Friday, September 14, 2012

Why is social media so ... anti-social?

Perhaps this is a stupidly obvious question, but why is so much social media so anti-social? Let me expand that a bit before you deride my lack of Facebook ‘friends’, Twitter followers or Klout score (currently a healthy 46 thank you very much).

Sure, you can be social with your friends on these sites, and off-them thanks to mobile apps, but there are some key issues that I at least run into with them:

  1. If we don’t share a network then my friends don’t see my updates, share my life or catch my drift.
  2. Twitter and Facebook (at least), seem hell-bound on making third-party developers lives hard, they depend on you ending up on their apps, on their site to make advertising money.
  3. If I like the features of a new network better, I need to bring across my friendships or contacts, and re-apply my privacy settings and do a bunch of other work before I can use it fully.

Recently people have been comparing social platforms to early email clients and networks. Albert Wenger (a VC, ex-President of wrote:

It would (be) a huge benefit to society if we can get with social networking to where we are with email today: it is fundamentally decentralized with nobody controlling who can email whom about what, anyone can use email essentially for free, there are opensource and commercial implementations available and third parties are offering value added services.

Thomas Baekdal (social media commentator) writes about the future of social media and makes the same comparison to email:

In the early 1980s, email worked pretty much as social services do today. Each email provider used their own proprietary protocols and systems, and each system was unable to communicate with any other.

So email didn't take off because the process was simply too complicated. It wasn't until every email provider finally decided on an open, non-proprietary format, that email started to work and became the massively popular communication mechanism that we know today.

The question is then, what is the next step? What is the future of social media? And the answer is painfully obvious because we have already seen it happen with email. The future is when social becomes a protocol.

More than just anti-social, the current networks lock up our content as Scott Hanselman (Microsoft employee and prolific blogger) recently pointed out:

You are not blogging enough. You are pouring your words into increasingly closed and often walled gardens. You are giving control - and sometimes ownership - of your content to social media companies that will SURELY fail. These companies are profoundly overvalued, don't care about permalinks, don't make your content portable, and have terms of service that are so complex and obtuse that there are entire websites dedicate to explaining them.

Scott is more railing against social media than suggesting an alternative (FWIW, I think RSS is great, but it provably does not solve all the issues here). I do think he’s right about not stopping blogging, and I said it myself back in 2009 too.

So if the future of social is to be a protocol, how will this happen? Google tried something like this with Google Wave, which morphed into Google+, but nobody trusts them anymore it seems, so it kinda died before it could be really interesting.

How could this happen with social media?

  • Facebook could die, and then people pick up the pieces with smaller shared networks. But Zuckerberg has nailed that one with the successful IPO.
  • Twitter could die, and then on the way out offer its data and API to the world for free. More likely than Facebook going, but again not hugely likely.
  • A dominant OS, browser or device vendor could introduce the ability to use such a protocol without caring about controlling it. Microsoft could give this a shot with WIndows 8, but that will have its own issues to face before then. Google+ as a service is trying to be this, and might just be there if they bake it into Android.
  • Amazon could surprise everyone by creating a platform for it and being open about it. It would probably generate huge storage and bandwidth revenue for them.
  • Yahoo! could be a surprise player in this area, Marissa Mayer needs to give them something to aim for, and they have form in creating useful technical solutions for others (Yahoo! Pipes, Yahoo! Developer Network, YUI Library).

Baekdal is the most bullish that social must become a protocol, but he doesn’t offer us a way forward, other than pointing to the need for social to be an activity we do, not a place we go.

I think there might be a surprising way forward, but that can wait for another post.