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Although it’s not a popular thing to admit to in the web industry, I am a Facebook user.  There, I’ve said it.  At times I’ve even played some stupid games on there.  Before joining several years ago, I had opinions about the masses of social networking sites that were emerging so it’s interesting to see how events have unfolded and why I still feel there’s some fundamental problems with where we’re at with the apparent ‘socialisation’ of the web.

Facebook is the current poster-child for the social networking generation of sites and services and it’s likely to be that way for a while.  Their close-walled approach works well for them as they present an enticing proposition for businesses, game makers and the like.  To non-technical people that use it, I would guess the fact that it is closed isn’t much of an issue.  I do believe though that at some point other, different, next-generation social experiences will entice people to try them out in decent numbers and the reality of having our data locked into Facebook becomes a noticeable issue.

It would be fair to argue with the way I refer to Facebook as being closed as they have made motions towards opening out.  You can now export your data from Facebook but as a techie, it;s kind of meaningless.  You can get all of your photos, which is great, but your posts and other information is in the form of flat HTML pages with no reference to the IDs of who your Facebook friends are.  It’s potentially useful to have this to reflect on but it’s not a back-up, and it’s not in a format any other service could use practically.  So, our identity (in terms of Facebook use) is locked in.  Our relationships are locked in (in terms of actually exporting).  Yes, we can access a great deal of this data through the API but this relies on us remaining an active Facebook member and is reliant on Facebook being consistent with what is provided and the terms attached to the data through the API, which as I understand it, developers have had a problem with in the past.

This isn’t meant as a blast purely against Facebook but it is at the top of the pile at the moment.  MySpace has finally undergone a redesign, including a treatment of their profiles, for better or for worse.  I really hope they find a place in the market to keep going, if not because there needs to be competition for Facebook.  From my point of view, once MySpace were bought up, it became static and lost relevance at a time it really needed to step up it’s game.

My general feeling has been for years that the social networking services of the mid to late 00′s days are numbered.  I personally feel that by focusing on these services were missing some interesting issues.  Identity is something that Facebook has kind of crystalised for the first time.  More than in the past, a Facebook profile is likely to be a real person, rather than a sign-up form.  That’s an interesting this in itself.  How we can somehow gain validation of an identity online.  In some ways, OpenID has failed.  It never caught on despite millions of existing accounts being OpenID enabled.  Maybe it was in it’s image or maybe, ‘the public’ were never aware of it’s presence?  The idea that somehow you have a single identity you can use to log on to or join other sites with could be a fantastic idea, and one I’d like to see.  It comes with it’s own list of issues – security for one.  If an identity has value then it’s worth others trying to acquire access to or fake.  Use a service to log into loads of other sites, through which a variety of different sources of personal data leaves us vulnerable.  How is Facebook’s solution any different?

Clearly, their brand recognition made Facebook Connect easy for people to adopt.  You log in to a 3rd party site through a Facebook branded log-in box, which asks you to permit the site to access certain details from your Facebook account – this is a fairly simple extension of a familiar routine.  The security issues will be theirs to handle but personally, I’d like to see my ‘identity’ or sign-in hub away from a service like this.  It’s my data and I should somehow have a level of control I’m happy with over it.

Aside from this is our relationships with other people, things, interests and brands.  This is what the current push is behind: attention data.  Sites like Glue are transparent in this but Facebook itself has gone from having dumb plain text in the descriptions we write about what we like into something that can be quantified.  The near-ubiquity of the ‘like’ button allows us to tell Facebook what we feel enough to express a preference about.  The benefit seems to fall mainly to Facebook acquiring more attention data.

We don’t have any degree of ownership of our social graph.  The relationships we may take time to establish through Facebook are ultimately owned by Facebook.  Yes, we can access this information through the API while we’re active members but we can’t wholesale export this.  If we could, because it’s links between internal accounts the relationships mean very little.  And for me, here’s the rub.

I have no problem with what Facebook represents to millions of people, and like I say, I am actually a user.  What I would love to see more than anything is the identity and relationships side more open.  Image as a site owner being able to embrace a social layer to the web, more that sticking a Facebook ‘social widget’ on your site or adding in some code to use Connect, actually using the relationships people have without having to insist people reestablish them on a new site.  I’m not denying there would be privacy issues with this – again, as identity becomes more valuable, so too could the relationships.

Your new site focuses on ThingX as it’s core content. I like to think we could use an existing account in a similar way to FB Connect and OpenID but then to check the friends or acquaintances that we’d like to use the site with, perhaps.  Maybe instead of logging in to a social network, you use a site for it’s strengths.  If MySpace is your thing for music, use it and share across other sites and services because the social layer would enable this.  If you use Flickr for images, why duplicate elsewhere?  The core of this is allowing the web as a whole to have measured access to who we are and what we do and use on the web.

I’d say this is rant over but while these issues are fundamental for progress – to me – I’ve long been frustrated with the model the vast majority of sites use.  What I call the ‘flat friends’ model.  A simple link between one account and another.  There’s no consideration for strong or weak links, context or anything further than loose, abstract groups.  Some are cottoning on to using a single service to be able to show different sides of ourselves.  It’s something I’ve been working with (in my mind) for a long time.  By having a relationship in your social graph between a life-long friend or family member and someone you have a brief contact with online as a similar direct link makes the term ‘friends’ meaningless.  You can’t ‘friend’ a brand – indeed the way the word is used out of it’s original context illustrates this.  You can specify a preference for them – which is why Facebook added ‘pages’ to it’s system.  MySpace’s model suggests you and a band of any level can have the same kind of relationship as you and any other person.  Good as a basic start but doesn’t serve us well.

I know this post is a rant.  It’s a core set of issues that stick out to me as being wrong or unhelpful us to progress.  The web was always ‘social’ – that was Tim Berners-Lee’s intent for it but this recent phase of closed systems making being social more obvious and being the purpose for a site rather than a byproduct is what’s changed.  I have some idea of solutions but I’m not naive enough to assume I have all the answers and I’ll not denounce any of these sites as being complete crap either.  They’re part of the evolution the web goes through, very quickly.  We need to find what works and what doesn’t from the strong and failed services and find out what kind of web we’d like to see down the line.  That view will be different for almost everyone but I’m really interested to see what these views might be.

Comment away.  I’m happy to be called out if I’m way out on any of this and if you have any other posts on a similar note, let me know!

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28th November, 2010