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.

Building a distributed social network? You’re doing it wrong.

June 4, 2010 | 7 comments

Here are some distributed social networking platforms and technologies designed to facilitate distributed social networking:

Wow, that’s a lot! And following Diaspora’s flurry of both coverage and cash, you can bet there’ll be plenty more to come. But of all the projects listed above, I’d argue that only Status.net is orientated around consumer need. As a result, it’s the one most likely to survive, become self-sufficient and prosper. Several more – including DiSo and DSNP – are seeking to build out technologies that can support such products, rather than the products themselves. DiSo is certainly working with other vendors and projects, is full of super-smart people, and should do very well.

However, the others are basing their product on ideology and technology rather than a human use case. I worry that a lot of these projects will disappear – which is a shame, because they’re all doing great work.

Here’s a use case distinction I’ve been thinking about:

  • A social networking platform allows you to communicate and share with a specific group or community.
  • Distributed social networking software allows you to store and organize your own content and – optionally – share it with whoever you like.

Or to put it another way, in social networking platforms, sharing is the feature. In distributed social software, sharing is a feature. The two use cases are genuinely different: rather than being a competition between “monolithic” social communities and distributed social software, they’re used for different things. There is a place for both in the ecosystem – and there’s no real reason why they can’t work together.

As I pointed out in The Internet is People, in order to be successful, any social software you build either has to plug into an existing community, or be useful for the first user who joins. In distributed social software, you only ever have one user: distributed sharing, then, should be a piece of infrastructure that can be plugged into any kind of software.

Google Wave is exciting and transformative

May 28, 2009 | 3 comments

For almost five years, I’ve had a dream of creating a decentralized social networking system with granular access permissions and a customizable workflow. It would be open source, with an underlying, decentralized open protocol based on XMPP that anyone could build on top of and extend. It would redefine the way we work on the web, and make social connections as much of a part of the Internet infrastructure as email is today.

Google just released it.


In all seriousness, Google Wave, and particularly the Wave Protocol, have the ability to completely change how we communicate on the Internet. That might sound a little over-enthusiastic, but so far the project seems to be getting everything right. It’s distributed, extensible, granular (as public or private as you want) and open. There’s been some talk about the interface for their sample client being a little cluttered, but the team are at pains to point out that it’s in the early stages – and this misses the wider implications of the technology.

I’m not the only one talking in superlatives. Tim O’Reilly points out:

Suddenly, familiar applications look as old-fashioned as DOS applications looked as the GUI era took flight. Now that the web is the platform, it’s time to take another look at every application we use today, and ask the same question [project founders] Lars and Jens asked themselves [with email]: "What would this look like if we invented it today instead of twenty-five years ago?"

It remains to be seen how the project will develop, but I’ll be paying very close attention.