We are rebuilding part of our house. We have a lot of space, but not enough rooms. We hired a local carpenter to help us out and he is doing a great job filling in our wishes. I help out too every once in a while. I do that because I love the feeling of having constructed something and see it work. As we build new rooms we need electricity, heating and computer infrastructure in these places. Yesterday I spent the whole day at home working on both electricity and plumbing. I got the infrastructure rerouted and felt great when I turned on the heating system at night to discover it worked the way I planned it.
Why do I write about this on this weblog? Well, because it got me thinking about the importance of basic infrastructre. You can have a beautiful house, but if the basic electricity and plumbing infrastructure isn’t there then it becomes a very expensive camping facility.
The same thing applies on the web. Imagine a “home” on the web. Where would it be? What would it look like? What basic infrastructure would it need to be called “home”? According to Wikipedia “a home is often a place of refuge and safety, where worldly cares fade and the things and people that one loves becomes the focus”. I think I like the simple stance of an article by the BBC better, home is where the heart is.
I realized after the euphoric feeling of getting the plumbing in my house to work last night, that there isn’t an electronic equivalent of a home for me. There are places I hang out, places I visit, things I like. There are services that make me smile, laugh out loud. There are services I use professionally. There are places I can meet friends, interact with them, have a good time. But there isn’t a single place I can call “home”. There isn’t a place where my heart lies. I’m an on-line refugee.
I think it is important to have a “home” on the web. It needs to be a place that I can call “mine”. It needs to be build in a way that makes me feel comfortable. Or as Alain the Botton says in the BBC article:
To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognise its harmony with the things we believe are most important.
As the French writer Stendhal put it: “What we find beautiful is the promise of happiness.”
It needs to be a place I feel comfortable with. It needs to be a place where I can invite friends to have a good time together with. It needs basic infrastructure to make life comfortable. And it needs to be a place I can either own, or rent. Although current social network sites do have a lot of the basic infrastructure in place they do not qualify as a “home” to me. They have customizable profiles, data storage, friend lists, entertainment etc. But I can’t own or rent my own space there. I get it for free, but as a result of this I have to open my doors to the eager beaver data hogging social network site. I can live there, but the social network gets to own the content and interactions happening in my place. I can decorate the place, but the social network helps me out a bit and plasters advertisement on my walls. I can invite friends over to have a good time but the social network places us and our interactions into their “social graph”, a fancy word for their monetization efforts on behalf of me and my friends. I can’t invite all my friends over to my house, only those that have a place on the same social network. I can pick my own friends, but I am also spammed with new ones because the ultimate goal of the social network is to have everyone related to each other. I can chose my own location, as long as it is within the boundaries or walls of the social network.
I do think that social networks understood this first. They may have started on a different notion, but quickly turned their efforts towards building a place the user would find cool to hang out. But their business model has made it impossible for us to get access to a place we can truly call “home”. There are only three ways thinkable out of this dillema.
- We all create our own social network infrastructure and capabilities based upon open standards (OpenSocial?) and socially interact without the interference of social networks trying to monetize on our interactions.
- Existing social networks drop their mediocre web 2.0 FREE business model and futile attempts to monetize our social interactions, and instead use a business model that is focused on user value.
- Someone picks up this challenge and builds an open social networking infrastructure that provides us the building blocks to create our own “homes”on the web. Building blocks that let us build a “home” we can call our own. A place where we can live without being harassed by the equivalent of webcams following every move we make in a feeble attempt to monetize our lives. A place that is truly ours because we either buy or rent it.
I don’t see option 1 or 2 happening. Once you have gone down the road of FREE but ads based business models it’s impossible to switch. But Option 3 is a legitimate and commercially viable option. One could easily argue that hundreds of millions of users on current social networks prove me wrong. But if you do not aim for world domination I believe you can easily build yourself a viable business case for this. There are enough people willing to pay for a “home” on the web they can call their own. A place that is truly user-centric. I know I would.
Until then I’m just an on-line refugee.