Next: Open social networks

An online journey from closed, restricted and commercial social networks monopolies to a new breed of independent personal websites linked by open social networks.
Posted: Sun 15 May, 2016, 13:20
The goal of triki and running my own personal site has always been about sharing and connecting online, but outside the mega social media/content sharing platforms, for reasons explained in a previous blog. There has always been an obvious contradiction however, why post and share and recommend stuff when it is impossible for others to reciprocate easily, as most people today are bound into their closed social networks. It is the reciprocation, the interaction, the social side that brings a site alive. Hence the huge appeal of using one of the major social networks.

So I recently added in RSS support to triki. This was step one in allowing my content to be pulled, aggregated and shared. But it is a very, very far removed from a social network experience. So it left me wondering, what next?

So began an online voyage of discovery.

Social Network evolution

Since the internet began, there have been countless efforts to build a better application, tool or product, to fix the problem with the old one or offer some amazing new feature. It is always interesting to me how these projects start, splinter, some break down whilst others thrive and coalesce towards a solution. It is quite an organic process, as the projects take on a life of their own, and face the software equivalent of natural selection. From Mosaic to Netscape, MySpace to Facebook or Subversion to Git - which is still playing out but actually they have different goals (mostly). Well there is a similar story playing out today with open social networks.

Before I continue, I think even that phrase - open social networks - is powerful and new concept in itself. Until recently, there has just been social networks, but actually the vast majority of those available today are actually closed social networks. They lock in users and permit interactions only with others also on the same network. However there has been a largely unreported effort for many years now to create an alternative. Open social networks are on their way.

Digital Dissenters

Everyone knows some anti-Facebook people, those who have for whatever reason abandoned the huge, successful and unstoppable modern face of the web. There are many proud blogs posts from people who have taken the brave move to reject Facebook, for all it's massive appeal, and to fend for themselves in the isolated, lonely world outside. I would not call myself a social networking rejecter, dispite the fact that I will never join Facebook. Social networks are amazing, it was always just the terms offered by Facebook (or similar) that do not appeal to me to me. But was there a serious alternative? This was then my question. People may reject it but Facebook fulfils a very modern need, so there must been some other options. Surely?! If there was, I had not heard of it, dispite being a bit of a news junkie.

As I stumbled around the web soon after releasing triki I read a good article about Digital Dissenters. As the article states, it is not even a movement, hardly a thing yet, but it did chime with some of my concerns. For a start, it was great to hear that people were questioning the status quo, as I was. Reading the acknowledgement that "social media is now embedded in the basic infrastructure of the developed world" was a sobering thought. Social media is Facebook bascially, and it is completely and unassailably embedded. If true, it could be a generation before any realistic alternative is widely available and used. Gulp.

On reflection however, I realised that I really would not align myself with this emerging non-movement. It is way too far reaching - encompassing all things digital and machine intelligence. Even suggesting a "humanists" against machines. This is the wrong tack for me. I like the internet, earn my living as a programmer and generally believe that most technology has it's place. We as individuals need to chose what is right for us, rather than reject it all. My concern has always been more specific, the desire to share and have a web presense without losing control of my content or being beholden to a corporate entity for this priviledge of these online social interactions.

So my search continued.

Dark Web Social Network

At this stage, I was not searching for a solution, just evidence that other people had similar concerns. If I could find these people, then maybe they would have figured out some solutions. This took me on, one way or another, to publications by Robert Gehl of the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. I have to commend the SSRN for freely publishing their research output to the public. Not so many years ago publically funded research was not open to the public (yes, really), so kudos to the SSRN and US public for generously sharing it with the rest of us.

His most recent paper is an exploration of the Dark Web Social Network (DWSN). Gehl's excellent paper explores this shadow world without the hyperbole commonly used in mainstream press. I found the "seething matrix of encrypted websites" a particularly funny description. This version of social networking is almost exclusively anonymous where people keep their online selves completely separate from their true selves. All commication is obviously encrpyted, using Tor, but also source IP addresses are also anonymised to ensure there is no (realistic) way of tracing a user to a real person.

If Facebook is at one end of the spectrum on social networking then DWSN is firmly at the extreme other end. Personally, I am happy to have my online persona as a subset of my real life identity, a partial reflection where I control what is shared. I am not interested in maintaining multiple identities and also relaxed about people tracing IP addresses. However I do completely align with the desire for control and the need to have the social elements within that community. I also respect the fact that many chose to be anonymous online and would support that right. But DWSN is too exclusive so not something I would naturally be drawn to. I would join DWSN before Facebook though.

So having explored two online communities, the dissenters and the dark web specialists, I found that neither were proposing models that were right for me, or that I envisaged triki hooking into.

But things were looking up.

LiveJournal & Diaspora

My exploration then took me to LiveJournal. There is much to admire about LiveJournal. It has all the classic social network good stuff - "friending, following, posting and liking" (credit to Gehl for this succinct summary of what social networks are). LiveJournal distinguishes itself by having control over posting content, customizing pages with templating and more granular definition of the word now overloaded word "friend". Not to mention RSS syndication support. It is very aligned to the key features of triki in the variety of content that can be posted and control over how presented, but it is still a partially closed network where your content is sitting in the cloud somewhere and full control is ultimately lost. But at least it is part of an open-ish social network (!), unlike triki. So I like LiveJournal.

Next up is Diaspora. Again it shares many traits with triki. One is that is also "social aggregator". A key feature of triki is that it also pulls feeds from other sources as well as publish your own. Again this was a tick in the box to see that other people had recognised this as a necessary feature for a personal web site. To be your social network hub, it also needs to contain your friends updates - one way or another. Another similarity is the suggestion that users setup their own server (pod) to run their site - wherever they want. This is exactly the same model as triki.

For me, this was pretty exciting. Roll back six weeks, I was asking myself if there was anything else like triki out there. Well there is - Diaspora. This is good and bad - but mostly this is very, very good. First the good. The fact that others identify the same issues with status quo and are working toward alternative solutions is awesome. I don't mind being in the minority (where I usually am, quite happily), but I would rather not be in a minority of one! A vision is emerging of a distributed, personally hosted hubs all interacting to share and provide an open social network. I like it.

There is one drawback for me, however. What Diaspora has that triki does not is social network hooks. This is awesome but the problem is that whilst triki could integrate with Diaspora, triki would the only talk "Diaspora" dialect of social networking. triki would need to build another set of hooks to the next open social network. This is not impossible and I may well do this, but there is no getting away from the fact Diaspora own the API. This kind of makes it a pseudo-closed open network.

The search goes on.

Pubsubhubbub

Next I stumbled acros PubSubHubbub. By their own description PubSubHubbub is an "open protocol for distributed publish/subscribe communication on the Internet. It generalizes the concept of webhooks and allows data producers and data consumers to work in a decoupled way". PubSubHubbub and ostatus offers the social "glue" between individually owned content - a way to have all the interactions but still retain complete control of the content. In theory it would be simple for triki to share updates into one of several central hubs of and likewise pull updates of interest. With no dependency on a mega-sharing site, no adverts, no tie-ins, this looked like something triki should be integrated with

I was slightly surprised then to find the online equivalent of tumbleweed on the the main page. No postings since 2012 and lots of 404s. So close I thought, but maybe this project just did not happen, for whatever mysterious reason.

Enter W3C

I will not pretend I know the back story or history behind this, but it seems as though the W3C has pulled together a bunch of experts in this domain and setup the Social Working Group. Guys from the Pubsubhubbub are definitely involved here so if I was to speculate, I would think that is why ostatus has stalled. So what do the Social Working Group do? From what I can surmise, they are building out open specifications to support the creation of open social networks. How cool is that. They are building the protocols to support an open world of "friending, following, posting and liking". Awesome.

There are several specifications in flight currently, each at various stages. Activity Streams is the evolution of RSS that I have previously discussed, but never knew was out there. It allows content producers to produce formatted metadata about their content to let everyone know what is new. For example, here "I just wrote a blog and uploaded two new pictures". This provides the basis of a pull-based system to selectively retrieve other peoples updates and content. Awe. Some.

Webmention is a way to request notification that other sites are linking to your site. This seems to be the open equivalent of letting content owners know that the stuff they post is being referenced, and by who, to provide all important feedback.

There is also Micropub which is not a very small establishment the sells alcoholic beverages, although I confess I am not sure exactly what it is is. Same goes for Social Web Protocols. It is still very early days however, so I am sure this will all take shape.

As a quick aside, I was intrigued to see that there is a parallel W3C-endorsed effort called Solid which is a "is a proposed set of conventions and tools for building decentralized social applications based on Linked Data". I am a big fan of linked data and triki is backed by a triplestore of linked data that relates the content with metadata and really is the internal structure that is used to navigate the site. So I will be keeping an eye on this as well.

Open Social Networks

So via a slightly convoluted and circuitous route, my journey of enlightenment has drifted ashore at the new world of open social networks. It has been nothing short of a revelation to discover this effort was is so far forward and has coalesed into the SocialWG at W3C. This is very good news.

I can say with a fair degree of confidence that I will implement the Activity Streams 2.0 spec for triki. I was going to build tags support next, but activity streams looks amazing and will form the foundation of open social networking in future. In fact the only uncertainty is my time, everything else in place.

We may not have to wait a generation for the current social order of the web to change, it may happen much, much sooner.