On fully distributing the social network

Justin and I have been talking a lot lately about what’s wrong with social networking. Much has been written about social network fatigue and about the lack of data portability provided by many of the major social networks. For a variety of reasons, the portability of my identity and the graph of who my friends are and my relationships to them – in other words, me and my social network – is an extremely interesting problem to me. (And as Eric says, every good piece of software starts with a developer scratching his own itch.) Perhaps I’m not so interested in data portability aspects of getting my photos out of Flickr or my bookmarks out of Delicious because it’s already so easy to do. Getting my information about myself and my social network out of Facebook isn’t easy to do…

Facebook’s approach is a classic old-fashioned business model propped up by creating artificial scarcity where none actually exists. It’s much like the problems with the academic publishing businesses right now. The journal publishers want me to come up with a great research idea, go find funding for the work, do the work, write up the work, and then completely sign over all the rights to my work to them – so that I have to pay a license fee to use my own writing with my own students in my own classroom. Facebook wants me to have meet lots of people, make friends with many of them, spend my time connecting the dots between myself and my friends online, and label our relationships, so that Facebook can tell me I don’t have permission to use my own work. Springer, Elsevier, and Facebook… just another couple of data silos.

So Justin and I asked each other, instead of making it easier to get our data out of those silos, why trap our data in those silos in the first place? Let’s just bypass the whole problem. In the same way that we publish our research results on our own blogs instead of having the results hijacked by (published in) peer-reviewed journals, let’s take the same approach with our identities and social networks.

This would have to get implemented somehow, and since Justin and I are both WordPress users here’s what we’re thinking:

  • There doesn’t need to be a social network to join – you don’t need to pour your data into yet another silo.
  • Your personal blog is the perfect place for all your profile information (a la Facebook) and your identity information (including the kinds of stuff you would aggregate and share via FriendFeed) to be aggregated and displayed. It’s your site; why not keep all your information about yourself and your friends there?
  • Existing blog mechanisms like trackback and trackback moderation already show us how we can set up an “Add a Friend” feature in which we can build up a list of friends annotated with relationships (aka a social network) and then expose this list as XFN, FOAF, and whatever else you like (seems like RDF would be a natural choice).
  • Existing plugins let us replicate most of Facebook and similar sites’ functionalities, including extended profiles, a “mini-feed” of what your friends are doing, the ability to “poke” friends, and of course the plugin architecture gives you an open platform for extending core functionality (replicating Facebook isn’t the end goal, but if we can’t “at least” do that it will be hard to get traction)
  • Additional plugins could take us quickly beyond what Facebook and other sites have to offer
  • Once your identity becomes completely intertwingled with your blog, things like OpenID start to make much more sense – your username is now also the URL to your identity
  • &c.

This no-silos / everyone owns their own data approach gives you a fully distributed social network. WordPress-Multiuser and existing plugins give you 70% of the fully distributed network. Let’s do the last 30%! Let’s not just “open” social networks, let’s fully distribute them and take back control. Let’s not just demand permissions to use our own data, let’s just own our own data so that we don’t need anyone’s permission.

Justin is blogging some of the other people thinking this way. I know Brian and Jim and Darcy are keen on extending WP-MU to support more personal, intimate learning experiences. Who else out there is interested?