The call for open social networks is getting louder and louder

A few weeks ago, the influential Wired magazine called for an open social web, where people do not have to re-enter their friends and relations yet again, and find a way to coordinate their different networks in an open and transparent manner. This is also called the Social Graph problem and consequently there is a call for an Open Social Graph .

This week, influential open standards activists, like Marc Canter, supported by Plaxo, launched a Bill of Rights for the Users of the Social Web , which we fully support. Plaxo aims to become the place where people would coordinate their identity and relations, and therefore supports this movement. They have recently open sourced a Online Identity Consolidator .

At the same time OpenID is working on a single identity registration service, which is being adopted by a number of players. However, the social graph/social network portability people seem to suggest that Open ID is not a preferred solution for the portability problem, see here for their explanation.

Towards an Augmented Social Network?

Where is this all going? The underlying aim is the create a Augmented Social Network

It has the following aims:

1) To create an Internet-wide system that enables more efficient and effective knowledge sharing between people across institutional, geographic, and social boundaries.

2) To establish a form of persistent online identity that supports the public commons and the values of civil society.

3) To enhance the ability of citizens to form relationships and self-organize around shared interests in communities of practice in order to better engage in the process of democratic governance.

Francois Rey explains:

“I do not believe the whole ASN vision can be reached using current web technology, which is what the authors of this paper suggest when they said in 2003 “the ASN will not require a decade of intensive R&D at a cutting edge computer science laboratory, because the technology necessary for the ASN already exists, or is being developed. No engineering breakthrough is required. Rather, the challenge facing the ASN is organizational and political, not technological”.

The main reason for this is that current web technology, in the way it works and in the way it is presented to the user, is still tied to the network topology. The user is very much aware of crossing boundaries between machines connected to the internet. However the network architecture and topology is completely out of touch with the reality of social networks and communities. In order to really create an augmented social network I believe we need to shift our focus one level up and start building an architecture where the network topology is completely transparent. The user should no longer feel like navigating a set of interconnected machines and have to bother with stuff like server names, ports, etc. Instead, what the user should be aware of when navigating the network are communities, their members, their boundaries, their resources, their connections, and so on. In other words we’re talking about a whole application layer on top of the internet with a distributed and common object model. What a user understands as ‘community’ or ‘network’ should have a clear representative on the net regardless of the computer resources involved. Right now the concept of community does not even have a real representation on the web. All we have are sets of users of certain web sites or web resources. But where do we capture the fact that an individual is part of multiple communities? How do we specify a community by aggregation of other communities (e.g. neighborhoods aggregate into a whole city)? How do we manage communities with “moving” boundaries, e.g. those that work or have worked at a certain company? Unless we develop a new social layer on top of the web, the social networking ideals will be dead in the water because there is a complete disconnection between the computer network model and the social network reality.

However the authors of the ASN paper are right when they say “the challenge facing the ASN is organizational and political, not technological”. Indeed, building the ASN means we need to share more than what we have been used to in our competitive economy. It forces us to really collaborate and start building (innovation) commons that go against our organizational habits and strong property models. P2P technologies and Free-Libre Open Source Software are obviously the most suited models for building this ASN. Technology such as freenet, Netsukuku, and Croquet may prove to be essential in that task.

It’s very common today to realize ICT (Information and Communication Technology) remove the limitations that have contributed to the predominance of hierarchical and centralized models. But most do not realize the consequence of this: ICT will be a key enabler for the new (re)forms of society. Discussions within the political and economic spheres are essential, but by no means should we occult the question on how far do we want to push the limits with technology. I would even say that when you really look at what ICT can enable, you realize we can completely redistribute the locus of power within the political, economical, and financial spheres. This can completely dismay most theories in these domains. To better understand this, one just need to realize what Skype, Napster, and email have respectively done to their respective segment, and imagine the same kind of tools in the domain of economic and financial exchange.

The real limits now are the ones we imagine.”

Can Companies be Entrusted to be fully open?

Real openness is necessary, because companies do not have a clear interest in full openness, only a tactical or strategic one.

Joel West :

The reason is that “firms face an inherent conflict between value creation and value capture. A completely open standard creates lots of value, none of which can be captured; a completely closed standard captures 100 percent of no value created. So a profit–maximizing firm must seek an intermediate point that partially accomplishes both goals. Thus to pay the bills, there has to be value capture somewhere: everything has some level of openness and some level of proprietary–ness. Typically, standards that are open in one area are often not open in another.”

This is well illustrated by the behaviour of Facebook, which opened itself to third party applications, but retains strong control, and threatens programmers who go outside the bounds they have set. Recent examples of heavy-handed tactics are illustrated in this blog entry on Facebook
(read the blog for the detailed accounts of the cases)

We quote:

“it has quite aggressively quelled certain developers that have built Facebook-integrated services. Last fall, the same Facebook engineer involved in this case sent the creator of UnFaced , a compatibility calculator, a similar cease and desist request . Facebook declined to provide a substantive reason for their actions in either of these cases.

Changes to Facebook’s terms of service over the last half year may also suggest that the company has become increasingly cautious about how and when they open things up. Their terms currently prohibit the “use [of] automated scripts to collect information from or otherwise interact with the Service or the Site.” However, archives show that this line was added sometime after February 10, 2007 . So, instead of slackening their policies for independent developers, they seem to be tightening them.”
Why did Facebook decided to open up and provide an API to developers?

Read this comment on the same entry:

“ I think that’s the real question. I have some ideas as to the why but the reasons are less then chivalrous I must say. Facebook users are not as loyal as they want everyone to believe. As a matter of fact, I think Facebook is having trouble straddling both sides of the fence (Facebook is for college kids/Facebook is for professionals). Facebook wants other companies to spend their own money and time developing features for Facebook – This allows Facebook to sit back and let all these potential competitors stop building out their own social services and products and concentrate on developing more features and products for Facebook. Most of these Facebook widgets wont get anymore then a few hundred users but the few widgets that are successful will be taken down by Facebook as they can simply emulate and kick the original creator off the site for “Violating its terms of service”. This has already started to happen with the most successful widgets. So how did Facebook ensure that people got excited about this widget building scam? First they got one of their VC’s to publicly state that they would like to make investments in widgets that seemed promising. (C’mon…what widgets have been funded and if you were a VC, would you fund a facebook widget when Facebook could change their terms of service tomorrow…of course you wouldn’t). This was another announcement that got a lot of naïve people very excited. Then they used one example of a widget (called I Like) to demonstrate how a widget could become wildly popular. But they failed to mention that they won’t promote the other 2000 widgets like they promoted the “I Like” widget”. This whole thing was designed to distract the competition, get free products so facebook could see what’s popular and create a whole lot of free PR….and it worked. What everyone still needs to understand, Internet users do not want to view the Web through Facebook’s monocles.”

Peter Magnussen concludes

“The real worry (to me) is the combination of corporate control and detailed social network. If platforms like Facebook become *the* platform for the future, then we’re in a position where more or less any employee of that company can shut you down based on their own interpretation of their own terms of use.”

A private social network is pretty much like a shopping mall, it looks public, but it really isn’t.

13 Comments The call for open social networks is getting louder and louder

  1. AvatarPatrick Anderson

    If we began a new social network that was owned by every user of that network in direct proportion to the amount they are willing to continuously invest (to pay off the initial investments and for the recurring costs of operation) and the number of users was for some reason static, would you agree that the conflict of value capture and creation would then disappear since profit in that case is meaningless?

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  3. AvatarSimon Edhouse

    “Can Companies be Entrusted to be fully open”…

    What does “fully open” mean, and why is that good? ~ “Open” and the meaning of that word in a discussion like this needs to be clear and unambiguous. ~ Michel… Have you previously published definitions thereof?

    “Real openness is necessary, because companies do not have a clear interest in full openness, only a tactical or strategic one.”

    The statement above makes a proposition; Let’s deconstruct it:

    Real Openness = Full Openness, and (therefore) both are “necessary”. Necessary for what? Whatever the ‘what’ is in this equation, Companies apparently do not have a clear interest in it, and having a tactical or strategic interest in such ‘openness’ is illegitimate somehow. Why?

    The statement makes a proposition, but backs it up with a generalization. ~ If a Company has a strategic interest in being ‘open’, why MUST that not be ‘real’ openness? Is it not possible for a company to have a strategy to offer ‘real openness’ (whatever we can agree that actually is) as a strategic objective? Why can’t being ‘open’ be considered a point of potential ‘competitive advantage’ for instance? (With the said Company acting on behalf of its constituency of users, even as a Public Company)

    I have done a lot of theoretical work in this area, and I think that ultimately this is a discussion about business-models… (I’m serious) Ultimately, to solve the kind of conundrum (from the above text) listed below:

    “A completely open standard creates lots of value, none of which can be captured; a completely closed standard captures 100 percent of no value created.”

    To solve this conundrum, what is needed is a very revolutionary business model. However, I do not think this therefore means that a “Company” cannot be formed to develop and promulgate such a model. ~ [disclosure] This very issue is my 24/7 obsession.

  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear Simon:

    Below, I’m pasting a definition on the various aspects of openness by the Open Knowledge Foundation. I think the key issue is this: if all the material is open and available to all, and infinitely copyable at marginal cost, then there is no scarcity of it, and it is hard to built a market-based business model on it, as pricing is based on the tension between supply and demand. Hence, an institution that has to operate in the market, will try to have a mixture of open and closed elements, the latter allowing it to sell the product in the marketplace. I’m not claiming that this is in itself always a bad thing, I would rather think that this has to be a transparent process and the both the communities and institutions involved have to have a literacy about their differential interests. But, if openness is really essential, and if there is a radical demand for it, then the best bet might be to built infrastructures that do not function directly in the marketplace. This is, I think, why most open communities, have nonprofit institutions in charge of their collective infrastructure. If we have to have proprietary platforms, then the issue is: what is the ethical and acceptable form of mixing openness/closeness.

    I would be really very interested in your business model and your theoretical model around this, can you share this with us? Since we expect that most models will be hybrid models, this is precisely what we are looking for at the p2p foundation as well.

    Here is a summary of what could be meant by openness:

    “Legally Open

    Knowledge is legally open if it is free of most of the standard legal restrictions and requirements. In particular it should be accessible without restriction, reproducible freely (at least for non-commercial purposes), and reusable – that is, freely incorporatable in derivative works. In short, it should fall within the bounds of one of the Creative Commons licenses.

    Socially Open

    Social openness consists of ensuring that a work is made available and not kept secret or mouldering on a CD at the back of the drawer. It means supporting sharing and reuse as well as collaborative working processes.

    But most importantly it means an ‘open source’ approach to knowledge. That is, knowledge should be made available so that access is given to the raw, underlying data and not simply through a particular, usually limiting, interface (such as a human-only-usable web form).

    This parallels the distinction with software programs, emphasized by the term open source, between access to the underlying source code and access simply to the compile version. Thus Open Knowledge in this sense can stand for access to the underlying ‘source’ rather than purely access to the ‘compiled’ end product. To illustrate consider the following examples.

    For data in a database the ‘source’ form means the raw data and the ‘compiled’ form is any of the multitude of interfaces such as web query pages that can wrap that data. Providing access to the source data would be a major change – even open databases that are freely searchable rarely provide their data in source form – the only form in which it is any use to a computer.

    Another example is provided by the common practice of providing a PDF version of a document rather than the original text file. This, perhaps intentionally, hinders access to the underlying text and inhibits activities such as annotation or indexing.

    Technologically Open

    Technological openness requires that knowledge is provided in a form and format that does not unnecessarily hinder access to humans or machines. This can be achieved by utilizing data formats and tools that are open – meaning that a full specification is publicly available and unencumbered by legal restraints, and that access and use of the formats will not require proprietary tools or products (for more information on ‘openness’ of formats see the Information Accessibility Initiative).

    It also means providing the necessary documentation, structuring and presentation of data so as to ensure comprehensibility and usability. One should aim to achieve these ends not just for humans but also for computers – something that is increasingly essential in an information age.”

  5. AvatarSimon Edhouse


    Thank you for those definitions of Openness. The Socially-Open definition seems to go beyond the social context and deal with things like ‘underlying code’, which seems more like the Technologically-Open definition.

    I think to a certain extent the concept of openness seems to have an element of ‘Political Correctness’ about it. ~ Why I say this is that, for instance the whole idea of ‘Open Source’ as a people’s phenomenon seems strange to me as most users of open-source software don’t interface with the code at all.

    If you make the ‘filter’ for this type of discussion refer to what is of concern to ‘most people’ rather than an elite group like software developers, for instance, which would also be akin to the thinking of marketers or social demographers, then maybe this might be a useful filter.

  6. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Simon,

    I think we should take open in the very broad sense: the availibility of the raw material for social cooperation to occur. To what the openness then refers depends on the specific context of an object-oriented social community. For programmers it is code, for scientists it is scientific articles. But the general public benefits indirectly when specialized communities can ameliorate the products and services in that way, and in between there are the professional amateurs, who make not make a full use of the benefits of openness, but a substantial use nevertheless.

  7. AvatarPatrick Anderson

    Simon, while it may seem unimportant to make the Sources of Production available to users that have no skill in that field, the reason it is important is that it eliminates the kinds of income based on artificial scarcity.

    The unskilled user may always hire a skilled worker and pay those wages as a cost, but the traditional concept of profit through unnecessary restriction no longer applies.

    The same is true for the physical world. Owning expensive capital with a group of other users is valuable even when none of you can operate it because you can always hire that work done – and would treat those wages as a cost of operation, but could never pay profit unless you were to pay it yourselves. This causes price to approach costs which is far less than the expense we currently pay (especially when we consider the lack of freedom those corporations impose upon us as an unneeded expense).

    This applies to any industry. How much does it really COST (not the PRICE charged) to add another customer to a cell-phone network? What would be the result if the Users (consumers) of that network were the Owners of those physical sources in direct proportion to the amount they are willing to pay above costs?

    But, since groups are not static, this ‘requirement’ would also need to be applied to every new user. Owners could choose to syndicate such an arrangement through a legally binding contract that they would impose upon themselves and upon all new users.

    Does this make even a photon of sense, or should I just be quiet?

  8. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Patrick,

    Your approach makes a lot of sense, and I indeed urge you to continue to explore this avenue, which is your unique contribution to the transition and the forms it can take. I think you have to continue to make an effort to communicate in the simplest possible way, and also work on the creation of at least a single example of concretion.


  9. AvatarSimon Edhouse


    “The unskilled user may always hire a skilled worker and pay those wages as a cost”

    That description ostensibly fits the traditional commercial process too. Employers generally categorize wages as a cost of production. So I think you need to nail down the actual target of your argument. It sounds as if you are saying that the capital resource earned by industry should be distributed among those that produce the goods, and not accrued by those that initiate and develop the industry. This is a Political argument of the very left of the Political spectrum. (my shade of politics BTW)

    Although I sympathize with the sentiment behind the following statement: “the traditional concept of profit through unnecessary restriction no longer applies.” To say that it really no longer applies, invites argument. (although I would not personally concern myself with that argument)

    I understand very well the central philosophy you espouse, and the economic principles of scarcity. Tell me, does Open-Source eliminate the kinds of income based on ‘real’ scarcity? (as opposed to the artificial scarcity you mentioned above?)

  10. AvatarPatrick Anderson

    Users (consumers) pay both Costs AND Profit at each transaction. This is a choice they make, and there is no force, but the system is far less effective for the community as a whole than it could be.

    This appears to me to be the same pattern described by the Nash Equilibrium or the Prisoner’s Dilemma – where an individual may choose a payoff that is not the best for the group, but is better that the worst for himself; maybe out of fear or because there wasn’t a prior arrangement that could have ensured the other party would also be bound to choose the best alternative.

    The GNU General Public License is just such an agreement that utilizes Copyright to enforce the Pareto Optimal (I hope I’m using this term correctly) choice in a non-coercive manner. Owners of physical property could choose to apply an analogous treaty as a contract or private law to some joint holdings they intend to make ‘public’ in this GNU way.

    It sounds as if you are saying that the capital resource earned by industry should be distributed among those that produce the goods, and not accrued by those that initiate and develop the industry.

    No, sorry, that is not what I am saying. It is not those that produce that must become the owners of physical sources, it is the those that consume that must become the owners of physical sources.

    When users (consumers) pay a PRICE for some good or service, they are paying for the COSTS of production that the capital Owners incurred for that round of production, and those users usually also pay an amount above COSTS which is (in a simplified manner) generally calculated as PROFIT.

    PROFIT is therefore the difference between Consumer_Price and Owner_Costs, and is a rough measure of incomplete monopoly. In other words, profit is an inverse measure of competition, and is ‘balanced’ or even eliminated when it becomes an investment for the User that just paid it.

    I will quote myself to fix a typo and to begin an example as Michel suggested to try to prove that it is the Consumers and NOT the Workers that must be the Owners of physical sources for us to approach a perfected economy:

    Owning expensive capital with a group of other users is valuable even when none of you can operate it because you can always hire that work done – and would treat those wages as a cost of operation, but could never pay profit unless you were to pay it to yourselves.

    Let’s say a worker comes to your door asking to aerate your lawn. Aerators are generally too expensive to own for just one lawn, but you need the job done, so you agree to pay the PRICE of $30.

    The PRICE includes the COSTS of:
    Investment: If the Owner has not yet recovered the price he paid for the machine.
    Maintenance: Wear, Oil, Fuel
    Wages: Whatever the worker and owner negotiate.

    The PRICE also includes PROFIT for the Owner that instantly increases the moment the capital has been “paid off”.

    Now, if you and a bunch of your neighbors got together to buy your OWN aerator, you would still have all the same COSTS as mentioned above which could be covered by each of you renting the machine from the collective others, but PROFIT would have no meaning, as PRICE and COSTS would be identical. Furthermore, when the machine was finally “paid off”, the rental PRICE would fall even further, as that COST would be eliminated.

    Tell me, does Open-Source eliminate the kinds of income based on ‘real’ scarcity? (as opposed to the artificial scarcity you mentioned above?)

    The ‘real’ scarcity that will probably never be fully eliminated, even when all Sources are finally Free, is the FUTURE work that continues to be needed.

    For instance, users of Free Software would pay workers to fix bugs or add features if we could only get them connected in such a manner – a sort of “promise to pay” pot that other users wanting the same changes could add to so developer would have incentive to work on stuff they may otherwise have no interest in.

    Similarly, the group user/owners of the aerator would also need someone to operate and repair the machine if they couldn’t or didn’t want to do those jobs themselves.

    Thank you both for your help.

    Your peer,
    Patrick Anderson

  11. AvatarSimon Edhouse


    There’s way too many propositions and different threads in your discussion to deal with. Seriously suggest that you distill comments down to single propositions of no more than a few sentences, otherwise its just not possible to respond.

  12. AvatarPatrick Anderson

    Thanks for the feedback Simon. I’ve been trying to simplify, but am always lured into trying to paint too much of the picture. If you only knew how much I wasn’t including ;)…

    Ok, to reorient ourselves I will respond to a quote from the original article:
    “firms face an inherent conflict between value creation and value capture.”

    My central concern is that we have accepted this conflict as a tautology of human interaction with no alternative.

    But there is a special case in social systems that occurs when the Consumers of a good or service are the very Owners of the capital necessary for that production.

    That case, which is traditionally called a Consumers’ cooperative removes that conflict to leave the participants to resolve other issues.

    My vision of this is not “one member/one vote” as described on the Wikipedia page, but is instead to have votes weighted by ownership percentages. This is safe because of the way that ownership would be dynamically reallocated across time to remain in the hands of those using those goods or services, which is why I talk about “profit as user investment”.

  13. AvatarSam Rose

    To take up another thread that I think emerged from this discussion, I believe that one useful direction to think about is to create discussions where people can collectively rate businesses against widely accepted notions of different forms of “open”. I wrote about this here:

    In my opinion, I think that some reasonable, logical benchmarks could exist for how companies treat both customers and employees, and the environment, and different commons they are using, or are connected to.

    What do they do with our personal data? What rights do they claim over content I post onto their sites? What choices do they give me about how I receive their services? Is it possible for me to extend or modify, re-use or give away the technologies produced by the company, in ways that are reasonable for free people, in a free society? These are just some examples. You can quibble with the details, and the precision of the language, but it’s hard to argue against the benefits of companies that help sustain the different types of commons that they rely upon…

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