In yesterday’s post on the problem with Facebook Like, I wrote that Facebook is trying to be the sole provider of social context. This got me thinking about the various places that social context may be represented in a networked software system:
- in the object or message (which ActivityStreams helps enable)
- in the context where it is created
- in the contexts where it is seen and used
- in each node of the social graph
- in sets of social graph elements
- in decentralized elements of the social graph (e.g. aggregated/syndicated profile elements)
- shared understanding in participants minds
- unshared understandings in participants minds
Facebook’s model is seeking consolidation in two places. By replacing a metadata-rich, standardized, ActivityStream based representation of the message with a proprietary API call, Facebook is foreclosing opportunities for the adding of context in creation and in viewing and utilization (items 1-3 in the list).
By acting as the sole provider of social graph and profile services, Facebook is seeking to own those aspects of context (item 4, 5, and 6 in the list). Is Facebook doing anything to enable the exchange of subsets? (item 5 in the list)
But the even the proposed more open models social graph models don’t yet support context well enough, if I understand them right. The portable social graph initiative was based on a simple model that the user wants to bring his or her friends from service to service en masse, and this just isn’t true. It would be great to see an OPML-like standard for friend lists. I don’t think this exists yet. I’m told by standards geek friends that there are standards for 6, but I haven’t seen implementations. Pointers to resources are welcome.
Decentralization, experimentation, and diversity
The future that I am rooting for uses a decentralized model that supports experimentation with many different ways of creating and supporting social contexts. I’d love to hear for people steeped in the standards world to explain which elements actually support this vision, and I’d love to see more development that uses it. Even in a world with a big Facebook, locally specialized needs can be the seeds of disruptive change.
Last, but not at all least, are the aspects of social context that aren’t represented in the nodes and lines in the graph, or the messages and objects that traverse the graph, but among the people. It is always the case that the communication and social understanding, and social misunderstandings and conflicts among people are richer than the bits transmitted by electrons. Social context is in the cultural structures and discourses that people live in, and are largely outside the scope of the communication tools we use, although the tools and use of tools are shaped by culture. Part of the reason for humility and experimentation in design is the knowledge that models and tools are never going fully represent what is happening socially, they can only augment social experience to some degree.
One of my concerns about rise of the one-true-network graph is the potential loss of diverse experiences. By displaying one’s Facebook own friends in a third party site, is this locking one into one’s existing friend network and foreclosing opportunities to meet new people in new contexts? Surely, we sometimes want to share with close friends, but also to use different contexts as opportunities to make new acquaintances.
A recent academic study at Insead video link here shows that people are more creative when they get the chance to live abroad. Cities with diverse populations tend to be more creative, interesting places. Social network concentration is comforting and not a bad thing in itself, but social network lockin is stifling.
I think that the representation of social context is hard, and diversity is healthy, and that’s why I’d like to see standardized elements that can support a lot of decentralized, competitive experimentation.