The inside-out social network

DISO-PROJECTAnne Zelenka of Web Worker Daily and GigaOM fame wrote me to ask what I meant by “building a social network with its skin inside out” when I was describing DiSo, the project that Steve Ivy and I (and now Will Norris) are working on.

Since understanding this change that I envision is crucial to the potential wider success of DiSo, I thought I’d take a moment and quote my reply about what I see are the benefits of social network built inside-out:

The analogy might sound a little gruesome I suppose, but I’m basically making the case for more open systems in an ecosystem, rather than investing or producing more closed off or siloed systems.

There are a number of reasons for this, many of which I’ve been blogging about lately.

For starters, “citizen centric web services” will arguably be better for people over the long term. We’re in the toddler days of that situation now, but think about passports and credit cards:

  • your passport provides proof of provenance and allows you to leave home without permanently give up your port of origin (equivalent: logging in to Facebook with your MySpace account to “poke” a friend — why do you need a full Facebook account for that if you’re only “visiting”?);
  • your credit/ATM cards are stored value instruments, making it possible for you to make transactions without cash, and with great convenience. In addition, while you should choose your bank wisely, you’re always able to withdraw your funds and move to a new bank if you want. This portability creates choice and competition in the marketplace and benefits consumers.

It’s my contention that, over a long enough time horizon, a similar situation in social networks will be better for the users of those networks, and that as reputation becomes portable and discoverable, who you choose to be your identity provider will matter. This is a significant change from the kind of temporariness ascribed by some social network users to their accounts today (see danah boyd).

Anyway, I’m starting with WordPress because it already has some of the building blocks in place. I also recognize that, as a white male with privilege, I can be less concerned about my privacy in the short term to prove out this model, and then, if it works, build in strong cross-silo privacy controls later on. (Why do I make this point? Well, because the network that might work for me isn’t one that will necessarily work for everyone, and so identifying this fact right now will hopefully help to reveal and prevent embedding any assumptions being built into the privacy and relationships model early on.)

Again, we’re in the beginning of all this now and there’ll be plenty of ill-informed people crying wolf about not wanting to join their accounts, or have unified reputation and so on, but that’s normal during the course of an inversion of norms. For some time to come, it’ll be optional whether you want to play along of course, but once people witness and come to realize the benefits and power of portable social capital, their tune might change.

But, as Tara pointed out to me today, the arguments for data portability thus far seem predicated on the wrong value statement. Data portability in and of itself is simply not interesting; keeping track of stuff in one place is hard enough as it is, let alone trying to pass it between services or manage it all ourselves, on our own meager hard drives. We need instead to frame the discussion in terms of real-world benefits for regular people over the situation that we have today and in terms of economics that people in companies who might invest in these technologies can understand, and can translate into benefits for both their customers and for their bottom lines.

I hate to put it in such bleak terms, but I’ve learned a bit since I embarked on a larger personal campaign to build technology that is firmly in the service of people (it’s a long process, believe me). What developers and technologists seem to want at this point in time is the ability to own and extract their data from web services to the end of achieving ultimate libertarian nirvana. While I am sympathetic to these goals and see them as the way to arriving at a better future, I also think that we must account for those folks for whom Facebook represents a clean and orderly experience worth the exchange of their personal data for an experience that isn’t confounding or alienating and gives them (at least the perception) of strong privacy controls. And so whatever solutions we develop, I think the objective should not be to obviate Facebook or MySpace, but to build systems and to craft technologies that will benefit and make such sites more sustainable and profitable, but only if they adopt the best practices and ideals of openness, individual choice and freedom of mobility.

As we architect this technology — keeping in mind that we are writing in code what believe should be the rights of autonomous citizens of the web — we must also keep in mind the wide diversity of the constituents of the web, that much of this has been debated and discussed by generations before us, and that our opportunity and ability to impose our desires and aspirations on the future only grows with our successes in freeing from the restraints that bind them, the current generation of wayward web citizens who have yet to be convinced that the vision we share will actually be an improvement over the way they experience “social networking” today.

18 thoughts on “The inside-out social network”

  1. I also think that we must account for those folks for whom Facebook represents a clean and orderly experience worth the exchange of their personal data for an experience that isn’t confounding or alienating and gives them (at least the perception) of strong privacy controls.

    I tried to suggest why open networks might be appealing to those folks in my brief essay (for a class) “voting with your feet and other freedoms.” Bottom line: as more and more of our lives get locked up in our social networks, I think (hope?) that more people will understand that protesting and limiting the impacts of those services can only happen if we have the freedom to leave- even if we never use that freedom.

    But of course, people have said the same about Windows for years… and that hasn’t gotten us much of anywhere.

  2. In regards to the windows analogy, I wouldn’t lose hope on that note.

    Think of the number of web sites now supporting open web standards over just Win/IE thanks the rise in Firefox and Safari users. And vice versa.

    Or how banks adapted to the fact that people want to easily transfer funds from one institution to another, like with the now widespread email money transfer.

    I’d say these are encouraging signs in regards to how much efforts will have to be made to spread the word to the average user and most businesses. Not effortless, but certainly motivating.

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  4. Hi Chris, a few months ago I’ve started to put together a concept called Trustlet, that is… quite the same idea as DiSo, I think.

    It starts from social networking in social sciences and tries to adapt the idea (not the “social network site”) to a possible distributed (P2P) infrastructure.

    The building blocks of Trustlet are:
    1. Distributed. De-centralized, with many “identity peers” connecting.
    2. PUSH or PUSH-like information propagation, to be paired with the existing PULL, in order to bring speed to the platform.
    3. Define a protocol and an application, initially a WordPress Plugin and then standalone (where WP would be a plugin…).
    4. Trust. This is quite generic, we didn’t di in it too much yet, but I think that it’s important to enable a way to propagate trust within this kind of network, in a form both simple and without social backslashes.

    The problem? We were working in italian. :P
    How I/we could join the DiSo project? :)

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