By Martin Bosworth
Earlier this month my fellow Scrogue Gavin Chait and I discussed the ins and outs of creating a centralized standard for social networking–basically being able to migrate your “online identity” from LinkedIn to Facebook to MySpace and so on. (Short version: Gavin loves the idea, but I was wary of the potential privacy and security problems.)
Yesterday I found out that Brad Fitzpatrick, the creator of LiveJournal, is also advocating for open social networking, publishing a “minifesto” on the difficulty of managing many different identities across multiple platforms:
Currently if you’re a new site that needs the social graph (e.g. dopplr.com) to provide one fun & useful feature (e.g. where are your friends traveling and when?), then you face a much bigger problem then just implementing your main feature. You also have to have usernames, passwords (or hopefully you use OpenID instead), a way to invite friends, add/remove friends, and the list goes on. So generally you have to ask for email addresses too, requiring you to send out address verification emails, etc. Then lost username/password emails. etc, etc. If I had to declare the problem statement succinctly, it’d be: People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every site., but also: Developing “Social Applications” is too much work.
Brad’s minifesto is very techie and not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth reading–he makes a strong case for cutting down the “walled gardens” that block users of ever-multiplying social networks from being able to easily transmit information back and forth. Brad also references a Wired article that makes the point in stronger fashion–that walled-garden social networks serve the interests of advertisers, company owners, and few others. Pete Cashmore at Mashable also has more on this idea.
But BexHuff offers a counterpoint that is closer to how I feel about it–social networks that try to be all things to all people end up straining themselves beyond their limits, and being able to trade data back and forth across the open Web poses an enormous risk to privacy and security. I’m completely in favor of the idea of open identity integration across multiple platforms (as long as it’s optional and not de facto–sorry, Gavin), but our personal information is already at tremendous risk just from everyday Internet commerce–this has to be addressed concretely if any sort of “walled garden pruning” is to go forward.
As an aside, I find it interesting that Brad is embarking on this crusade now, after he has announced his resignation from Six Apart, the makers of Movable Type and the folks who bought LJ. This is concurrent with–but may or may not be related to–the continuing problems LJ has caused with preemptively censoring content and removing users of late.
In a sense, this actually circles back to what Gavin and I discussed earlier–social networks build “reputations” based on their content. MySpace has a reputation for being gaudy, trashy, and slightly downmarket, while Facebook is now apparently the “clean” social network for fresh-faced collegiates and business networkers–and LiveJournal, one of the oldest blog/journal communities, is now largely viewed as a refuge for writing fan fiction about Severus Snape and Harry Potter polishing each other’s wands. The “walled garden” approach can actually help in this regard, as it will filter out people who can’t find what they want in a particular network. It can also harm, however, as “ghettoizing” these networks will, by extension, implicitly judge the reputations of people who use them. (“Ew! You’re on MySpace?!”)
Food for social networking thought, to be sure.