BarCampBlock and the Great Beyond

BarCampBlock Panorama

I had a great time at BarCampBlock this past weekend. Regretfully, I could only attend on Saturday but got to soak in the scene and definitely will chip in and help out in future BarCamp events when I can. The excitement surrounding the sessions reminded me of the early BloggerCon events that got me into blogging in the first place. A lot of earnest excitement and a tangible electricity in the air that we had the ability to change the world and make things better.

My favorite session was Brad Fitzpatrick & David Recordon’s discussion on Portable Social Networks where they made clear that they are trying to build a simple way to “glue” social networks together into a unified social graph that is openly accessible by anyone and everyone. The thought is that closed social networks which require you to drag all your friends along with you are distracting at best, destructive at worst. All this pulling people back and forth is resulting in frustration and friction which, if not addressed, will sap the ability of innovative new social networking services from gaining a significant audience and give any early adopters yet another username and password to remember. Additionally, there is the concern that existing solutions to pull your existing relationships along with you to the latest shiny object by crawling your AOL, Google, or Yahoo mailbox are training people to give over their username and password to untrusted third parties which is just asking for trouble.

While the motives for a public database of relationships is simple enough (someone at the session described it like a Technorati backlink index for social networking links, “who’s linking to me?”), the true genius is the assertion by Brad and David that they are laser focused on the geeky bits of building the database as a platform and that it’s up to the community to figure out what they want to do with it and if anyone wants to build something to add value on top of it to, “go for it.” People will continue to search for jobs or recruits via LinkedIn, this service will only help fill in the missing blanks and make your LinkedIn network a better representation of who you know. If you have a good friend down as a connection on flickr, why shouldn’t you also be connected to them on LinkedIn? This yet-to-be-named service will highlight the gap and make it easy for you to act on it.

In a later session on Open Authentication (now known as “o-auth”), David spoke of delegated authentication systems such as flickr’s in which you manage which services have access to your flickr photos. At anytime you have the ability to revoke any permissions that you have given. This let to a discussion of existing ways you let people get in touch with you and the need for a similar grant/revoke model for granting people access to you. If you’re outside of a social network such as Facebook where you can de-friend someone, an email address is the universal access key. Yet, these cannot be revoked and if you change your email address, it breaks for everyone including the person you’re trying to get away from. In this new world, maybe you can turn on & off access just as you would subscribe & unsubscribe from an RSS feed.

Is email broken? Is this the vision of a world beyond email?


Identity Management , it’s a public service

I met Jeremiah Owyang last night and he sent me a link to a post he did a couple weeks ago on the future of Facebook. It’s an excellent post which maps out a future that may very well come to pass. To sum it up, he predicts that the current Facebook platform will eventually open up and offer itself up as an authentication service.

Facebook will launch an Identity widget that I can embed on my blog. This allows only those who have registered to Facebook to leave a comment, many high profile blogs will do this, to avoid nasty anonymous comments, thus reducing the incident of Kathy Sierra type events.

If this happened, Facebook’s authentication service would start down the long, bumpy road that others are travelling (Microsoft Passport, Six Apart’s TypeKey, OpenID). Extending Facebook’s authentication as a service is the next logical thing for them to do once they have established their platform. Authentication is a basic building block for anyone that calls themselves a platform so if you wish to extend the influence of your "social graph," then you need to distribute your authentication methods as well.

Whichever service steps forward to take on the mantle of distributed identity management will also take on a responsibility to remain open, extensible, and free. The issue is, anyone with the scale to support such a broad and distributed service is most likely going to be a business which will need to turn a profit. The trick is how to remain impartial while also extracting revenues to satisfy your investors. Think iTunes/iPod lock-in or the whole net neutrality them my pipes debate.

It may be possible for Facebook to crack this nut and figure how to remain profitable and open at the same time. The real trick is to do it not just for a few years but over the long term. Will Facebook continue to be open if they get acquired? If they get a new CEO?

The debate is not unlike the tension between advertising and editorial in a media company. Above all, running a media business requires absolute editorial independence. It’s a public service. Reuters used to have something called a "Golden Share" and Wall Street Journal had the Bancroft family. Both held the public trust above all else and were protected by short term, profit-motivated demands. Thompson recently bought Reuters and it looks like Fox may buy Dow Jones.

Like a moth to a flame, internet platforms are drawn to management of a global identity.  But just as the tycoons of the last age stepped up to publish a newspapers, you need to realize what you’re getting into and do it to give something back to society, not for the money.


PS. I’m committing a big no-no because I’m posting something just as I step out the door for a few days of camping. I’ll get to any comment or other feedback when I return so don’t take my silence as a snub!