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Is it Time to Commoditize Social Media?

It’s about a year since Google launched Google+, and I decided to pull out and publish this little op-ed I wrote shortly after G+ launched. I believe the issues raised continue to be important as the social media world matures.

Google’s push behind Google+ raises some questions for me about the future of social media. Clearly, we’ve crossed the Rubicon on social media usage; the concept of the net being a shared experience – a dialog – is not going away. But how we do social media is not nearly as set in stone as you might think. As much as the major brands like Facebook are almost synonymous with the idea of social media, should they be?

Before we go further, this post is not intended to trumpet Google+, or to get into speculation about industry wrangling and market share capture. What I’m after is a more philosophical issue: If social media is really such an important part of our lives these days, should it be something that is constricted by being limited to private purveyors?

How Open is the Rest of the Net?

I’m thinking about the big picture of how the net has historically been put together. Popular and important ways of doing things have been turned into standardized protocols that everyone uses, like:

  • TCP/IP (the protocol that allows networked computers to talk to each other)
  • DNS (the system allowing domain names like whatever.com instead of just IP addresses like 192.168.1.1)
  • HTTP (for transmitting web pages)
  • SMTP (handles transporting email)
  • NNTP (allows for the decentralized worldwide discussion groups known as Usenet)
  • IRC (for realtime group chatting)
  • RSS (for news feeds)
  • MIME (the ability to have more than just plain text in online documents like email)

…and many other standards have been created over the years to allow the common experience that we enjoy today. But imagine if this was fundamentally different. What if websites served by Microsoft servers were only viewable in Internet Explorer? Today, this is inconceivable. But in the early days of the web, developers were very used to software working in a client-server model, where connecting with remote data required interaction between two proprietary components in a special handshake that only they were able to execute. We could easily have ended up with the web being compartmentalized into a bunch of separate, self-contained silos. For anyone who’s been around since the early days, this would be like going back to the competing “walled gardens” of pre-internet AOL, Compuserve, etc. Thanks to forward-thinking decisions by early engineers and technology adopters, things didn’t go down this route, and the web is a standardized experience that follows a set of common rules allowing all modern browsers to access it equally.

How Social Media is (Currently) Different

But social media doesn’t work this way. If you want Facebook content, you go and sign up with Facebook. The service is free, but here’s the important distinction: the way it’s free is as in “without cost” and not as in “possessing liberty.” When you interact on Facebook, you are working within the bounds of a world wholly owned and controlled by someone else. In contrast, when you send email, you are using a distributed system that is cooperatively connected together by various entities (your ISP, other ISPs, schools, corporations, small businesses, etc). Email is yours. Facebook information… not so much. It’s important to remind ourselves that Facebook’s valuable content is produced by its users, not by Facebook itself. They just provide the tools that make the forum for interaction.

Separate & Incompatible?

So here’s where Google+ comes in. The Facebook juggernaut has proven the value of a particular type of social interaction. Now Google has waded in with another contender that is hoping to compete with it. That raises some important philosophical issues. If there are to be two competing services, the biggest hurdle Google has to get over is how entrenched Facebook use is. If they offer a compelling experience that significantly improves things, then we could see them get real traction and pull in users. But who in the world is going to maintain two completely separate systems with separate user bases and separate data? When you have the urge to tell everyone about something, do you post it to both services? Then you have to follow the feedback separately. What if some people connect to you on both services; which one do they respond on? What about people who only connect to you on one service? You will have connections who can’t interact with each other. Duplication, limitation… it becomes confusing and frustrating.

A Unified, Standardized Approach

But why should you have to pick? Instead of thinking of Facebook as a packaged experience, and Google+ as another, think for a moment like a programmer and view them both as information and processes. The basic model is the ability to publish a feed of information to which others subscribe, and then in turn subscribe to the feeds others publish. Add to this the ability to annotate feeds with comments, and trace comments to people whose feeds you may then in turn subscribe to (this is the cross-pollination thing that can make the experience so interesting). Top it off with the ability to send private messages as well as realtime chat, and you’ve got it.

Now what if all of these were packaged up into standards like the ones mentioned previously? What if the feeds all traveled through a distributed server network like email or IRC? Developers could create front-end interfaces for this data, but now the data wouldn’t be theirs anymore. They would just compete to shape how you interact with it. You could have everyone on the same distributed, open system and they could all use different front-ends for it in the same way we all use different email clients, browsers, and IRC clients.

Instead of another bitter format war between two behemoths, we could have the beginning of a new and exciting era of innovation. With a distributed model, instead of only Google or Facebook defining how things work, you could have anyone anywhere creating their own tools to tap into and remix (imagine the inventive data mashups we would see) the commoditized, standardized bundle of social feeds and create unique dashboards that allow each of us to interact and view as we like. Now that’s freedom.

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