syndication needs to get social
Social networking discussion seems to focus on which service will kill another, which ones are going to be the winners or losers. But as far as I'm concerned, I don't want them to kill each other; I just want them to let me publish once and syndicate wherever I choose.
is that a crowded market i see before me?
Social networking sites and services continue appearing thick and fast. Every service wants to be the one that people use; and every new service is evaluated to see what it's supposed to be killing - right now Google has 19,800 results for the query pownce "twitter killer".
But do users really think this way? Do users want one service to rule them all? Do superior services win? MySpace suggests not. Personally I think people just go where their friends are - it has nothing to do with technical merit or clever hooks. There's no point sitting on a technically superior service with nobody to talk to. So you sign up wherever your friends are.
But the thing is your friends don't actually move in neat ranks and dutifully sign up to one social network. They join up all over the place, wherever they saw a concentration of early adopting friends. Since your friends are on these other services, you either sign up to those too or you miss out on the interaction .
Sure, some people are fiercely loyal and attempt to convert their friends; but they are competing with both the force of habit and human nature - they're screwed, in other words. Once people are comfortable with a service, they'd kind of like to stay put. It becomes their primary service for that kind of data. They might sign up for some others, but they're secondary to their chosen service.
the joy of repetition
After signing up for a few services even the most casual observer will notice the similarities. In fact what they'll really notice is that the more social networks you sign up for, the more they subject you to dull, repetitive work. We start thinking "hang on, weren't machines meant to be doing the work?".
People have long since wished that social networks could share contact details so you don't have to grind through finding your friends on the next service. I've long since wished for the next step: syndication of similar information:
- I don't want to write a LiveJournal, I just want it to syndicate my Blogger posts.
- I don't want to create status updates in FaceBook, I want it to import my Twitter statuses and use those.
- I don't want to sign up to Zoomr, but I'd let it import my Flickr stream.
- I'd like del.ico.us to mirror my ma.gnolia bookmarks since most of my friends use del.ico.us.
I have primary services for most of the information social networks are sharing. If something new pops up, say I decide to get into Cork'd or Last.fm, I'll happily add that to the pool. But if something is asking me to do the same thing I'm already doing elsewhere... well, I've already done that. I don't want to do it again. If I have to do it manually, eventually I'll stop doing it in at least one place.
There are some distinct patterns in the type of personal data people create:
- Notifications - system alerts/updates, action required, action recorded
- Messages - short, long, statuses, chat, comments
- Files - photos, videos, music, documents, etc
- Data - URLs/bookmarks, events, contacts
Most network communications are variations and combinations of these basics. Yet the networks don't let users share the same stuff between services. Why not? Well filthy lucre of course. Each service attempts to create a walled garden, so they can make some money in some way.
But by creating walled gardens, the services are insisting that someone has to fail. At the very best, they all bleed. It's a war of attrition and users are the pawns. Realistically all of my status updates should be "updating fifteen social network sites, can't sleep, friend requests will eat me..".
they've shared before
Email and chat have both survived competition. Consider all the options for chat and email - there are far too many to list. Despite the direct competition, all the services survive. How? By sharing or allowing users to combine services.
Email doesn't have to be manually resent to every friend on a different ISP or email provider. The system just handles the transfers regardless; and any provider can survive so long as they can reliably send and receive email.
With chat, users can now run multi-protocol clients which take care of all the options. They have multiple accounts but they only run one bit of software to manage them all. No specific chat service had to beat all the others - they all just accepted their fate and let the multi-clients access their APIs.
Wouldn't it be awesome if status updates worked the same way? Write one Twitter status and friends get that status whether they're on Twitter, Jaiku, Pownce or FaceBook.... sweet!
Then there's the next step... comment aggregation. If we can syndicate information, we'll want to be able to collate comments across all these services. No sweat, in your XML feed include a reference to a definitive source for each message - remember how we have primary sources? Services can share comments and display them according to timestamps.
can't we all just get along?
Surely all of this is possible. It's not that long ago people couldn't imagine networking everyone's computer in any meaningful way! Probably the biggest challenge would be to convince all the services to share data openly. They don't want to share, they want to recruit page impression monkeys (that's the humans, you at the back) so they can make money.
But if services were open, users could choose whichever service they wanted and still get updates from all their friends. No particular service would have to live or die. Users wouldn't have to choose, nor would they have to miss out on what their friends are up to in yet another walled garden.
It seems social networks are anything but social with each other. The people running them seem to hope that their competitors can be beaten. But consider MySpace vs. FaceBook - even if that war can be won, at what cost the victory? Isn't it more likely that the whole thing could force a migration to some other service entirely?
By sharing data instead, services could decrease churn rates. Why shift to another service if you get those updates anyway? People could actually choose the service they like the most, not the service their friends liked the most. Surely that would make them more likely to just relax and actually write new updates. More usage, more data, more hits. Then everyone wins.