Why the Social Networking Oligopoly Needs to be Broken Open

Published 2 years ago

More and more often do we find ourselves turning to the internet to reach out to our friends, find intellectual peers, and to preserve our memories. To do so, we tend to rely on large companies who rarely charge us for the services they provide.

Social media is important to me in many ways. Keeping an archive of all of my social interactions makes me feel secure in my past knowing I will always be able to look back while allowing me to move on to greater things. If one day I want to reconnect with an old friend, look through photos from when I was in school, or read the chat logs between me and girlfriends past, I will always be able to do that. Or so I hoped.

Personally, I want to be able to depend on my social providers and I can't say that I currently do. Twitter is known to hide old tweets from their creators. Every day I get more cautious of Facebook's potential to hold my social circle and my treasured memories hostage. I can only hope that these companies treat my data responsibly.

Although, I do have confidence in one social provider I use: Gmail. What makes Gmail so much more reliable to me than Facebook or Twitter? It comes down to two reasons: The first and foremost is the fact that I can always pack up my emails and leave Gmail. Standards are in place which allow me to download all of my data and move on to another email provider, or my own server, if I one day feel the need to. The second reason is because Google actually makes money on Gmail, from business who would gladly pay way more than the $5/user/month that they are charged. It's clear that between ads, business sales, and highly efficient datacenters, Google has figured out how to build a sustainable service which I can trust will be around for many years to come.

The problem here is that there is no open standard like this for generic content sharing. Because the titans get to force their proprietary APIs upon everyone, the smaller social networks suffer greatly from the lack of a widely-accepted social API. Everybody, even big companies, rely on a few proprietary social networks to stay connected. There are no standards for sharing and interacting with generic content on the web. There is no standard way to post content on a site I haven't signed up for. Web applications have no way of sending feedback to each other. It's sad that in 2012 there is really no way for Google to let Facebook know when a G+ user "Likes" something or for a tweet to be sent to a Facebook fan page. This is some basic information technology we are lacking.

The challenge of sharing and interacting with generic content is an old problem. HTML, back when it was first conceptualized (according to my understanding), was meant to be a generic content language. Any browser should be able to read, understand, and display the content to users. This challenge was achieved, but it was quickly overshot.

Because the primary consumer of early web standards was personal computers, which lacked networked software, HTML and Javascript quickly plunged down the path of becoming a half-baked application framework. Instead of the purified, easy to read, and easy to interact with content that HTTP+HTML once promised, we now get served HTML which is often a mere shim of a javascript application which loads content on its own terms.

HTML, which what was once an awesome content language, became married to JavaScript and CSS in their respective roles to become an application framework for web developers. Nothing is wrong with that. That was necessary and such foundations still are. Otherwise, the web couldn't be nearly as diverse of an environment as it is today.

However, the dream of an open generic content protocol, allowing anybody to share content and interact with anybody else, has long been forgotten. Over the years, the web went wild with the flexibility and diversity of interaction mechanisms but no standards kept its open content roots. This is because the large web companies of today have little interest in opening their networking capabilities.

In case you can't tell, I have a few ideas about what can be done in this space. So, I'm writing this blog. Not just these posts, but the software and a new protocol behind it. It's open source and it will be one of the first web applications enabled with connectivity for a new breed of social applications. There is much more to be said about this project. This week I am presenting my concept, one step at a time, until the unveiling of the protocol at the end of the week.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post!