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It’s Time for an Open Social Web

By Andrew Cullison
24 Nov 2014
Illustration by Kate Ryan, DePauw University (C)

Imagine if you could only talk on the phone to people who used the same wireless service provider. Imagine people on Verizon could only call other Verizon customers. Imagine you could only email someone who used the same email service as you. Imagine Gmail users could only email other Gmail users. This is a nightmare communication scenario. It’s bad, and fortunately things are not like that for phone and email.

Unfortunately, this is exactly how things actually are for social networks, and it’s time for that to change.

Last month Ello stepped in as a Facebook challenger, largely motivated by people dissatisfied with Facebook’s policy that requires the user to use their real legal name. People are so dissatisfied with Twitter and Facebook that Mashable featured 10 social networks to keep an eye on.

But before we all jump ship to the next company offering us a better social web experience, we ought to pause and think carefully about what we want the social web landscape to look like. Social networks have grown from a novelty space where college students waste time and virtually flirt with each other to an incredibly important and efficient communication tool.  Social networks are increasingly a go-to source for news. A study last year suggests that 70% of parents turn to Facebook or Twitter to have conversations with their children. Revolutions now get organized on Twitter.

Social networks are too important to rest in the hands of any one person or company. We need a social network landscape with open protocols and standards much like the way email or the internet itself currently operates. The internet exists as it does today because the early pioneers of the internet got together and and developed a set of communications standards that they all agreed to just adopt. No one owns these standards, and now anyone is free to develop services that communicate freely with other people on the internet because of open standards. This yields an internet free from the constraints of the bottom line of any one company, and companies can compete with each other to provide users a better end experience – the way that various email service and telephone providers currently compete.

This is what social networking should be like. Instead of having all of your friends locked into one company’s service, you should be free to jump around from different social network providers and your friends wouldn’t need to follow you there. You would have access to your friends’ status updates, photos, etc. in the new service you signed up for, because that service and the service you left would be able to communicate with each other. It would be like switching from Hotmail to Gmail and importing all of your contacts.

Here are some simple things that can be done to try and move towards a decentralized social network experience:.

1. Educate People About Open Standards
People need to want their social networks to adhere to open communication standards. Before that, they need to understand what that means. More people need to know about how open standards make better communication possible. This video is a good primer on open standards for the internet. Skip to 5:10 for the most important bits.

2. Explore Alternatives
Once you understand what open standards are and have decided you want them, you need to start exploring alternatives. Unfortunately, there aren’t many available yet. Diaspora is showing new signs of life with the recent fallout over Ello. I’m hopeful something like Diaspora can succeed. Learn more about Diaspora here. Consumer demand for open standards social networks needs to increase, and that won’t be evident until people start exploring and using these alternatives.

3. Competing Networks need to Shift Gears
Instead of trying to be the next Facebook, would be Facebook-killers should ally around a set of open-standards. I’d love to see Ello and the multitude of would-be Facebook competitors ally around a set of open standards, perhaps along the lines of those suggested here.

The most important thing is to understand as a consumer what it means to have a social network landscape that adheres to open standards and start to more seriously explore our options.

Andrew Cullison is the director of the Cincinnati Ethics Center.
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