One of the great things about the Internet and Peer-to-Peer technologies is that they are decentralised. If one part of the net goes down – the rest pulls together and manages. If a box somewhere dies, other boxes should take over until it can be fixed.
Grimly, we can apply this as an analogy to our real life social networks. If your good friend Fred were to suddenly die – you could still contact all your other friends. You could even contact – with a bit of effort – those people who you only ever saw in Fred’s company.
With online social networks, the result is a little different. Twitter and Facebook hold all your information about your network. Who you know, how you know them, how often you chat and what you’ve said. All fine and dandy – but there’s no way for you to own that information.
If you want to leave Twitter or Facebook, it’s rather difficult to extract all the information – and metadata – from there. You are beholden to them.
If, one day, your social network goes bust, or closes down or wants you to leave – you are screwed. Hope you made a back up. Oh. Wait. You can’t.
You are at the mercy of benevolent dictators. If Twitter runs out of cash – tough. If Facebook kicks you out – tough.
What is needed is a decentralised social network. You should own your network and its data. You should be free to move it around or do whatever you like with it. You should not have to rely on a 3rd party.
I envisage a situation where people have their own website (be it co-located or sat under their stairs) onto which they install Facebook, twitter et al.
Let’s take the example of EdeNet – my imaginary social network.
On your server, you have a database of your friends and family with associated FOAF data.
You install EdeNet on your server. It looks at your friends data and queries their servers. If it finds Alice also has EdeNet installed – it will prompt you to hook up with her. You can then do whatever EdeNet lets you do (chat, send pictures etc). Perhaps EdeNet even lets Alice store some of her data (encrypted) on your server. This way, if something happens, she can reconstruct her entire social network from the cloud.
Of course – there are two major problems with this.
1) Back Up. The major social networks invest a lot in infrastructure – you do not. Backing up in the cloud is a partial solution.
2) Cost of hosting. Hosting is expensive. Especially when you want a high bandwidth, always on, backed up solution.
This would lead people to host their social networks on… you guessed it! Unreliable 3rd parties.
What I’m really getting at, is that people need to make sure that they can extract and reconstruct their social network should their network provider turn malicious, go bust, or if they simply fancy a change of scenery.
Products like Zyb* or Funambol are a good start. Your social network is, essentially, your address book. You can store it on their servers, sync it to your phone, shift to another provider, or simply save it on your local disk. If you want to take it back from a 3rd party, you can.
So, ask yourself these. How safe is my data? If my favourite social network service closed without warning, how would I cope?
Finally, what’s to stop my social network from banning me and locking me out of my data?
*I work for Vodafone. Vodafone owns Zyb. This isn’t an official Vodafone blog.