Recapturing the dream of open social media

It’s hard to imagine now, but the web once meant far more than Google and Facebook. In the early days, there was an explosion of optimism and experimentation as people embraced blogging, mostly via a range of sometimes half-baked open standards that let them publish, share, and communicate with each other. In the days before widespread publishing tools were available, blogging could be janky, it was complex, and sometimes it didn’t work at all. But it was unrestricted, and you owned your own words.

Blogging tools like Blogger and WordPress eventually simplified things a lot. But Facebook took things even further, putting all of the publishing minutia in the background and simplifying the interface. Facebook made it all about sharing and staying in touch with your friends, which as it turns out is all that 99% of people really cared about. You no longer had to worry about setting up a website, figuring out RSS, trying to build lists of links to your friends’ blogs (assuming they even had blogs), and more. You just typed what you were thinking about, maybe uploaded a photo or pasted in a URL, and you were done.

That proved such a compelling proposition that most people abandoned (or never even discovered) the open web. As a result, most of us spend hours per day online, but we never venture beyond sites controlled by a few big media companies. Facebook gets an enormous amount of that time, with the average user spending 50 minutes per day on the site.

The problem is you no longer have much control over what happens to your words — or what you see. Good luck trying to find that really eloquent post you wrote (or your friend wrote) sometime last year: Facebook’s search tools are terrible. If Facebook wants to use your face to promote its service to other people, it can and will. (And frequently does, with website widgets that show people the faces of friends who have “liked” a particular site.) If Facebook decides that you ought to be interested in overnight oats because its algorithm sees that many of your friends are talking about it, that’s what you’re going to see at the top of your feed, like it or not.

With that in mind, many people are starting to think about how they can reclaim ownership of their social experiences, including the words and photos that they share and the news and updates they see. Two interesting posts from very smart people came out yesterday that are relevant to this question.

David Weinberger wrote about how web founder Tim Berners-Lee has a plan called Solid (for Social Linked Data) that lets people do many of the things they currently rely on Facebook for, except in a way that lets them retain control.

With Solid, you store your data in “pods” (personal online data stores) that are hosted wherever you would like. But Solid isn’t just a storage system: It lets other applications ask for data. If Solid authenticates the apps and — importantly — if you’ve given permission for them to access that data, Solid delivers it.

That way, if you wanted to move your social profile from one network to another, you could do so, without having to rebuild all of your friendship connections, profile info, cute profile photos, etc. It would give you portability and choice, and put you back in control of your own online identity.

Separately, Anil Dash posted about the lost infrastructure of social media — the many standards that used to comprise the “blogoverse.”

The core capabilities in the early era of blogging acted as open features for any site, and helped popularize social media itself, regardless of what site the content appeared on. But many of these open features have either disappeared or exist only in proprietary versions on closed platforms today, which means they only work between sites that use the same tools to publish.

Dash goes on to list and describe a vast number of features that have withered away or disappeared with the advent of corporate social media. I think it’s a useful survey because it shows what was lost. In many cases, it’s very clear why Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like won out: Because they were much easier to use and more reliable for what people really cared about. But his overview is also a good roadmap for what today’s developers might want to address — if they were interested in building open social networking platforms.

Top photo credit: No limits via photopin (license)

Recapturing the dream of open social media