What social networks can learn from email

What social networks can learn from email
Social networks should be as open as the web itself

We are spoilt little brats when it comes to consuming technology. Not only do we need to be spoon-fed devices and services that cost way beyond what they should, we expect them to be interoperable.

A multimedia player that doesn't stream various formats across networks and operating systems is rejected without a second thought. Yet when it comes to connecting with people online, we gladly lower our acceptance threshold as we accept an invite from a friend and join yet another social network.

That's like being asked to set up a @techradar.com account before you can email us. Just typing those words make me feel weird in the tummy. Yet that's what we do when we want to connect with friends and colleagues on yet-another-social-network.

Once connected we gladly put up and share all sorts of content without a second thought that this data isn't available to people outside the network (and I'm not even treading into the licensing and ownership issues involved).

That's a walled garden for you if you've ever heard of one. Evan Prodromou, the geeky brains behind StatusNet, puts it best: "from the point of view of a typical social web site, if you don't have an account on that site, you don't exist."

Seamless experiences

It's not that technologies, protocols, or services to give us a seamless experience don't exist. Instead of lugging login data for every network we are on, get an OpenID and consolidate all your digital identities.

Then there's WebFinger which adds meat to your email address by letting you attach public metadata to it. But there's no point getting either if the network you're on doesn't support it. OpenID is supported by several networks but there are thrice as many that don't.

Once you're inside the network, then what? There's nothing quite as irritating as filling in the same profile data over and over again. Again, what use is the good work of projects like the FOAF (Friend Of A Friend) for creating machine readable pages that describe people, if your network doesn't use it?

Evan Prodromou, whose StatusNet powers the twitter-like Identi.ca, thinks it's time to draw a line. Running a social network behind corporate borders for employees to connect with each other is the standard way to network for many global businesses.

But what happens when these employees need to connect with people outside their corporate network? The organisation won't host a network for your customers, or friends. They'd rather connect their separate networks.

His argument sounds valid.

Federated social web

To that end, Prodromou's working on what he refers to as a federated social web. He doesn't like to use the word "open" because people interpret it differently. His federated social web is made up of distinct entities that are connected to each other for a seamless experience to the users.

But is it really doable? Don't we all browse the web, which at the end of the line, is a collection of documents in a web server running an alien filesystem? Our emails penetrate corporate borders, service providers, and operating systems seamlessly. If it can work for the world wide web, and email, and lots of other systems it sure can work for a social network. Or rather 'the' social network.

For that to happen, though, we have to be more demanding as users of these networks. Let's not Apple-tise the networks. They are here to serve us, not the other way around.

Mayank Sharma

With almost two decades of writing and reporting on Linux, Mayank Sharma would like everyone to think he’s TechRadar Pro’s expert on the topic. Of course, he’s just as interested in other computing topics, particularly cybersecurity, cloud, containers, and coding.