Dave Winer on the fundamental problem with social networks:
…many people are tired of entering the same relationship information for lots of different social networks. I am one of those people. Maybe you are too. Maintaining this information is even more problematic, that’s why we tend to use one “current” social network, and leave a trail of moribund networks behind us.
I am one of those people and I try most networking applications I hear about – Flickr, Facebook, twitter, dopplr etc. I set up a profile pretty early on and observe what happens. So far, I haven’t found much use for them but that doesn’t mean other people don’t. I am also one of those people who clamour for more openness but as Dave points out social networking is valued in a way that acts against them opening their platforms.
There are enormous economic incentives for companies that run social networks to not let users of other networks access their services. Shareholder value is a function of how many users they have, how they are “monetized” and how hard it is to switch. The harder it is to switch, the more money each user is worth. Any exec that did anything to decrease the number of users they control would probably be fired. So anything that depends on this isn’t very likely to happen, in existing networks.
I have had many conversations in the past few months about identity, openness (of platforms and networks), privacy and security. They come from different directions but they seem to meet in the same space – understanding that these should be driven by individuals aka users. And by the subtle and complex interplay between their behaviour and technology that enables as well as influences it.
One thing has become clear to me – the best way to get companies think differently about user data is to find ways to give more control over that data to the users themselves. As long users and their information is valuable to the point of negating any need for openness, companies will not shift. Take away or dilute that value and we have got a chance. This is where Project VRM comes in, starting with tools and applications that give users the ability to manage, share and otherwise manipulate their own data. My profiles no longer ‘owned’ by others, where my investment into building them transforms into reluctance to move at some later stage. This serves the platform owner, not me. (As a counter example, I love the way I can simply export my OPML file from an RSS reader and import it into a new one or into a blogroll on my blog or share it with someone else to kick start their own RSS reading habits.)
In his podcast, Dave talks about how an open network could work and how it could come about. He is right, it won’t come about ‘conceptually’ i.e. by someone designing it top down. It will be something simple, useful and usable – sort of like twitter. Perhaps, sayz Dave, we already have the building blocks for it. It will be something that users adopt easily and make it work in more ways than its designers imagined. This is because users are not standing still. They are learning and what they didn’t understand five years ago is now second nature to them. As very few companies are in touch with users, the new technology is rarely, if at all, determined by businesses. Or at least not by business as usual.