Closed Social Networks as a Gilded Cage

There’s been a lot of talk about the limitations of closed social networks. Jason Kottke kicked it off when he described Facebook as a more updated version of the AOL walled garden and others such as Jeremiah Owyang and Robert Scoble calling it a black hole because all your data goes in but there’s no RSS out.

I totally see where they’re coming from. Heck, I just spent the greater part of a day pulling all my data out of various blogging systems in order to bring them all together here on this new domain. I’m happy to say the text of the posts was not the issue, that’s portable. It’s the meta-data associated with the images that is causing me problems and I’ve resorted to a manual pull of everything in order to make sure things look just right.

The next step is resetting all my pointers. It seems that every web 2.0 beta that you sign up for has a place in its profile for your blog URL. What happens when you change to a new domain? You need to go back to each one and update it. Your blog URL is an updated version of your email address, an important part of your address card. Feedburner saw the writing on the wall and effectively serves as a .forward file for your RSS feed, maybe MyBlogLog can step in and solve the other part of the equation which is your static URL.

But step back a minute. As often happens in the Valley, we, the hyper-connected few are the vast minority. How many actually would use a Facebook RSS feed if it was available to them? How many people really need a service that points them to their latest blog URL? How many even know of services such as pobox.com that can forward your email address to your most recent address?

Playpen

Sure it’s hard to get your images off of TypePad and it’s impossible to pull your mini-feed out of Facebook but do the vast majority of people really care? What’s more important is that the system they use works in an integrated way and they don’t have to fiddle with it to get results. iTunes/iPod, Microsoft Windows/Office, and Quicken/TurboTax pairings all work together in tightly bound ecosystems because to do so allows them to guarantee a level of stability for their customers. As much as they might want to be open, Facebook limits what you can do using proprietary subsets of HTML and SQL in order to lock things down and keep things neat. It doesn’t hurt that it results in user lock-in but their challenge is to provide maximum flexibility within the constraints that they lay down.

There are several noble attempts to build outside the box. People Aggregator, Ning, and Profile Builder come to mind. Yet the problem here is flow. The flow of readers across a profile out in the wild is so hard to build up. If you update something in Twitter or Facebook the closed network will channel that flow strong and fast so you’re bound to get a response. As anyone who has hosted their own blog can tell you, it takes a long time to gather an audience of regular subscribers – post something pithy in a closed network like Vox and you’re bound to get a reaction – their broadcast signals are much stronger.

So the challenge to anyone building an open social network, one that overlays the existing networks, is to locate and connect people of like interests and maintain a quality of decorum so it continues to be worthy of their attention. A fair bit of community editorial is required because anything totally open is going to be overrun by spammers if no one tends the garden. On top of that, it needs to be dead easy to understand, can’t break, and be immediately valuable to the casual browser just poking around. Think Soccer Mom. What’s going to compel her to create a universal profile? What’s she going to get out of it? What problem are you going to solve?

I don’t have all the answers, I’m still thinking them through. I think there’s a need for a service that connects you to the people and sites that are important to you in an interactive way. People search engines such as Spock only get us halfway there. They just crawl what’s out there but don’t really have a sense of the user doing the searching. The right answer for what you’re looking for depends entirely on who you are. I’m looking for a service that will take what I invest into it, not just the one -time editing of my profile but my ongoing interaction with it, either directly or via an API, and pay me back in spades when I turn around and ask the service for guidance, again, either directly or via my UI of choice.

As Dave Winer so aptly put it last week:

It’s the basic trust proposition of the Internet. People will only trust a service that gives them complete freedom to come and go as they please. Further, they’ll want to come back if you send them to cool places. It’s why people like Facebook today, and why they’ll be tired of it tomorrow, if it only sends you to places within the Facebook silo.

What do you think? Would you find such a service useful? Would the Soccer Mom?

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