It’s time that social networks enter the fabric of the Net. Jeff Pulver recently blogged about how Facebook is becoming the new AOL which makes sense, but is just silly that it’s happening. Marc Canter has been talking about how open standards need to play a bigger role and that every one needs to open up their networks. In Marc’s most recent post (which is a tad self-referential since he points to one of my previous posts) it appears that Dave Winer is also doing some thinking along these lines.
As I’ve been spending more and more time on Facebook, and I’m starting to see how natural it is to keep up with what my connections are doing. They’ve gone beyond what others before them have done, especially as it relates to that recent News Feed feature. How nice it would be if I didn’t need all of my friends and family to have joined Facebook to keep up with them. Some of my friends just have Flickr pages and like to take pictures and blog there. It would be cool to have those show up on my Facebook News Feed. Some other friends are blogging only and have not joined any social networks per se. Why not also be able to see what they’re doing through Facebook? There are some people on Last.fm that pick some awesome music and I’d like to just subscribe to them for that purpose. Then there’s the issue of keeping up with my connections on LinkedIn, as they change jobs or post questions or any other activity that LinkedIn supports. So why do I have to join every one of these services to subscribe (ie. read only) to this info. Seeing them through Facebook is really just a metaphor for something equivalent to an RSS reader that can read all of these other types of info. Some of these services publish their info in RSS, but this all still needs to get easier and supportive of more types of content.
Consider that today I don’t have to have an account on WordPress or Six Apart to be able to subscribe to a friend’s (or simply someone whose perspectives interest me) blog posts. Heck, looking at the list of blogs I track on my Google Reader, I don’t personally know most of the people whose opinions I follow, but I enjoy keeping up with these none-the-less. Why isn’t this the case for everything else? I have no problems with people wanting to maintain their privacy and having privacy controls in place so as to control their authorized distribution list. It just seems like we should be able to abstract all of the capabilities in Facebook into a broader set of protocols, in a manner similar to how RSS did this for blog posts. Perhaps it’s handled through extensions to RSS, I don’t know I’m not techie enough to figure that out, but guys like Marc Canter, Dave Winer and Marc Andreessen, should be able to exploit this opportunity some how. I mention the “Marcs” because they understand the issues well considering their latest start-ups, PeopleAggregator and Ning. Dave of course, comes in to play because of his RSS-fame.
How does this get elevated to becoming an opportunity? As I recall, in the last iteration, Netscape took on the challenge with RSS, though it was Dave picking up the mantle and driving it through to where it is today. There’s a useful history on Wikipedia. Perhaps its time for the next generation of wunderkind to take on this challenge since they inherently understand social networking and have basically grown up with it. All I’m saying here, is that it’s time. I want to keep up with my family, my friends, my business associates, my acquaintances, and this should not require letter writing or sending periodic e-mails, or any explicit means of reaching out. It can, but it shouldn’t be required. In thinking of how many times I recount a story of a vacation to several friends on different days over different months. How many times I announce an important happening in my life, whether it be getting married or changing jobs. All of these communications would benefit from me being able to simply publish them and have them reach those who need to know or simply want to know. I should be able to control who that is, but once done, it just needs to happen. Those who care and want to know, would have an easy way to keep up with my life and all of its facets. It’s interesting to see what serendipity occurs when I publish something on Facebook, whether in my status or a note, and the connections people facilitate for me or anecdotes they share from seeing something they didn’t previously know I was interested in. It yields deeper, valuable and useful interactions. Any one not experimenting on Facebook is missing out on seeing the beautiful interactions and getting the warm and fuzzies from seeing that one of their friends is also friends with another one of their friends that they weren’t aware of, or that your attending the same event as another good friend is attending without having coordinated this. Serendipity.
Note, I’m not envisioning search engine participation here unless the person publishing their life desires it. I don’t want a search engine spidering my Facebook posts and activity, which given their closed garden approach they can control today. Hence, something equivalent to the robot.txt file on Web sites would need to be created to allow me to not have my content crawled and included on search engines. Violating this should be punishable by law so as to create the appropriate privacy protections for us as publishers and the appropriate disincentive to keep nefarious search engines at bay (get busted for crawling my private distribution info and go to jail, doesn’t matter if Jimmy passed it on to Jane when Jane wasn’t an authorized subscriber to me). Copyright could also play a role for any content I publish about myself. This leads me down the path of the AttentionTrust with the idea that we should be able to own our information.
Anyway, I’m hopeful that people are beginning to grok this stuff. I remember back in 1994 at Reuters, (who had the foresight among a certain group of executives to see that the Net was coming and was going to be important), that the board of directors at the time was very pessimistic about this whole “Internet thing”. The words “it’s just a fad” were commonly bandied about. As the guy brought in to look at the business opportunities for Reuters on the Net, it was a might discouraging but I didn’t care because I knew it would happen with or without their participation. Fortunately for the company, the execs who got it, got it big and ran with it. Today’s leadership there is as on top of the game as one could hope.
When I started working for Tribe, I heard this all over again. Social Networking is going to a fad, the detractors would say. Many friends of mine, in their early 40s have yet to explore the medium as they believe it’s for kids, “it’s just silly”, “who wants to put up all of their information like that”, “I don’t have time to play with that”. Oy! Well, it’s not up to them any more, and most young people under 30 are fully immersed in these worlds and understand how these services further their social interactions in every phase of their lives. The future will be. Now it’s time to agree, like I believe we agree that the Internet is here to stay, and say that social networking is also here to stay and it needs to play a role at the infrastructure level.