I am glad to see the increased interest and discussion in distributed social networks. And it’s intriguing to think about the ideas described by Om Malik, Anil Dash, Dave Winer and others describing blogs as the home base and source for such distributed social networks. But blogs and individual interests aren’t enough to be sources and points of aggregation.
Social context, I think, will be a critical factor in the adoption of distributed social networks. The vision of a “universal identity”, and full “data portability” sharing everything with everyone, is much to broad, not simply for reasons of privacy, but of attention. It’s in no way a secret when I go bicycling, but only a small number of people will care about my bike routes.
So what do I mean by sharing in social context? Social context is the way that people think about what’s relevant to share to whom. If I have a photo to share from SouthBySouthwest, I want to share with others who went there (or are interested in it). The category of “photos” is too coarse-grained. The category of “friends” vs. “business” is too coarse-grained and in the context of SXSW makes my head hurt. We need to be able to define social context, and then share appropriately in the context.
A key reason why fine-grained sharing has been a failure til now is that tools ask users to make decisions based on content type (who do I want to share videos with) or by broad categories (are you my friend or colleague). (By the way, if you’ve successfully figured out facebook’s system, please explain it to me, I’ve tried and failed). I’ve written before about the need for decentralized profile data as a key piece of the distributed social network. Another key element, I think, is likely to be tagged activity streams. Within a given social context, it becomes pretty obvious what profile fields you wish to share or types of Tweets you want to share.
Fortunately, people already use ad hoc tags to define events and interests, and use these socially-defined tags to aggregate across tools such as flicker and twitter. However, this functionality isn’t very explicit or well-defined, so it’s hard to make it usable or automatable. I think that the practice of using tags to define social contexts, and usable tools to share information in those context, will become important. When tags become valuable, they also attract spam, so a layer of authentication and explicit group definition will be needed when spam becomes an issue.
Summary – if you ask someone what data elements they want to share with whom, in a general fashion, people will give up, overwhelmed. But when tools enable people to share profile information, stream updates, and content in social context, people will be able to make pretty good decisions. Supporting standards, features, and usability to enable sharing in context will help make distributed social networking real.