-rumored feature called Circles, which in my opinion mostly serves to make the user feel safe (after all, the data is still all stored on Google’s servers, so any appearance of deep privacy is an illusion). It learns from your social activity in order to recommend new content, thereby facilitating a kind of serendipity in content discovery that’s long been missing.

Although I haven’t used it first-hand yet, and Google often lets its ideas down with poor user experience, I think the concepts are brilliant: much-needed enhancements to the social networking paradigm that take it beyond the 2004-era profiles-friends-posts model. I can’t wait to try it out.

They’re not pushing this aspect too hard, but I think Google+ is going to be strongest in the area where Facebook is weakest: small to medium businesses. You’d have to be an idiot to try and use Facebook as an internal communication tool in any company, but by adding Circles, Google+ enables just that: you can share real-time content between just a small number of people. More than that, though, up to ten people can videoconference live, optionally while consuming that same content.

If Google have pulled this off, and if Google+ is properly integrated with Google Apps, they’ve instantly created the best business collaboration tool on the market – as well as a great tool for people who want to share in a much deeper, less trivial way than Facebook currently allows. If they then add an API layer, as they have with many of their other offerings, they’ve created a social layer for the web, just as Google Maps is for many people a location layer. It’s a really big deal.

Of course, it’s centralized on Google’s servers, and educational institutions, government organizations and anyone with a legal or ethical obligation to treat users’ data as being private should stay away. The decentralized web community is busy creating better tools for those use cases, and for anyone who cares deeply about privacy, as well as entirely new interface models. Circles itself is not a million miles away from Diaspora’s Facets, for example, and there’s still everything to play for. Nonetheless, Google have iterated social networking as a concept, and I’m fascinated to see how the web community in general responds.

Update: Google also announced Google Takeout today: a tool that allows you to export your Google data and take it with you. Google+ is very much in the mix here. Could this be the first mainstream social network to achieve real data portability? Given the number of decentralized social web advocates on the team, it wouldn’t be surprising.

Update 2: I took an export of my Google account via Takeout (you can do the same here) and although it’s impressive, I was left with questions. Why does Google Buzz export as a huge number of HTML files rather than an Activity Stream, for example? Where are my Google Docs files? It looks like the bundle wasn’t designed to import into other software, which I would have thought is kind of the point?

Where to find me at SXSW

February 27, 2011 | Leave a comment

I’m stoked to be at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin.

As well as enjoying the talks, attending events and enjoying wandering around one of my favorite cities in the world, I’m appearing as part of two panels:

The Why & How Of Decentralized Web Identity with Blaine Cook and Christian Sandvig (March 12, 11am in the TX Ballroom 2-4 at the Hyatt)

Wikileaks, the Web, and the Long, Strange Journey of Journalism with James Moore and Scott Braddock (March 15, 9:30am in the Town Lake Ballroom at the Radisson)

Power!In both cases, these are part of a stream. If you’re interested in decentralized identity, you’re probably going to want to start with Federating the Social Web, a panel with Status.net’s Evan Promodou, TummelVision’s Kevin Marks and Socialcast’s Monica Wilkinson, which starts at 9:30am in the same room. Meanwhile, if you want to hear more about Wikileaks, you may want to stick around for Wikileaks: The Website That Changed the World?, with Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, Vanity Fair contributing editor Sarah Ellison, and ProPublica managing editor Stephen Engelberg, which takes place in the Town Lake Ballroom at 12:30pm.

I’m very excited about working with the participants at both events. I’m pleased to say that James Moore, my co-panelist for the Wikileaks event, is a colleague at Latakoo, and it’s a pleasure to have found another way to work with him. You may know him best for his book Bush’s Brain, about George W. Bush and Karl Rove’s role in his presidency; he’s made a name for himself as an incisive political commentator in print, on television and in documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11. Here are his not inconsiderable contributions to the Huffington Post. For his Wikileaks panel, he’s brought Edward R Murrow award-winning investigative journalist Scott Braddock on board, and I’ll be there to provide technical and web culture context.

Blaine Cook, meanwhile, was the primary author of both OAuth and Webfinger, which are two of the most important building blocks for the decentralized social web; they’ve been influential in how web applications have been designed and built over the past few years. Formerly lead developer at Twitter, he’s now part of Osmosoft, a part of British Telecom that works on open source, web-based collaboration tools. As well as kindly asking me to join him on his panel on decentralized identity, he’s secured the wisdom of Christian Sandvig, who is Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Finally, although I won’t be speaking at this one, my colleague at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab Rohan Gunatillake will be speaking with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society’s CEO Kath Maitland about Edinburgh, Austin and the Future of Festivals on March 14th. If you’re interested in digital and the arts, or my work as Geek in Residence at the festivalslab, this will be worth your time.

If you’re in Austin this March, I’d love to see you at either of these events, or anywhere else. I’ll be heavily using Twitter during the festival, so you can always message me there, or drop me a note here in the comments. It should be a lot of fun.

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