Open standards for social networking

Despite some road bumps, veteran software developer Marc Canter says there's a way to finally open up social networking so that it makes sense.

3 min read
Looking over the landscape of recent blog posts on open social networking, it's clear that folks are interested in connecting together some of their disparate accounts on a wide range of social networks.

The dream is that distributed social networks will mesh with individuals--each who are on multiple social networks--and that the whole thing kind of slides up next to the blogosphere and extends the notion of a free, open, distributed Long Tail environment. Microcontent is part of it--but people are at the center.

This topic is one that won't go away until end users have been satisfied and they control their own data. It's hard to argue against opening up social networking, unless of course you're a vendor who currently has locked in all your users.

Today, we could standardize what labels you use to call someone your friend.

But we haven't--yet.

Entire philosophical arguments and debates could be silenced if end users could decide what to call each other's relationships. But right now vendors control that aspect of social networking. So, wouldn't it be coolio if some sort of name service kept track of all these labels and mapped them to each "arcing connection" between people?

Entire philosophical arguments and debates could be silenced if end users could decide what to call each other's relationships.

There are some successes we can talk about in this world of open social networking.

One can sign up for an ID that can be used to sign in to more than one system with the same ID Partners. And we've standardized how to move your profile ID and various kinds of content between systems. But no one has really deployed this standard--yet.

These early successes can't be overlooked as it has taken many smart people many years to get us where we are today. My own company has been working on these efforts, and we've even gone so far as to open source some simple Web services, which come in handy when trying to provide a wide range of "meshing" standards.

We have a standard for end users to set which tool the "Blog This" button should send the post to. We call that the Universal Blog This button. I worked with AOL to get folks to support this.

We have a standard for routing blog posts to where you have your personal blog, your work blog, or group blogs that you're a member of, or any of your social network blogs. We invented that routing standard with a chap named Lucas Gonze.

But we've got a long way to go before we can truly open up social networking. All sorts of social-networking APIs (application programming interface) will be implemented by different vendors--and we need a way to map these APIs together and create some sort of normalized world--where friends, profile pages, groups and messages all can line up and be compatible with each other.

We need a way to find people and not have some vendor own that list of people's names. There are a few "people search" plays out there right now, but none of them are offering up the source code to their platforms or promoting the notion of open people search.

We even tried to do a PeoplesDNS once. So, it's not like we haven't been trying!

I have dreams of aggregating aggregators, aggregating conversations and aggregating groups. Those opportunities will all breed standards as well. We did a crazy standard years ago called ThreadsML, which spec'ed out how to connect together message board threads, IM conversations, e-mail interchanges and any other kind of "threaded" anything.

There's also an effort afoot to standardize how we talk about events. Combine that with microformats, and you can see that lots of people are trying to achieve standards around social networking and everything that goes with it.

And as we know very well, the best thing in the world about standards is that there are so many of them. But as Dave Winer says, "The only way to get something to stick is to put up a compelling app and let the market drive a standard. Tech people don't play nice unless the market forces them to."

And that's what we're doing--unless that wasn't clear before.