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Social Networking: Open Is The New Closed

Talk about an old model of socializing: On Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, I can socialize only with people who have registered with a service that's owned, operated, and controlled by a single company. Even enterprise social software suites that leverage a corporate directory for single sign-on still require employees to activate and configure their online social profiles. This walled-garden approach to online collaboration has been a major roadblock to broader participation and leads to a sort of social schizophrenia, requiring users to monitor, update, and synchronize their activities across several platforms, while never being quite sure where best to find a long-lost friend or new business associate.

The model of closed systems, whether it's Facebook or your company's SharePoint environment, does make financial and business sense. It lets companies like Facebook monetize people's collaborative endeavors, while enterprises need to control the collaborative environment to ensure compliance with company information-sharing strictures and adherence to corporate communication policies; however, such centralization flies in the face of the Internet's ethos of open sharing and decentralized control. At least one research program, Stanford's MobiSocial Computing Research Group, is out to crack the social software oligopolies by developing a set of open applications and protocols that facilitate new collaboration platforms that aren't locked to a particular vendor but are device- and service-agnostic, much like email.

As its name suggests, the MobiSocial research sees mobile devices, not PCs, as the primary platforms for social interaction, but its open aspect could prove just as disruptive. As noted in the group's mission statement, "Our focus is to let everyone interact socially with each other, without having to join the same proprietary social network." Several MobiSocial projects further this effort, from Musubi, "a non-proprietary social Internet and application platform for phones," to GroupGenie, which can analyze one's online persona via email correspondence, Facebook posts, or LinkedIn connections and develop a "social topology" of overlapping or nested social groups.

But the project I find most intriguing is Mr. Privacy: Open and Federated Social Networking Using Email (PDF).

Unlike SaaS-based social networking, Mr. Privacy uses email as a federated online identity management system and data transport. As the four Stanford computer scientists working on the project write in their research paper describing the project, "For the sake of adoptability, Mr. Privacy is built upon email, which is itself a mature, scalable, open, and federated infrastructure supporting over 1 billion users. We can socialize with anybody as long as we know his or her email address. We need not sign up to join the same social network. All the shared information is stored as email messages." The Mr. Privacy APIs essentially turn social applications into email clients, using the same time-tested, reliable protocols, SMTP and IMAP.

To demonstrate the feasibility and evaluate the ramifications of using email-based plumbing for social software, the researchers have developed an API and three Mr. Privacy applications on three platforms: Android, iPhone, and the Firefox browser. It's the browser app, a Firefox extension called SocialBar, that illustrates the potential for an open Facebook alternative. In a way, SocialBar and its email foundation are quite reminiscent of Google's now-defunct Buzz, in that they use a Web UI with a specially crafted message and data schema to enable a familiar threaded conversation view. Unlike Buzz, SocialBar isn't tied to a particular mail service; it works just as well with your internal Exchange server as it does a public Gmail or Yahoo account. Also in contrast to all of the existing social sites, SocialBar keeps local copies of all messages and a local friend database (that can be integrated with an existing Mozilla Contacts file), giving users greater control over their data, faster response when doing data-intensive actions like message filtering, and the potential for offline access.

Stanford's researchers rightly conclude that network effects, i.e., Metcalfe's Law, create the environment for one or two proprietary companies (read: Facebook and Google) to own the online social ecosystem. Facebook arguably already does and may have reached such critical mass that resistance is futile. However, the most effective way to counteract such natural monopolies isn't through regulation but openness; namely, a new generation of social software built on open APIs and protocols and using the pervasive, inherently distributed and federated email system. The Stanford team says that because of email's ubiquity, Mr. Privacy could quickly, almost virally spread, concluding, "We believe that Mr. Privacy is the first proposal that has a chance to challenge the status quo within the next few years. We need one or more killer applications developed using Mr. Privacy to help jump start this model."

Here's hoping that some savvy developers answer the call, build on the SocialBar demonstration project, and shake up the world of social networking with a new generation of open, cross-platform, mobile, and browser-based social apps.