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The Web is Not (yet) Social

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There is a common misunderstanding about the meaning of the phrase Social Web. I believe that most of the Web’s netizens think that the Web is social. But in fact the Web is not currently social.

Whereas Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, and other ventures are social platforms, they are not the Web. These entities are only part of the Web—although it’s looking more and more “like” Facebook wants you to think that the Web equals Facebook.

The Web is currently not social. The social-media-driven Web is the metaspace analogy of meatspace nightclubs.

Each of these internally-focused social networks might have a globally-distributed data center, but all the activity occurs within the walls of their private social clubs. The activity in one social club is predominately isolated from the others. The activity does not freely spread throughout the Web. The conversations do not flow throughout the Web. They flow within each proprietary network with a very limited trickle of “conversation” allowed to the outside Web. Of course, this trickle is allowed out to encourage more people to come in to their closed clubs.

There is a monumental difference between social networking occurring on the Web and the Web being Social. Social creatures frequenting social networks does not make the Web inherently social. Why is this the case?

In my article, A Flock of Twitters: Decentralized Semantic Microblogging, I state:

With their closely-guarded data silos, social networks are not full participants in the Web, they are not participants in the interconnected data ecosystem. So, unlike an ecological web (think of a food web), the Web-based Internet is not as much of an intact web as it is a land of social network islands that punctuate an ocean of truly connected websites.

The Social Web, on the other hand, is a fully functioning and healthy ecosystem were all data are globally connected.

There is no disputing the fact that social is a big part of the current Web. Web 2.0 is the realm of social media, but it is also the web of exclusive, social clubs. Web 2.0 is about companies “doing” social media via cloistered social islands (called “networks”) more than it is about making the Web itself a social space.

The Web is currently not social. It’s the metaspace analogy of meatspace nightclubs. It’s filled with private social silos, which are antithetical to the Web’s vision. Each private social island is an internal network consisting of tightly-controlled infrastructure that offers its own vision of how humans should connect and interact.

Web-2.0-style closed social nightclubs are not the epitome of the Social Web. Their existence is a indication of how much further the Web has to go before it will become a Social space.

Metaville: a Non-social City of Social Stadiums

To better understand some of the points presented above, let’s look at the fictitious city of Metaville. In this analogy, the city of Metaville represents the current state of the not-social Web.

Metaville is a city with millions of residents. From the outside, it might look like a regular, American city. People regularly gather in a number of the city’s stadiums. In those stadiums, they socialize, sharing stories, pictures, minutiae of their daily lives.

The owners of each stadium are furiously growing the size of their stadium to make room for more people to join the conversations occurring inside of their stadium. Membership is often free but the two requirements are that the vast majority of your conversation must remain inside the walled colosseum and that you have little control over what the stadium owners do with your conversations.

There are a few upstart, niche arenas struggling to grab people’s attention, but even these smaller gathering spaces mimic the rules of the big stadiums.

Is the city of Metaville social? Well, there are pockets of social activity spread throughout the city but all of that activity occurs in stadiums with each stadium primarily isolated from the others.

Learn more about the differences between the Social Web Versus Social Networks

It is true that social activity occurs within Metaville. But when people leave one stadium and go to work, to home, or even to a different stadium (some of the residents of Metaville are members of more than one stadium), they leave their friends and conversations behind. Yes, sometimes they will check back in with their friends in a given stadium and sometimes they’ll get a ping from a friend within a stadium, but they don’t take their friends and conversations out of the stadiums. When they join a new stadium, they have to assemble a new set of friends, start a new conversation history.

Conversations do not happen in the streets of Metaville, or at cozy little cafes and diners. Conversations do not happen between a resident currently in his house with another resident currently in her condo. Practically all of the conversations occur within the exclusive domain of the stadiums. Sure, a resident at home can chat with one currently located in a private stadium, but the totality of that conversation is made possible by the propriety infrastructure that each stadium offers its members—and even then the conversation still takes place within the stadium’s system.

So the city of Metaville is actually not social. It is a place that has many stadiums within whose walls friends gather and conversations occur. But when a person leaves the stadium, their friends do not and cannot follow them. When a member leaves a stadium, a security guard inspects their belongings to make sure that very little is removed from the stadium.

In the realworld, in our meatspace, this is not the way life works. Our friends can come with us and even join us outside of the stadiums. Our friends can come over to our house, or we can chat with them in cafes, or on the streets, or in parks. We are not prevented from being social where ever we go.

Metaville is the model of the current Web. It has some very large pockets of social activity but the conversations and friendships do not readily travel outside of the stadiums.

This metaphor could be expanded further. Instead of Metaville being populated with a bunch of closed stadiums, it could be Metastate populated with closed cities whose citizens rarely leave to visit other cities, or Metacountry whose closed states have tight boarder-crossing restrictions, or Metaworld with closed countries tightly controlling and limiting the flow of information from its citizens into neighboring countries.

When you look at life in Metaville, you will see that the current Web is no more social than one stadium full of people, that the cafes and diners of the Web are ghost towns, that the stadiums of Metaville are more like dictatorial countries.

But All is Not Dark in the Streets of Metaville

There are a few glimmers of light shinning through the streets of Metaville, a few efforts that are counter to the Web-2.0-styled stadium construction. These efforts are focused on helping to create a truly Social Web, at allowing conversation to happen in the cafes and diners of Metaville, and allowing users to take their conversations and friends with them no matter to what unchartered locations of the city they may wish to travel.

Companies like Status.net, the startup Diaspora, and the research project SMOB all are diligently working at bringing federated services to the Web. There are also some of us that are working on innovating new, foundational technologies that will allow for distributed social interactions across the Web and offer truly user-centric identity control. For instance, instead of the limitations and non-user-centric aspect of OpenID, there is a group of us working at offering a truly user-centric identity protocol called WebID.

The Not-so Fine Line

You might think there’s a fine line between calling the Web a space filled with private social clubs and a Social space itself. You might think that it is not a big deal to call the current Web social. But for Social Web Architects, such as myself, the differences and distinctions are large, not small.

Social Web Architects are fighting for the rights of individuals to own and control their data, to have powerful yet easy to use identity and privacy tools, to freely and easily carry on conversations throughout the Web—not just within the walled sanctums of a few snooty nightclubs. We are building technologies that will link data and allow for the serendipitous discovery of new connections with other datasets and with fellow human beings—no matter where on the Web those connections and people may lay.

The Social Web is the metaspace actualization of a user-centric controlled, globally-connected conversation space across the Web. In essence, the mission of Social Web Architects is to bring the Web’s vision to fruition.

For a vision of the Web’s evolutionary epochs, and humanity’s race toward a Social Web, see my HyperWeb article.

Fortunately, the Web is constantly evolving. What it is experiencing now are the natural growing pains of an adolescent platform. Many of the current social-media nightclubs will eventually give way to a more open, user-centric ecosystem. I believe that they will have little choice as humanity inexorably races toward a truly Social Web.

Outside Resources

For two additional (one differing) perspectives on this issue, see Dave Winer’s, What I mean by “the open web” and and Stowe Boyd’s, Messiness At Scale.

My Related Articles About the Social Web

  1. It’s Time for Blogging to Evolve
  2. Flowing Your Identity Through the Social Web
  3. My five-part series, Web 3.0: Powering Startups to Become Smartups
  4. Apple’s Ping Versus the Social Web
  5. How the Death of Net Neutrality Effects You
  6. Goodbye Google Old Friend: It’s time for the Open-Source Internet
  7. Thinking Outside the Privacy Box
  8. Regaining Control of Privacy and Identity: It’s up to Each Individual

Article Comments

  1. Joss says:

    Hey Jeff – great article, would love to hear more about the efforts to make the web truly social, as it seems to me like one big losing battle. How can you compete with 500 million users who pump data into these silos every day?

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