If I were to write down a list of things I really really don’t like about the “web 2.0″ ecosystem it’d be exhaustive and consist of all of the current fads, go-to websites like facebook, twitter, flickr et al, and would really be summarised by the phrase “low signal to noise ratio”. However, I think the concepts behind all of the mentioned sites and the fictional huge list are compelling, fantastic ideas, just implemented in a horribly disparate way.
I went to see Richard Stallman talk on the ethics of the free software movement (not the open source movement, he spent a long time explaining the difference, and rightly so) last Thursday. It was a very interesting talk, Stallman has a reputation of being quite the… extreme evangelist, and he definitely has earned that reputation. I don’t agree with some of his viewpoints for several unrelated reasons, but I respect his integrity and his pure black and white belief in The Four Freedoms of Free Software. It’s with a similar initially terrified mind that I really believe that the current trend towards extreme social interaction (micro-blogging, regular blogging, friends lists, updates and feeds) should be free and open.
I was looking in to twitter tonight, a concept I’ve dismissed as a low information high noise communication medium, but I’m always willing to be convinced. As part of this I was looking into the competing services offered by a few other companies and I’m really quite worried at how exclusive these services are from each other, despite operating in practically the same field (the main two I was looking at were twitter and pownce, for sake of reference). This lack of interoperability is the stuff Microsoft get lynched for and the “FOSS” world cries foul over, yet these same people who happily campaigned for open protocols for Instant Messaging five years ago will silently sign up to these locked-in services without thinking twice. It’s quite telling that with these micro blogging services, there are several third party applications to post a message to all of them at once.
It seems to be a recurring theme, that whenever I see a nice “web 2.0″ website, the first thing I do is think “that’s really cool, how can I re-implement that, so I control the data, and can inter-operate with their website”. That’s the first thing I thought about twitter, that’s the first thing I though about Livejournal as and when I slowly started wanting to migrate away from using it to keep in contact with people, and it was the first thing I though of when I saw the mother of all mash-ups that is Facebook.
The funny thing is, the platform for this, in the most primitive of senses, already exists. Most of these websites export to RSS or Atom feeds, and nearly all of them syndicate in some way, they just never seem to offer the option to syndicate in a way that makes other services messages flow fluidly with their own.
What I really hope and dream for, is that the “web 2.0 feature set” becomes a set of protocols, the most simple implementation could even be an RSS feed or webservice combined with microformats. I don’t Facebook to store a list of all the people that are my friends, or myspace for that matter, I want facebook or myspace to ask me for a feed or service URL which will present it with a list of my friends. They can then write all the functionality in the world that deals with those friends, who sign up in the same way. People would visit the site for the value the site added, not because it was holding their data hostage. I don’t want a third party website to store upcoming events for me, I want to provide my calendar in feed format to them. I don’t want my friends to send me to a “facebook event”, I want them to invite me to an “Event” that I can view using facebook. Or whatever grows to take its place.
In the same way I believe that it’s really important that people control their own identities in the “digital future”, I really believe that it’s your own responsibility to make sure YOUR data is in good hands. I don’t want some American corporate to have some laptops stolen with my data on them, because that data shouldn’t be there in the first place.
The first and foremost barrier to these data control issues is the service providers themselves and their financial bottom lines, they’d need to adapt to add value instead of retaining you for your data, the second barrier however is the ability to control your own data. Most people are not technical, most people won’t have the first clue about who “owns” their data, let alone how to set up a data server, which supplies feeds and maintains profiles. Informing the user is obviously the first step, but after that it’s down to providing for the user.
I really hope and believe (and will probably start spiking out some prototypes in the not so distant future) that there will be some significant development effort put in to a simple “host your own identity” platform. In the same way that phpBB became synonymous with internet message boards post Usenet, some kind of “Open Identity Platform” would be a godsend. A central place to maintain all your lists, post your updates, keep your calendar, your contacts, your email. And most importantly, it’s YOUR central place. Be that on your server, or a service provider that you trust and have explicitly given the permission, authority and potentially funds to control your Open Identity.
I think there’s even a chance that the control of your online identity will become a physical thing in the coming decade, as IPv6 rolls out and more and more countries get high bandwidth in the home, I think we’ll see people hosting their own websites and identities in physical devices in the home that inter-operate with desktop applications and other household appliances. Just like “home networking” as a concept was crazy fifteen years ago (I remember setting up a ring network in the early-mid 90s as an early teenager and feeling very very advanced) and home wireless was laughable at the turn of the century, we now have cheep Belkin wireless home network access points and anyone can VPN. Maybe in ten years we’ll have home identity providers with a built in webserver to maintain your identity. Plug and play. When your grandma can do it, the consumer has officially “won”.
It’s a long road, and the major networking providers will need to start supporting the concept of feeding in the data externally as though it were part of their system, but the interoperability of the internet is effectively at stake if this doesn’t happen over the coming decade. I’d hate to see the interactivity of this phase of the internets dubious “development” be lost to red tape and a lack of foresight. A lot of the current ecosystem is a fad and will die, but the concepts of global communication are strong ones and deserve to mature.
I want to use global single sign on, I want to keep an online photo gallery, I want to micro blog, I want to instant message, I want to have a global calendar, I want to tell you who my friends are. Network providers; I’ll provide you with the content, you provide me the added value.
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