From Jae Kim – Director of Social Media Products, FaceTime Communications
About fifteen years ago, I was happy with my desktop applications installed. The computer was a glorified calculator, typewriter, and video game machine back then. When I powered up my desktop, I was either going to write quick proof-of-concept Pascal code, type up school reports, or play Doom. All executables and contents that I used were installed on my hard drive. Whenever I wanted to talk to friends, I picked up the landline and called. Whenever I needed references checked, I headed out to the library.
These days, the computer has turned into an all-in-one communications device. When I fire up my laptop, I immediately open my browser, check out the latest tech news on Twitter, read what my friends are up to on Facebook, and respond to emails. No longer do I have to pick up the phone. I just open my IM client to chat with my friends or use Google to look up the answer to any fleeting question that I may have at the moment. I cannot possibly imagine using a computer without a network connection. A computer without an Internet connection is as good as dead weight.
In this post, I would like to make a case that this increasing connectivity is not a trend isolated to computer networks, but applies to social networks as well. The urge to share things and get connected has deeper roots within our human nature. It is something that cannot be ignored and must be harnessed to make the leap into the next stage of networking.
I’ll give a few examples of what it means to technology evolution and how it impacts the adoption of new communications tools. I would argue that the same is true with social media and lay out the likely scenario for social networks to get federated.
For long term viability of social networks as communications platforms, I would argue that social networks must get federated to survive or face the inevitability of obsolescence and eventual obliteration.
1. Internal-Only Email to Email for Everyone
For those of you old enough to remember Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) must have used internal-only email and messaging systems. It used to be that workstations connected to the main server comprised the early intranet. When you wanted to see whether someone was available, you would type ‘finger’ or ‘w’ to see if the other party was online. If so, you were in luck. You could use ‘chat’ to have a real-time chat (what’s known as IM today). If the person was not online, then you had an option to send email using ‘mail’.
As server and workstations became popular, more companies started to adopt these internal-only email systems. Soon, it became obvious to everyone that linking these islands of email services made sense and would create disproportionately more value for everyone. Companies started to federate their email islands to their partners’, accelerating the adoption of the ARPANET mail format.
Some held back saying it would create security concerns in both leaking sensitive information and receiving unwanted files (viruses). Today, no one disputes the value of having a global email system and being connected to it. These concerns were valid, however. People have built solutions around these security issues, and they have given rise to the Data Loss Prevention (DLP), security, and SPAM-filtering industries.
2. AOL – the Walled Garden
America Online (AOL) in the late 1990s was unstoppable. They made the Internet easy for millions by simplifying the technical configuration required to sign up for a service and to dial in the AOL server farm. AOL essentially had the same network model as the LAN-based DEC architecture. AOL subscribers would log on to their servers and see other subscribers who were online, exchange IM/emails, and browse AOL-hosted company sites. AOL was a huge LAN network where you couldn’t access content outside of AOL.
At the height of AOL’s popularity, there were 30+ million subscribers. It became so popular that every brick-and-mortar store was buying AOL keywords to reach AOL subscribers (the similarity is striking with what we see today with Facebook pages, as Peter Yared points out on his Venturebeat.com article).
But AOL did not leverage the explosive growth of content outside AOL’s walled garden. As people found richer content outside the AOL network and companies realized they had to make separate investments to reach non-AOL users, users and content creators started to migrate.
Only after losing more than two-thirds of its peak subscribers did AOL start to retool itself into an Internet portal site, i.e., a gateway to an open Internet. In effect, AOL finally dismantled the walls around its isolated garden and federated with the rest of the Internet, albeit only after paying a heavy price.
3. Disjointed IM Networks to Federation
After ICQ became successful and acquired by AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google launched their own instant messaging networks. Again, people were chatting in a similar approach as the DEC server/workstation model. AOL users were able to IM with AOL users, MSN users with other MSN users, and so forth.
Unlike islands of email services, technologies were available to federate these services in their early days. However, each provider stood their ground and couldn’t work out an agreement to federate. It was only after enterprises started to deploy their own enterprise IM servers and federate with each other that AOL and others began to federate with other IM networks.
IM network providers refused to give up control over their user base to the detriment of the long-term benefit of doing so. But, the fact is that people have been getting around these disjointed networks by creating aggregator IM clients to combine AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and Google Talk networks (not to mention Skype and Facebook – check out IM+ for the latest attempts at building the ultimate aggregator). It’s futile to resist improvised user workarounds. You have to adapt your service to support these workarounds as valid use cases.
4. What About a Federation of Social Networks?
If we have learned any lessons from email, AOL, and instant messaging, it’s that social networks should federate with each other to create a global exchange of real-time status updates. It’s not a zero-sum game. As social networks federate with each other, the value of the resulting network is far greater than the sum of disjointed networks.
We are starting to see this happen already. Twitter has shared its feeds with LinkedIn and Facebook. MySpace is now connected with Facebook. Yammer, which has developed a social networking platform for enterprises, is connected to Microsoft Sharepoint.
But then there are signs of resistance, as evidenced by Facebook’s and Google’s policies not to share friends’ lists.
Walled-garden policies invite users to create workarounds. Just as islands of IM networks motivated users to create IM aggregators like Trillian and Meebo, preventing users from sharing friends’ lists is already prompting users to create workarounds, such as Facebook friend exporter. Rather than resisting federation, social networks need to embrace them.
In reality, however, those who are in control seld
om relinquish it voluntarily. History tells us that federation will be a gradual process and will pick up steam only when the perceived value outside Facebook outweighs what’s found within Facebook. For that perception shift to occur, someone must create a more compelling use case outside Facebook.
What might cause this perception shift? I have no idea. But I can tell you that it won’t be called social networking, but rather, something else. I couldn’t agree more with Pete Cashmore at RWW: it’ll be someone who introduces a different communication paradigm than what we know as a “status update” today.
When that next wave happens, users will start to see greater value outside Facebook and will force Facebook to fully federate with other social networks. Until then, I expect to see continued resistance from leading networks. And yes, Google will join the race soon, and things are going to get a lot more interesting before federation is a household term.