Many moons ago I took a job managing the Sun Sparc workstations on the Fixed Income trading floor at the Tokyo branch of Lehman Brothers. TIt was a time when a 486 Compaq computer cost $5,000 (just the CPU!) and a 28.8 Supra modem would run you a couple hundred bucks. With these economics in mind, you’ll understand why a job with an investment bank that gave me access to dual T1 lines was attractive. When things were quiet on the help desk I would spend time browsing through newsgroups and playing around with first generation browsers like Mosaic and Navigator. The web was a small place back then. Yahoo lived on akebono.stanford.edu and my little guide to Tokyo was awarded the “Cool Site of the Day” sunglasses.
The excitement around social networks today reminds me of the early web. Closed networks such as Facebook carve out a small slice of the internet and make it familiar. Bumping into names we recognize, the wilds of the internet take on the feel of a small town or village. We mediate our experience through the lens of these virtual hamlets, relying on our friends to point out things to see, our “mini-feed” tells us who is doing what, we can trust their judgement.
In the past, broadcast models were sufficient. The portals were the first phase. Crafted by editors, they delighted us by shining a spotlight on items of interest (those sunglasses again). Search engines took over as our interests splintered and we each sought out something unique, outside of the generic categories of the portals. Social bookmarks and blogs took over from email as a way to share knowledge but each blog had to rely on it’s ability to draw an audience to get a point across. RSS feeds were a way to channel influence but the flow has since grown weaker as more a more blogs compete for attention, watering down the signal to what is now a broad river of random chatter.
Social Networks entered the scene as a way to channel the signal back into a strong and meaningful flow. The latest updates from our friends and contacts are a way to filter what we read and where we focus our attention. If we pick our friends carefully, we can again surface something of value. There are now social networks for Anglers, Bakers, and even Dead People.
So where do we go from here? I predict (as others) there will be another swing of the pendulum. As we splinter into smaller and smaller communities we’ll come to the realization that we’re missing something. Joining multiple networks will not help. Managing multiple identities across multiple social networks creates confusion and stress. How many networks can you manage? How many accounts and friends lists can you keep in your head. Want to share a link? Post a thought? Which network is appropriate? Do you post an update to Vox, Twitter, Facebook, Pownce, or all four? The demand to consolidate will poke holes into the walls of social networks. Right now you can push things into Facebook but into that black hole there is no escape. Where’s the RSS out? Consumers will force the walls to come down.
When these walls crumble, we’re going to be back out in the wild again. All of us are going to be holding onto our various masks. Which one to use? My LinkedIn profile? My ClaimID? My Yahoo Answers profile? Shards of our identity will exist across multiple systems and without a service to bring it all together, it will be impossible to interact with people in any meaningful way.
History serves us well here. Attempts to centralize have failed in the past. Remember Microsoft Passport? No one wanted to throw their lot in with a single vendor, especially when it was Microsoft. I predict the same will happen should anyone else try to solve this problem with brute force, not Yahoo, not Google, not even the iPhone. No one wants to put all their eggs into one basket. What we need is a pointer to all the pages that make up your collective, virtual, self.
The solution is in a distributed service. The distributed model the internet uses to locate nodes is instructive. When you type “yahoo.com” into your browser, your computer translates that into and IP address. Somewhere along the way that IP address, say, 220.127.116.11, is sent to a Domain Name Server (DNS) which has a lookup table that will determine the best way to route your packet to that IP address which is also known as yahoo.com. You don’t need to know the IP address or the best way to get there, the DNS servers and routing tables handle that. They exist at a level below the hostnames that we use.
Some companies recognize this opportuntiy and are building solutions to meet the need. Spock is a people search engine but it’s approach to brute force indexing is no different than the Yahoo Directory of old – a top down, editorial approach that will ultimately not scale. Freebase is slightly better as it can accept updates but again, this is not much different from a modern search engine, an index of dynamic content with a single, shared view for everyone.
The trick of DNS is that it adapts itself and can be edited to meet the needs of the community it serves. Routing tables are updated dynamically to seek out the most efficient route from point A to point B. The combination of a dynamic routing table and an “editorialized” DNS table can build a view of the world that is optimized for the individuals that use it. In this same way, a modern solution for locating people, discovering what they are about, and tracking their interests is through a loose combination of lookup tables and community-based profiles. People are not fixed objects, their interests change from day-to-day, they have schedules, they produce metadata that has a half-life.
On to the shameless plug portion of this post; a vision for what we’re trying to build at MyBlogLog. What you see today are the beginnings of a service that not only helps you learn about people reading a site and learn more about them, it also directs you to sites these people publish and communiites that they belong to. The recent addition of tags to MyBlogLog, which can be applied by any MyBlogLog member on any person or site profile, further defines what you’re looking at. It’s a little messy but there is structure underneath it all which ties it together. The community is helping build out the structure, tag clusters are giving form to communities and relationships where before none existed.
One of the most interesting (and undiscussed gems) of the service is the “Hot in My Communities” module which surfaces the posts that are most interesting to readers of sites that you follow. Imagine it as a virtual version of Amazon’s Best Sellers in your zip code. It’s likely that you’ll recognize some of the links there but if there’s something in there that you don’t, chances are good that you’ll find it of value because others like you also found it compelling.
The web is a collection of digital artifacts. Text, photos, sound files are by-products that are digitized and indexed. We use search engines to locate these artifacts but no one has built a way to tie all these artifacts back to their owner. Until you tie the collective digital artifacts of a person together in a unified way and follow it over time, you don’t really know that person. We want to build a platform which allows you to get to know someone through what they produce and share, collectively, across all networks and the internet. Only then can connections made online approach the fidelity and meaning of a face-to-face meeting. That is what we hope to accomplish with MyBlogLog, that is what keeps us thinking of better ways of doing things.
It’s time to open up networking, again : Dave Winer on the coming explosion of social networks
Beyond Silos : Doc Searls outlines the shortcomings of categories of organization
Dave on open social networking : Dave Weinberger suggests the need for metadata miscellany
Open Labeling of Social Network Relationships : Marc Canter riffs on elements of Winer’s post
BBC, The Tech Lab : Bradley Horowitz talks about DNS for objects
MyBlogLog Personal Gestalt : Lord Matt, a MyBlogLog member, ponders the concept of a collection of personal actions as a definition of self