Distributed Social Networks: Promises and Pitfalls

Will the emergence of distributed social networks eliminate the need for different apps on mobile and desktop devices?

With the proliferation of social networks, many of which provide distinct use case benefits, such as high quality video, mobile access, or nuanced tiers of "friending" others, comes an additional proliferation of "silos." These closed platform silos force users to create multiple accounts that have little or no distinct connection to one another.

Users accumulating their photos and video content in social networks "silos," and then attempting to replicate the content between networks, are increasing concerns among both social networking operators and architects.

From an operator’s perspective, especially with mobile network operators, this replication of data increases unnecessary traffic flow. From a social network architect’s standpoint, the use of multiple accounts across various social networks leaves the doors open for potential privacy, security and trust issues.

And users become frustrated. From an end user’s standpoint, the effort to maintain data across multiple networks to which a user might belong—and the underlying risk of losing the data altogether if one doesn’t constantly maintain all disparate accounts—could cause social network fatigue.

Another user issue is of equal or greater importance: a phenomenon manifesting what sociologists call "identity fragmentation." As in physical social networks, people have different personae for different communities in which they participate. Users need easy ways to manage their multiple identities and, in particular, who and how they are accessed by friends, family members, business associates and others.

Beyond just today, the intentional fragmentation, more than the unintentional fragmentation via the keeping of content across multiple services, may have a significant impact on social media business models. This is especially true if redundant publishing of large video files accelerates, as this could become a costly Achilles’ heel for social media hosting companies.

W3C Workshop on the Future of Social NetworkingIn order to more closely examine these issues among others facing both mobile social networks and the PC-centric web-based communities, the W3C organized a workshop in Barcelona, Spain, on the Future of Social Networking. Held in January 2009, just a month before the Mobile World Congress, which is also being held in Barcelona, the W3C workshop convened experts from multiple disciplines to foster discussion, analyze risks and explore opportunities for circumventing future problems which could face the social networking industry.

Roughly half of the 70 position papers prepared by workshop participants dealt with the topic of decentralizing social networks and breaking down community "silos" in some way. The topics of user identity fragmentation, data portability and distributed social networking architectures were highlighted.

Arguing that decentralized architectures for social networks would allow the user to store social media in one or more places of their choosing, some experts explored the option of allowing a user to open and maintain as many accounts and profiles as he or she desires without moving data around between the social media networks.

Users of any social network would then be choosing the network platform for its unique social benefits, such as convenience, rather than for quality, in turn selectively pointing content toward each of their social network profiles.

As the majority of participants agreed that distributed social networking model would be worth pursuing, the next topic of discussion was how to implement this vision.

There was consensus at the workshop that most, if not all, of the technologies needed to create decentralized social networks already exist. For instance, FOAF, RDFa, XFN and other microformats, SIOC, and Portable Contacts were mentioned for data formats, and OpenID, OAuth, and XMPP were discussed for interaction protocols.

Several social data aggregation services based on FOAF, OpenID, and client-side SSL certificates were presented to the workshop participants as possible directions for further work.

The participants, though, were strongly unified in their request for consistency in implementing the vision. In particular, there were strong pleas among the community members not to create any new format or protocol in this area unless a gap in the stack is formally identified.

Participants agreed upon two parallel approaches to better inform future discussions on decentralized social networks:
• A review and mapping of existing formats and protocols to be undertaken as part of a new W3C Social Web Incubator Group, and
• Collaboration on an open source demonstration of a decentralized social network using FOAF+SSL and possibly complemented with OpenID.

The final assessment from the W3C workshop was that many of the major players in the social media/social networking space understand the emerging difficulty of sharing users' assets across other or new social networks. Further work in the area will be beneficial to a number of the ecosystem players: mobile network operators, social network platform architects, community operators and the users as well.

In the end, solutions will need to adapt to users. Will they adopt use tools that minimize fragmentation and maximize both service-provider efficiency and ease of use when sharing their generated content across diverse platforms and services? Whether personal or professional media is shared, the work begun at the W3C workshop will continue and promises to reveal new and interesting challenges.

To learn more about the workshop and its other conclusions, visit http://www.w3.org/2008/09/msnws/.

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