Important characteristics for a social operating system

A borg cube (image taken from www.startrek.com)

A Borg cube (image taken from http://www.startrek.com)

Facebook is quickly making moves to become a web platform, a social operating system if you will. This is not something unexpected. Already in 2007 there were people thinking about a social operating system (see here, here, here).

Nova Spivack wrote a good post, entitled “The Rise of the Social Operating System”, and specified what he felt a social operating system should contain:

  • Identity management (open portable identity, personal profiles, privacy control)
  • Relationship management (directory and lookup services, social networking, spam control)
  • Communication (person to person, group, synchronous, asynchronous)
  • Social Content distribution (personal publishing, public content distribution)
  • Social Coordination (event management, calendaring)
  • Social Collaboration (file sharing, document collaboration etc)
  • Commerce (classified ads, auctions, shopping)

It’s a good list. And it is obvious that Facebook is trying to encompass most of this list so that they can become the de facto social operating system on the web.  Facebook started as a directory lookup service and added social networking and communication features from the start. They added identity management and privacy controls (although I can never find the one switch that protects me from Facebook itself). Facebook users upload a staggering amount of photos and video’s and with the acquisition of Friendfeed Facebook intents to play a huge role in real-time search and social content aggregation/distribution. Using Facebook connect users can now get access to thousands of web sites using their Facebook identity. And the phenomenal growth of Facebook is taking it to the regions of mass communication portals.

It looks like Facebook holds the best cards to become the social operating system on the web. In its current form I think this would be disastrous for the web and its users. My biggest objection to this is the fact that Facebook currently exploits a business model that prevents them from becoming a great social operating system. Facebook’s business model is advertisement based, and that is a recipe for customer lock-in. It prevents them from becoming truly user-centric. Or as Doc Searl puts it, Facebook is the Borg.

A social operating system not only needs to encompass the specs that Nova describes, but imo it also needs other important characteristics:

  • It needs to be distributed, and it should be open source. This has numerous advantages. It make the purpose of the operating system verifiable, allows for community and 3rd party development. And it makes the operating system less vulnerable for massive security (phishing, identity, data) attacks.
  • It needs to be User-Centric, the sole purpose for the Social Operating System is to be just that. An operating system serving its users and their social needs.
  • It’s underlying business model needs to be User-Centric too. In other words, the business model should be based upon delivering user value, nothing else (e.g. advertisement based models). Monetization should take place on top of the operating system, not within.  This separates the need to create revenues from the need to build the best social operating system possible. It also ensures the user and his data are safely under the user’s own control.
  • The user needs to be in control of his data (follows from the system being user-centric) and his identity. Privacy controls should be implement in a virtual bank-like structure where only the user has access. The user then gets to decide what others can see and what not.  This would create a much more balanced demand – supply relationship between users and 3rd parties.

I’m interested to hear your opinion on this. What characteristics do you think a social operating system should have?

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7 Responses to Important characteristics for a social operating system

  1. owen says:

    I’m not sure if I can see a de facto social network operating system emerging from one of the existing options on the market. Different social groups have different characteristics and requirements, so for example, I have colleagues who have a LinkedIn profile, but don’t exist on Facebook because it holds no interest to them.

    I think what we may see is the emergence of a meta-layer that links up different experiences and networks in a cohesive manner. Only then can the idea of a Social Network Operating System come about

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  3. Bertil says:

    @owen, Facebook has been clear so far that they are not happy about the meta-layer (see power.com tried to accomodate Latin America users who had to cope with several popular SNS). Standards, like with e-mail’s SMTP, are much more likely to induce innovation and don’t demand that (so far insightful companies like) Facebook bow to (far less relevant) coders who slap a layer on top; the real question is where such standards need to be implemented, and I’ve been yelling in the desert: between individuals, not accounts. If I need to have a Facebook account to accomodate my Facebook friend, even though I reach my feed through twitter, then my friends will demand I abide to Facebook’s conventions, be them technical or social, and no innovation by a fourth party will make it through.

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  5. Facebook has the best cards?? Sure, from the cards shown on the table concerning a social OS it seems that Facebook is doing pretty well. But if you look at what Google is holding in their hands, it doesn’t take much imagination that those cards combined are incredibly powerfull.

    Identity management: Google is not so strong here, but certainly slowly improving (think Google Profile)
    Relationship management: Very Strong: Gmail (contacts), Google Voice, Docs, etc etc. They only need to make it more explicit.
    Communication: Very Strong: Gmail, Groups, Wave, Orkut
    Social Content Distribution: Strong: Google Sites, Google Reader, Feedburner
    Social Coordination: Strong: Calendar, but can be much improved
    Social Collaboration: Very Strong: Docs, Wave
    Commerce: King of the Hill. Adsense, Adwords

  6. @Melle, I left Google a bit out of this discussion You are right, they hold many powerful cards too. There is however one difference with Facebook. The walled garden Google operates in is the entire web. That’s a huge difference imo.

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