FEB 12th 2008

Image credit: Node GardensOnce again, the main idea behind the social network comes from a reversal process. We're dealing with an approach focused on the people (user-centric) and not on the applications allowing us to produce various data (text with blogs, pictures on Flickr, videos on YouTube, etc.). Rather than indicate to our contacts the numerous RSS feeds representing our "digital life", we are going to point at a unique address (our OpenID) whereby they will have access to any shared data. Even better, they will be able to add us in their contact list in order to automatically receive our new data (our "lifestreams"). To draw a parallel between an existing tool, adding an RSS feed to an aggregator like Google Reader comes down to adding a contact in our social network. But there is a major difference because this new approach simplifies things a lot while introducing many new fascinating possibilities.

Just take a look at Facebook or at any "lifestreaming" tool if you need to be convinced. We haven't seen anything yet because it is possible to pick any application (homepage, blog, forum, mail, newsgroup, chat,...) to reinvent it, by imagining a completely new interface, following the logic of social networks that is to stay centered on people rather than on tools. Everything can change, it is not only a matter of interface but it can open up unexpected new horizons, with new paradigms to create.

So the basis of social networks is the individual. From now on, people can be represented by OpenID, there is no need to create as many accounts as websites anymore. We create an account somewhere and we use it everywhere. Then come relations between persons, in other words the social network. As scholarly as the term seems it actually covers a very simple idea. Just imagine an old fashioned address book where you keep all your contacts. There is family of course, close friends or acquaintances. But it can also includes the plumber, the mechanic, or colleagues, etc. At last it can lead to adding people who don't know us but that we wish to follow on the public lifestream: artists, scientists, journalists, bloggers, politicians, priests, philosophers, and so on.

In social networks, people share any kind of objects (text, pictures, videos, etc.). Then those objects can be spread from one network to the other, a little bit like "word of mouth." In one click any type of data can be propagated (whether you are the author or not) to part of or all of your contacts, who can themselves rebroadcast it. This is how information is going to multiply in order to affect a lot of people in a viral process:

  1. I receive (or create) information that I wish to communicate to my friends, therefore I click the "Spread" button.
  2. My friends receive the information and they can spread it again if they want to.
  3. Friends of my friends will then receive it in turn, while amongst them some don't even know me.

If they are interested by the information they may ask themselves "who's that guy?", take a look at my lifestream and eventually add me to their contact list. Boom (© Steve Jobs)! I've extended my social network, I made new friends! :)

The "Spread" feature seems essential because it is how information often circulates on the Web or in real life. That's all I do when I send a link to a friend, blogs quote themselves, petitions via e-mail (or jokes) propagate from person to person thanks to the "Forward" feature, etc. This is what we call a decentralized communication system, where the information doesn't only come from major medias but from anywhere. Every one of us, small or big, possessing the potential to create a worldwide buzz in one click and a few friends relaying the information.

Unfortunately, this "Spread" feature, as important as it seems, is either missing or poorly implemented in almost every existing social network. How often do you use the Facebook "Share" feature? It is as important to propagate information as to receive it. Spread is crucial, it's a basic function, a natural mechanism.

The social network that I have in mind is based on two big ideas:

  1. Allowing a maximal decentralization, we'll get to a social graph common to all applications, a social network not trapped within a unique platform like Facebook.
  2. Set up an infrastructure with both a user-centric and object-centric approach.

I've previously mentioned the "Spread" feature applying to any kind of data but we can imagine many other features such as tags, comments, votes, translations, summaries, derived or related objets, bans, alerts (illegal contents, spams, etc.), modifications (Wiki), purchases, donations, and so on.

To sum up, we've got people exchanging objects, each one of them having a certain number of features more or less generic. The whole thing should be entirely decentralized, objects could be hosted anywhere (even at home) and multiple actors could be in charge of the functionalities. For instance, there could be several services to manage comments, several services to manage purchases, votes, translations, etc. But the whole thing would be completely compatible and consequently interchangeable. For example, if the "Comment" feature from Blogger.com is not satisfying to me, I'll get the opportunity to use another service allowing me to pretty much do the same thing but with an approach that fits me better. In other words, we'll be able to create or customize our applications by assembling components. In the context of the Semantic Web, it leads to normalizing the function (API) on top of the data. We could call it the "Object Oriented Web." But this is another subject that I will treat in another article. A new world opens up to us, a unifying world where everything can converge in a wonderful way.

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