FactoryJoe wrote an interesting post earlier called “Relationships are complicated”. In this post he talks about the (technical) difficulties to support complex (on-line) relationships. He provides (an excellent) example of the way Facebook deals with this complexity, reducing your relationship to a static tic box in which you can set a few options.
(image taken from FactoryJoe blog post)
Even though human relationships are complex to model, FactoryJoe still feels there is a need for something he calls the portable contact list:
Put another way, it’s not good enough to simply dismiss the trend of social networking because our primitive technological expressions don’t reflect the complexity of real human relationships, or because humans are just one of kind of “object” to be “semantified” in TBL’s “Giant Global Graph“… instead, people are connecting today, and they’re wanting to connect to people outside of their chosen “home” network and frankly the experience sucks and it’s confusing.
He defines a few possibilities to support this need:
I can say that, from what I’ve observed so far, these are things that computers can do for us, to make the social computing experience more humane, should we establish simple and straightforward means to express a basic list of contacts between contexts:
- help us find and connect to people that we’ve already indicated that we know
- introduce us to people who we might know, or based on social proximity, should know (with no obligation to make friends, of course!)
- help us from accidently bumping into people we’d rather not interact with (see block-list portability)
- helping us to segment our friendships in ways that make sense to us (rather than the semi-arbitrary ways that social networks define)
- helping us to confidently share things with just the people with whom we intend to share
Read his post for more detail. It’s good reading! After reading this, I thought about this for a while. I agree with FactoryJoe that human relationships are very complex. It would be very difficult to model them correctly, even if you would try to infer information about these relationships from my interactions. The value of a relationship depends on so many complex factors that I doubt this could ever be automated. Just think about it. Factors like how you’ve met, mutual experiences or friends, earlier interactions, mood, physical meetings, character, the list goes on and on.
There is one “program” that can handle that complexity easily and instantly. Why, that is you of course! Humans can deal with the complexity of handling these relationships. I may have thousands of (on-line) contacts, I usually know which are important to me and which aren’t. It is a dynamic process that has different outcomes depending on my mood of that day, the interactions I’m having, the things that interest me most at a particular moment, the amount of coffee I drank etc.
I believe that the concept of a portable contact list is a nice technical solution to the wrong problem (will get to that in a moment). FactoryJoe and all those working on it are using the current web 2.0 models to describe the problem (‘have your friends with you”) in the context of current walled garden social networks (aka social graph data hoggers). Each social network has it’s own “contact list” format. They are unwilling to set that free, or have it accessed from outside of the walled garden because their entire business model is is build upon the assumption that if you “own” the social graph you can make an advertisement fortune out of it. This is a pretty dumb business model really. People use social networks for interaction, and there isn’t room for advertisers when I interact with my friends.
Recently Microsoft joined in on this ‘lucrative’ business model. Partnering with some of the largest social networks, Microsoft has defined a new standard for the portability of contacts. Using that standard users can now safely exchange their relationships between Microsoft Messenger, Facebook, Bebo, Tagged, Hi5, and LinkedIn. While this sounds like a great solution for the user, it really isn’t. Just think for one second about this. Why do these social networks all of a sudden allow the user to move his data in and out of the network? They aren’t doing it to provide the user with value, that isn’t their main business model. No, they all simply want a larger piece of the social graph. If they can get their hands on interactions the user has outside of the social network, it makes the social network as a social graph data hogger more important.
The real problem isn’t a portable contact list. The real problem is that none of the services today provide the user with the tools to allow himself to be responsible for his on-line relationships. My interactions with others are mine, they shouldn’t be owned by a social networking service. So instead of thinking about a portable contact list I would like to see a solution worked out in which users own their own on-line relationships, regardless of the service they are using. The data belongs the the user themselves. If we decide to become on-line friends, then there is a mutual exchange of the most relevant information that allows us to interact. If I then choose to go over to Facebook and use it for interaction, I already have my friends with me. I can make intelligent decisions on what information I allow Facebook to see, but essentially Facebook becomes a broker service that allows me to interact with friends, even if neither my friends or myself are on Facebook! Any social network would just be there doing what it should be doing, facilitating interactions. I could Twitter with friends, follow a few using Friendfeed, or whatever, without having the need to import my contacts. They are already with me. They are in my pocket, like a small address book, privately kept away. Secure, perhaps similar to a credit card. I can make transactions on-line (e.g. interact with others), the site that services me would simply be the intermediary that lets me interact with friends. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle piece. if I provide it to a service, connect it so to say, I have my friends to interact with available. But it’s only temporary. As soon as I’m done, I’ll disconnect and taking my friends with me again.
The great thing about this is that it solves a number of (privacy) issues. The users get to own their data, interactions, contacts. But more importantly. It forces the service provider to become just that, a service provider. Not a social graph data hogger, not a destination site, but an organization that services travelers passing by. No need to fight over data, over social graphs. The user has needs, and the service provider that services them best will win. It puts the focus of the service provider on providing value to the customers it serves. It is the analogy of a gas station. A traveler drops by, gets some gas using a universal connection method, pays for the value he gets, and moves on to his next stop on his journey.
And the things FactoryJoe wants to resolve would still be possible. I could allow my friends to catch a glimpse of my interactions with other friends, so that new connections may be born (social proximity). I could find people if they want to be found. I can block interactions with the people I don’t want to interact with. And most important of all. I am responsible for my own address book. I can manage it the way I want, segment it the way I feel like.
This sounds like an easy to resolve problem. But of course it isn’t. It requires thinking through what such a personal address book would have to look like. What maintenance services the user needs to keep it updated and managed. Exchange protocols allowing unknown people to become on-line friends.
But the most difficult thing to resolve is the fact that web 2.0 service providers need to rethink their entire existence. Instead of becoming social graph data hoggers they would have to become user value service providers. That step may very well be too big for them to take. Most likely we would need a web 3.x revolution to make that happen. I don’t mean semantic web here, instead I would argue for a user centric web.
In a user centric web the user is in charge. He owns his personal data, his privacy, his own interactions. He can connect to the user centric web anywhere he wants, using his personal, always fitting key. From any of the contact points he chooses, he can start interaction with his friends. The contact point becomes a user centric service point. The user simply pays for the value he gets, instead of getting bombarded with unwanted advertisement. Interaction with friends is the responsibility of the user. Meeting new friends too. He isn’t forced to go to a specific destination (a walled garden approach). He simply starts his interactions from any place he wants. It would force the services to open up, to be available anywhere the user wants. And I don’t mean by providing programmer’s API’s so that programmers can interact with a site (a site is a destination and the API is there too lock users into that site). That is patching up flaws in web 2.0. No, I mean opening up in the sense that I can always access the service, no matter where I am or what I am doing. It’s a bit like having no urls in advertisement really. Instead of focusing on destination (= url) we might focus on finding the service (=search).
What have I been trying to prove with this post? Well, first of all, I can’t draw a good picture no matter how hard I try 😉 But I’m a bit of an idealist about the user centric web. It sounds great, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon. We need to get the power to the people first. And I doubt that Facebook, Friendfeed, Twitter, and the web 2.0 likes will be willing to give up control over “their social graph” just like that. But then again, it doesn’t hurt to dream about it every once in a while.