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.

Silos, the open web, and selfdogfooding

March 14, 2013 | Leave a comment

Tantek Çelik has written an important post about silos vs an open, social web:

The answer is not to not “only [be] relevant to geeks”, but rather, reframe it as a positive, and be relevant to yourself. That is, design, architect, create, and build for yourself first, others second. If you’re not willing to run your design/code on your own site, for your primary identity on the web, day-in and day-out, why should anyone else? If you started something that way but no longer embrace it as such, start over. Go Selfdogfood or go home.

It’s thought-provoking, and worth a read: On Silos vs an Open Social Web.

Tantek defines “selfdogfooding” as “using your own creations on your own personal site that you depend on, day to day.” That’s an important perspective, because for one thing, many of us don’t have personal sites anymore, and yet more of us never did. Some of us have social networking profiles, but I wouldn’t classify those as sites.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I interface with the modern web, and in the wake of the Google Reader closure that’s an even more important discussion. I like the POSSE: (Publish Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere) approach very much – by publishing to something I directly control and then pushing out to sites like Twitter, Facebook and Google+, I’m the one who’s in charge of my presence on the Internet, without losing any of the network effects.

This poses other questions. When you control the entire platform that your presence runs on, and you know how to write code, what should your presence look like? Right now I’m using WordPress to power this site, and ThinkUp to process my interactions with the wider social web, but what could I build myself?

This dovetails nicely with another question I’ve been asking myself lately. I designed the architecture for Elgg 0.x in 2004, and the original 1.x architecture was set down two years later. What would an easy-to-use open source social platform that was easy to deploy onto shared hosting look like, given the set of technologies we have available to us in 2013? Let alone what we know now about user behavior and design? It’s a different web out there, and I don’t know. But if I want to, I can explore; the best way to do that is to use it myself.

Updated to add: I built this. It’s called idno, and I’m using it over at werd.io.

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.

Tent

August 22, 2012 | 6 comments

Tent appeared out of the blue today: a protocol and reference server implementation for individual-to-individual distributed social networking. Or to put it another way, Tent is a way to host your own social data – posting and reading from as many apps as you want. Here’s their announcement, and here’s the GitHub repository.

The Tent manifesto is right-on:

Every user has the right to freedom of expression.
Free speech is a necessary feature of all open societies. Speech can not be free if communication is centralized or intermediated. Users must be able to say anything to anyone they want on their own terms.

Every user has the right to control their own data.
This includes who can access the data they create and how that data is later used.

Every user has the right to choose and change their social services providers.
This includes the right to negotiate reasonable terms of service collectively or individually.

Of course, this is hardly the first open source social networking product – and many people are already asking why Tent doesn’t use the OStatus protocol. (StatusNet also includes an individual installation mode.) These are valid questions, but while there’s a slight air of Not Invented Here Syndrome, it’s an elegant idea and the API is very clean and simple, which means there’s every chance an app ecosystem will emerge. If any one of those apps is simple and elegant, we may see a very different kind of social networking community begin to develop.

Even more interestingly, I also think there are real commercial implications for this protocol. More on those in another post. For now, my takeaway is: Tent has the potential to disrupt the entire social web.

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