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:
â€œI 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 â€œthe challenge facing the ASN is organizational and political, not technologicalâ€. 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?
Joel West :
The reason is that â€œfirms 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 profitâ€“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 proprietaryâ€“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)
â€œit 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 Facebookâ€™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 â€œuse [of] automated scripts to collect information from or otherwise interact with the Service or the Site.â€ 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.â€
Why did Facebook decided to open up and provide an API to developers?”
Read this comment on the same entry:
â€œ I think thatâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€œViolating its terms of serviceâ€. 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 VCâ€™s to publicly state that they would like to make investments in widgets that seemed promising. (Câ€™monâ€¦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 tomorrowâ€¦of course you wouldnâ€™t). This was another announcement that got a lot of naÃ¯ve 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 wonâ€™t promote the other 2000 widgets like they promoted the â€œI Likeâ€ widgetâ€. This whole thing was designed to distract the competition, get free products so facebook could see whatâ€™s popular and create a whole lot of free PRâ€¦.and it worked. What everyone still needs to understand, Internet users do not want to view the Web through Facebookâ€™s monocles.â€
Peter Magnussen concludes
A private social network is pretty much like a shopping mall, it looks public, but it really isn’t.