In 1 of my posts about social networks, I harped on the idea of the social network itself being an open platform, with apps running on that platform. What I should have pointed out is that email has been operating as apps on a platform, and they’re a perfect example of what I was talking about.
Email’s pretty basic, and operates using well-defined and understood protocols. It’s been around long enough that we’ve pretty much got it down. You can use a dedicated email client, use your email entirely in a browser tab, automatically send emails from an application, whatever you want. Even ISPs and hosting providers are giving away web-based email clients to subscribers. Email’s ubiquitous – everybody has it, everybody uses it, and all programs ultimately encompass it. Put shortly, email is a solved problem, just like RSS is.
As a result of email being built off of open protocols that we’ve had a while to figure out, there’s now tons of applications built around email. There’s your basic, vanilla email clients, like Yahoo and Hotmail. Then people started thinking about all the stuff they could do besides just implementing POP and IMAP, and that led to things like Gmail, which brought us labels instead of the traditional folders, archiving messages, and unlimited storage. Now we have email clients that offer even more cool features, like Mailbox and Google’s clone Inbox that let you temporarily dismiss messages until you can actually deal with them. We’ve got a laundry list of applications that let you do all kinds of awesome stuff with email that go above and beyond just composing, sending, and receiving messages.
There’s no reason social networks can’t be like email. Remembering that a social network is nothing more than a model of people and their connections to each other, an open protocol for interacting with that model opens the door to a universe of different-flavored apps that don’t just do CRUD operations on the network, but actually use it to do new and cool things with the data we have on those networks. Open standards that are readily available everywhere and well-documented can do fantastic things for social networking applications.
Obviously, a social network operating as an open protocol isn’t an exact 1-to-1 analogy with email. With email the data itself is distributed amongst several servers, so there doesn’t need to be a centralized data store, just a means of figuring out where to deliver the message. Distributed social networks have been tried, and haven’t seemed to work out. So already we’re faced with maintaining 1 large datastore to keep track of all these connections, and that’s assuming the servers hosting the network isn’t also holding any of the data being transmitted.
The real issue limiting this sort of potential is the idea of an open network. Since the value of social networking apps is being able to take advantage of the network data itself, there’s a huge incentive to lock down the networks. Building a network of social network-backed applications on top of an open network is probably the biggest challenge to selling the whole “open social network” idea. Until people can find a good way to make money off an open protocol for social networks, we’re never going to see social networks reach its full potential.
Email is proof that open networks work, and lead to a wide and growing variety of applications that fit just about every niche you could have. Social networks as an open protocol can do something similar for the applications we use to connect with and share with each other. In fact, there’s no reason they can’t. You can use different apps for interacting with the same network, or you can use the same application to interact with multiple different networks. It’s all up to your personal taste and usage, just like email clients are today. So far the only reason that can’t be true is that the companies building social networking applications are tying them to closed networks and protocols. Honestly, at this point it’s just wasted potential.