What if Facebook was as open as Linux?04 May 2009
It all started with one simple thought, “I like the way that Facebook keeps me in touch with my friends, but I don’t like that it is a multi-million dollar, commercial business. Surely there must be another way?”
So after a little bit of Google research I was tremendously excited to find an already established and earnest movement towards, what is in many ways, an ‘open Facebook’. Now, that’s not to say that what is beginning to stir is a Facebook clone, merely wearing ‘open’ clothes, it’s a little more complex than that; in fact I think it would be more appropriate to understand it as a paradigm shift in the way we interact with others on the internet.
To comprehend what’s going on I think firstly we need to recollect the whole, for want of a better term, ‘Web 2.0’ revolution. We, the humble web user, now help create the vast diversity of content found on the internet. From Wikipedia to Youtube, we are no longer mere consumers of information but authors, editors, commentators and directors. This ‘new’ web is important here for two reasons; one, it means we leave traces of our activity for all to see and two, it inspires practical and productive grass roots, bottom-up collaboration.
Let’s take a look at these traces of activity us web citizens are making. For instance, this blog entry, it’s a record of my current thinking and feelings, then there’s Flickr for photos, Youtube for videos, Twitter for microbloging, Facebook for social networking, Digg for bookmarks, a forum on programming here, a comment on someone’s podcast there and this is just a fraction of the possibilities, the actual list is overwhelmingly enourmous. And this is where we arrive at the first and perhaps most significant aspect of the emerging ‘open Facebook’; what if we could track all of a person’s activity and be notified of it through an ever updated feed, just like on the real Facebook’s news feed, except even for events outside of Facebook? Well, you can and you’ve actually been able to do so for a quite a few years already, it’s called ‘lifestreaming’ and there’s a proliferation of services that help you accomplish this. Perhaps the best of these is FriendFeed, currently allowing you to aggregate up to 56 web services.
In fairness I must point out that Facebook have actually recently implemented lifestreaming functionality, for instance you can add your Flickr stream or your blog’s RSS feed so that any activity from those sources appears in your friend’s feeds. And I like that, I prefer Flickr’s community and photo management interface to Facebook’s and I prefer my Wordpress blog to Facebook’s mediocre note system. Yet now Facebook lets my friends keep up with this activity without each of them having to tirelessly subscribe to numerous and unintuitive RSS feeds (Tip: Facebook also allows you to filter off the specific activities of friends that you’d rather not hear about, not that I find any of my freind’s activities boring!).
In fact, double credit must be given to Facebook because they have actually gone a step futher towards the new open social paradigm by opening up each user’s stream to outside applications using an open standard (yes, not a Facebook developed standard!) called Activity Streams. This means that should an application receive permission from you, the owner of a stream, then it can take all the activity from your Facebook news feed and do what it likes with it; display it on your desktop, mash it up with other streams, filter it, the sky’s the limit.
Okay, so this is pretty exciting, what if all web services had the ability to broadcast user’s activity in this universally recognised Activity Stream standard? What if all social networks spoke the same language? What if you didn’t have to go to MySpace to find out what one bunch of friends were up to, then go to Twitter to speak to another portion and then finally return to Facebook to get the latest on your remaining web contacts? Wow! That would be something wouldn’t it.
Well, there’s only one real hurdle now and that’s identification. It’s one thing registering with a site and validating yourself with a password, but how do we get all sites to recognise those credentials? We need something like an OpenID. You can get a taste for what a unified login experience might be like on my blog here; if you’re a Facebook user then you can login to my website by clicking on the big “Facebook Connect” button at the bottom of this post, whereby any comments you make will be automatically approved and displayed along with your current profile picture which links back to your Facebook page so people can find out more about you.
I think one of the main reasons why this whole ‘open Facebook’, or open social networking concept is so important and also why it’s going to work is that, like I indicated at the beginning of the post, it is not a replacement for Facebook or any other network or service for that matter. Rather, it is a way of bringing them all together and allowing users to freely choose their online identity without being restricted to the limitations of any one single service or network. An open Activity Stream standard and OpenID protocol that becomes universally accepted across the entire internet will both provide new and richer ways of interacting but still allow us to enjoy the very same social network experinces we currently enjoy. In the words of evolutionary theorist Ken Wilber, an open social network will, like all evolutions, transcend and include that which precedes it.
These are some of the notable sources which aided my research on this subject;