Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Social Graph Pt2: Facebook is a Big Truck (in a Walled Garden)

And we're just dumping all our data on it.

(This post is my (somewhat belated) follow-up to an earlier ramble about viewing the Social Graph as an active medium and not just dataset.)

Imagine you wanted to send an email to someone; you have a GMail account and they have a Hotmail account. Sadly, you can't; you have to sign up with Hotmail (or, perhaps, convince your friend to switch to GMail) because in this world, email providers don't talk to each other. To be able to talk with everyone, you'd have to have multiple accounts - then again, you may already, because each email provider bundles additional value-add services along with email. Of course it's not actually integrated with the email service, so much as it is bound to the identity that your email address represents, but it's still an integral part of one service competing with another.

You will likely have realised I'm drawing an analogy of the current ecosystem of monolithic social networks - you cannot send a Direct Message from Twitter to a friend on Facebook1; the more astute (and elderly, and probably also American) among you, however, will realise that I'm describing something that actually happened, back in the early days of the public Internet (80s to early 90s). The early ISP-equivalents peddled proprietary email, forums and file transfer services that only functioned within their networks; my experience of this was with CompuServe in '94, though by this point the ISPs were integrating more and it was only a couple of years before Internet access was opened up fully - I think I got my first Hotmail address in '96/97.

There are various flaws to this approach, some more obvious than others. An immediate issue is the network effect - if all my friends are on service A, I'm likely to join that service; but if a new service starts up with an amazing new feature, I need to drag all my friends across to make it worthwhile. And, as Google+ is discovering, the nature of the Social Graph as a dataflow network means that having friends on a network isn't enough - there has to be content being generated and flowing through the graph to make it worthwhile.
I've always been a believer2 in the free market and would argue that customer lock-in stifles innovation & choice, while choice empowers users and enables them to fight back against abuses of power; and when we're talking about services that facilitate the flow of information, I would argue that partitioning dataflow networks can have as great an impact on the development of society as putting up physical barriers3.

But there are other, more integral factors. The issue of security is well-explained in this XKCD comic; essentially, the more services I sign up to the more risk there is of my identity being compromised. The solution to this is already in place - Facebook, Twitter and other services are allowing integration through Facebook Connect, OpenAuth & OpenID that opens their identity service to other service providers, resulting in an improved user experience (one-click "sign-ups"), improved security (as your username & password is only held by one service) & reduced fragmentation (as your identity on different services remains constant across all). This openness empowers and enables users to switch freely between identity providers without impacting their experience of a given service; just as I was able to switch between BT & VirginMedia as my internet providers without my access to the Internet changing (beyond, of course, an increase in speed on a cable connection - the distinction here being between quality of service & nature of service), I was able to switch from an LJ login to a GMail login when using StackOverflow, and my experience of the service remained the same (note that here we must distinguish between my identity as an individual (which is what StackOverflow cares about) and the identities presented by LJ & GMail distinctly, which function more as aspects or fa├žades).

Indeed, the question of choice is central to the problem with modern social networks. If you don't like Facebook's handling of private data or their use of advertising to monetise their service, your choice is to stay or to leave; to have or have not. If you have concerns about Twitter's censorship policies or Google's data gathering, your choice is to have or have not. There are numerous issues, from constantly changing UIs to the ever-waiting Fail Whale to freedom of speech, that can only be tackled when users have the choice to have this or have that.

There is (and has been, slowly developing, over the past year or two) a movement to decentralise & distribute the functionality provided by the monolithic service providers. Consider this blog post on the move to federated social networks, the Diaspora* project (and on Wikipedia), a distributed, user-hosted social network, or YaCy, a decentralised search engine. It an important step, and with enough time (and a good UX) these projects should help us to dislodge the grip of monolithic Web 2.0 services; there is, however, a further step required in this process, and you can see it developing in the ecosystem of services around Twitter.

In addition to the core micro-blogging functionality of Twitter, references to other media are now possible through the emergence of dedicated value-add services (e.g. TwitPic, TwitVid, or the filtering of existing media hosting (YouTube, web-comics, blogs, online news, etc.) through URL-shorteners4. Twitter clients are now integrating with a range of these to provide wider (and yet seamless) functionality to users, but without necessarily constraining users to a specific service. This quick snapshot of the TweetDeck options page shows this choice in action; there's two types of service that TweetDeck can consume, but the choice of which specific service provider is up to me. We're seeing two parallel developments in progress here:

  • The ability for software (in this case a client, but potentially services) to consume other services5 on behalf of a user (and their associated identity)
  • The ability for users to build & customise a conglomerate social networking service that provides the specific functionality that they need, whilst remaining completely compatible with everyone else's custom social network

The move to integrate services in this way is amply demonstrated by If This Then That, a Yahoo-Pipes-Lite that allows users to build active links between their services. IFFT uses a set of purpose-built adaptors for each type of interaction, but by using the standardised interfaces & APIs for content sharing & notifications that are in development by the federated social network projects, this can all be generalised and made freely interoperable.

Right, it's taken nearly two months of talking to people and rewriting to get this post this far, so I'll pause here and promise a third & final part with my thoughts on the ideal solution...well, it'll take less than two months, anyway.

[1] Indeed, a "friend" or a "subscribe" on Facebook is an entirely different and incompatible concept to a "follow" on Twitter.

[2] In the same sense that I believe free speech is generally beneficial if you're not a dick about it, as opposed to the way I believe in dinosaurs (they existed, but I doubt they'd be beneficial to the economy).

[3] Hmmm, that's probably worth a rant of its own. Adam Smith's Division of Digital Labour?

[4]The passing of data references (Pass/Call by Sharing) is a familiar concept to programmers, enabling developers to manipulate and exchange heavyweight objects (large data files like images & videos) using only lightweight references (URLs in this context).

[5]Oh, my goodness! Shut me down! Machines making machines. How perverse.

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