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I read a lot of stuff on the web about social networking and the latest trends on this field but it feels like everything out there is just pieces of a bigger puzzle.  In the beginning were BBS/forums, users could post messages, be notified of and read replies and later, were able to exchange private messages.  Beyond this people could blog and have comments posted, stimulating debate debate and interaction on a self-publishing method.  Then the social networks appeared, which essentially focused on the user as the pivot – user profiles being the entire content of a site.  MySpace in particular, allowing people to volunteer almost anything on a potentially very customisable profile and collect limitless ‘friends’.

Part of what I’ve working on for one of my personal projects looks at why as users of services we continually sign-up for accounts or profiles for almost every site or service we engage with and share loads of information or files in a completely disconnected manner.  We can’t get to any of this stuff beyond the walls of the service, which is essentially a closed silo of data.

With many groups and organisations such as openID/oAuth and DataPortability all showing interest in allowing greater sharing of our data but also of bringing together our online identities, what will come of the social networks of today?

If you have an ‘identity host’, which uses something like OpenID to use your URL as a reference for your identity, you should have more control over what you share and with whom, to what purpose.  Social networks would then essentially be a service through which your identity could form networks with others but this could be across many networks.  Your identity could have links with people in MySpace, Bebo, Facebook or wherever and you needn’t join every one of them.  Potentially, you could have your social network across these services and choose whichever works best for you.

With this in mind, social network could become more niche and compete of functionality or features – allowing you access to your information and files and viceversa, which I think will change the field as people will be less constrained to staying with in a service and should be able to change to another without having to invite all of your friends to the new service.

Ultimately, we have the potentially for a social layer to the web.  Social networks as we know them will struggle to exist unless they find a means to embrace what it means to be open but we may find that the social layer could permeate many other sites that can’t justify becoming a social network in their own right. Your interactions on forums and blog comments are part of your social experience and could become more through using this base layer.

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1st March, 2008