What is a distributed social network?

17 September 2010

I’ve been reflecting on the future of the “social networks” and contemplating on how modern solutions have gotten it wrong. These are my musings.

Corporatization of our social interactions will become the swan song of our current society. It’s not a matter of if some big centralised body is going to screw you over with regards to the information you hold with them, but just a matter of when.

The problem is that we live in an age where the balance sheet is king. I’m by no means the first person to illuminate this well known fact, many have come before me. But it is true that unless we as a society act, and fast, then there will be no privacy, no where to run and definitely no where to hide.

Harking back just a short 6 years ago, before Facebook decided to open its online doors to the world, you and I could still share photos with each other, we could send an email asking one another out to dinner, and, we could even stoop as low as calling someone on the phone, or, heavens forbid, drop in unannounced on a friend “just to say hi”.

But now the world has changed. I talk to friends who tell me that not being active on Facebook is social suicide, that not tweeting your innermost thoughts relegates you to the digital backwater and that refusing to post your most intimate family pics on Flickr means you must be a pervert. But really, where is our world going?

In the last year I have seen Google buzz fizz and while it is too early to call, Ping is probably just another bad smell floating around. While Facebook continues to grow and generate profits and revenue at the expense of your privacy. Why is that?

Why is it that we spend our lives trying to amass “friends” in our social network, yet, look around our room, alone, and wonder where they all are?

Daily we are bombarded with tweets and photos of all the “cool kids” doing this, or commenting on that, and wonder why we can’t be like them. We yearn for someone to retweet a post or follow our thoughts. We are conditioned to gaze in wonder at someone’s friend or follower count and wonder how it is.

And then we wonder where is the social interaction in all this?

Who own’s your information on Facebook?

Who own’s the information you post on Twitter?

Who own’s the comment you may be compelled to leave at the bottom of this post?

And in the end, who cares?

It’s an interesting question. Who does care? Or more importantly, should you?

It can be argued that you willingly put information online, therefore you are willing for other people to use that information. To a degree, this is true. I post on this blog, you can learn an awful lot about me from this blog. But there is a difference. I can decide that this blog no longer represents who I am, or who I want to be, and thus change or remove it all together.

Sure, there would be ghosts of the content hanging around the internet in caches and my tweets online, but after a few months or a year or so, the Google juice would run out and in the end, become irrelevant. Why? Because this blog is controlled by no one other than myself.

Not by Mark. Not by Larry or Sergey. Not by Biz or Evan. Not even by Steve or Bill. This blog is mine and I’ll do what I like with it thank you very much.

And that is a key point. Unlike other social mediums out there, I can choose to exercise my right as an individual human being and redefine whom I am.

Start afresh and step out into the world yelling “G’Day!”

However, your digital finger print is actually doing to you what many corporate bodies and government institutions have been trying to do to you throughout the ages, categorise and segregate you into an powerless individual defined by your past actions and held back from the future.

It could be said that an individuals sanity can be measured by how far into the future they can base their decisions on. An insane person would be someone who could only think about the past and what has happened to them, a relatively sane person could look around in the present and make some rational decisions about their actions and how they would impact on the now. A very sane person can look into the future and see how their actions will impact all of society.

Our current online social systems are turning us into past living neurotics. We are worried about what is online about what we did. We want to make sure the historical record of who we are accurately depicts what we are. In short, we are getting trapped by the very social framework that was meant to free us.


But what is the solution?

Not sure.

I have taken a look at Diaspora. Diaspora was born through four self proclaimed geeks who thought “information should be distributed and private”. Nobel goals (pun intended). But in looking at the “open source” code released, there was a really major flaw. There was a licensing model, and even a contributors agreement that one had to digitally sign in order to be part of the movement.

Excuse me?

Not only that, but looking through the posts, there is one major Achilles heel. One, gigantic, insurmountable flaw in their structure. The business model.

You see, that’s the point.

We can’t have our social networks dictated by a business model.

As soon as you dictate a business model, then any humanity is lost to the balance sheet. Any right to privacy is balanced against the profitability of maintaining that privacy. And in that battle, we all know what wins.

It is not a matter of Mark and the gang being “good” or “evil”. It is not a matter of them developing a bullet proof privacy policy or 101 ways to click your way to not sharing anything. It is the matter of, we are a race of individuals who gain their strength and meaning from our social interactions, and unless we are willing to stand up for those interactions, someone, somewhere is going to put a dollar figure on those interactions and suddenly they become as hollow as the “cha-ching” of a cash register.

It matters that you have friends.

It matters that you have someone to talk to.

And, damn it, it matters that the mega companies of the world don’t profit off the fact that I call you my friend.



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