The Issue With Social Networks

“Wait,” you say, “there’s only one?” Well, no, but there is the one that irks me the most at this moment

I just watched Leisa Reichelt’s presentation on Ambient Intimacy at FoWA London and it started churning my gears about the things that drive me nuts in social networking apps. We’ll call this the Problem of Interconnectivity (or the lack thereof). I’ll snarkily refer to it as “One App To Rule Them All”.

I am not talking about just one social network app that everyone uses and refusing to publish to the rest of the world. Leisa said “People use different types of applications to facilitate different forms of communication…” and I believe that to be true. But there’s a lot of overlap between different applications, and I want a touch point by which I can manage those various applications with ease.

The Problem

I spend a lot of time contributing to various parts of the social graph: LastFM, Facebook, Twitter, Pownce, Upcoming, Flickr, Dopplr, TripIt etc. etc. Each site has its own login and password. Each site has it’s ups and downs. Some are great and some aren’t so great. But I use them all, and many of them have overlapping datasets. For example, Myspace, Pownce, Facebook, LastFM and Upcoming all have event objects. Dopplr and TripIt contain ancillary information about those events. Flickr later will have photos associated with those events.

This means that I end up with redundant and split-up data. Not just in the publishing of data from me to the sphere, but also via the manner in which that information is commented upon and how feedback returns to me. I don’t mind that it comes back to me in various ways, but it’s difficult to find that comment that was not in the normal pipeline six months after the fact.

The problem, at the core, is one of time—a lack of time. It takes an excessive amount of time to update all of these sites on a regular basis. And it requires that I visit each and every site in turn in order to enter the aforementioned data. That takes about five to ten minutes per site. Adding one event can take 30 minutes or more. Even if I’m bulk loading, I can easily drop a few hours doing data entry.

There has to be a better way.

The Pieces That Exist

There are a variety of technologies that could facilitate these things to come together.

  1. OpenID | A distributed identity system that lets you use one login across many applications.
  2. APIs (or Application Programming Interfaces) | These are tools created by the developer of the application that allow for other developers to create interactions with that application. The API is a concept and a series of things that can be done. What one does with them is entirely different.
  3. DHTML | Dynamic HTML is basically made up of the DOM (Document Object Model), XHTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is the base of the building blocks for interacting in new ways with the browser.
  4. XMLHttpRequest | Also known as XHR, this is the core of AJAX, this allows for things to happen in the background while one continues to interact with the application.
  5. AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) | A new technology from Adobe, this allows for people to build either AJAX, Flash, or Flex applications and deploy them across multiple platforms utilizing the AIR framework.
  6. Ruby | The Ruby Language is a very easy to use and very powerful programming language. With ERB and some light Apache hacking, you can use this without having to install a full stack framework (such as Rails)

There are a variety of other protocols and technologies that could also be employed (such as Jabber) but due to my lack of experience with them, I’ll provide them only a cursory mention.

A Potential Solution

It’s easy to consume these streams after the data is input via RSS. A great example of merging multiple streams into one is Jeremy Keith’s creation of a collected stream on his site. So we’ve got the ability to pull multiple RSS feeds into one location and display them in a new manner. I’ll write a post in the future about doing this with some lightweight ERB.

But sending to each of the sites becomes a much larger endeavor. The API is a series of potential calls, not a plug-and-play piece of code. So even with some heavy lifting, you still have to manually identify the data fields in the models you wish to update on the remote server and make the proper calls. This is great and horrible in the same breath. The power of the API means that you can, in fact, push the data into the system (in most cases). It’s just a lot of work for little, if any, reward for the developer of said system.

The most obvious example of something that i have difficulty with in this arena is events. I play a lot of shows in my band. I also do a lot with various travel for work. So, I’d want to add a show and have it add a show at MySpace, an event at Facebook, an event at Upcoming.org, an event on Pownce, and update my Dopplr account that I’m going to be in that location.

Or how about a blast status update to Twitter, Myspace, AIM, Pownce, and Facebook? Information is only as relevant as the last post. And if it’s easy to distribute, a more complete view of communication exhibits itself.

I’m sure there are even more potential uses that I can’t envision myself and that is the beauty of the web in that people will use systems in new and unexpected ways.

Potential Pitfalls

Let’s call it out right now. Public enemy number one in this space? Spam.

Any system that lowers the barriers for the mass push of information very quickly enables the spam attack that everyone dreads. Spam, however, is subjective. I think 99% of us would agree that penis enlargement and “Get your free viagra now!!!” are a complete waste of time, effort, and electrons. But where is the deciding line? If I post a show to my network is that spam? If I post about a web conference is that somehow different? If I’m speaking is it more spam-related than if I’m just attending?

Another potential pitfall is asyncrhonicity. This could be planned for using something like Adobe’s AIR system and intentionally alowing the user to input massive amounts of data into a submission queue. When the user connects to a network, the application begins to sync up with various APIs in succession. So that could be a benefit over a pitfall, but covering user expectations would be very important. Does it sync automatically? Does I have to hit a button? Does it save previous syncs? What happens if there’s an error in the sync? What if I was really looking for a kitchen sink?

Truly. A potentially insurmountable obstacle. Especially the garbage disposal.

So what next?

Well, after writing this I happened to be reading MetaFilter and saw a post to NoseRub, which claims to be a decentralized social network protocol that lets you sync data between places. It appears to be more of an aggregator as opposed to a publisher as far as can see by reading their about section.

I’m going to chew on this and come up with some visual ideas of how this might work. How would you like to see this kind of application work? Is it even possible?

  1. Matthijs Langenberg says:

    It's the basic UNIX philosophy: Do one thing, and do it right.
    Use pipes to connect multiple programs together.

    On the web we can use API's to replace pipes, a REST API will really work well.

    But who is responsible for piping these commands? In a shell, the user is. This means that on the web, the user must still be the one connecting several resources.

    An application/site/resource shouldn't be using other resources, we need something sitting on top of all those applications.

    But who will create that?

  2. John Athayde says:

    Matthijs -

    That is the problem. Most users can't do the heavy lifting. The pipes simply are too difficult to use. And many of these sites don't have good or workable APIs. End users of visual interfaces are not savvy enough to fire up a programming shell and link things together. For a site creator to expect that level of sophistication is unreasonable.

    We do need one thing that allows people to interact with various products easily. It relies on a lot of patience from one individual that sees it as a charge. I am not a good enough programmer to make it happen.

    Any programmer who attempts this will have to deal with the "all things to all people" issue. If it doesn't work with one microsite, will someone complain? You bet. And the only way to make this profitable is inline advertising. You could theoretically charge for access ($5 a month?) but would anyone pay?

    I might, but would a large amount of individuals pay for that kind of service?

  3. Tiff says:

    First of all, ZOMG Preach it, Brother Athayde. This is my personal pet peeve- I don't want to just import the RSS of my Google Calendar and display it on Facebook, I want Google Calendar items to turn into Facebook Events that I can invite people to. (Though I did discover that Planypus will publish to both, which is awesome.) I dont want to have to download a photo from Flickr to make it my profile photo on LinkedIn or Facebook, I want to tell the app to pull my profile picture from my Flickr account. This should not be so hard.

    Also, if you're going to be noodling about how something like this would look, I'm happy to be a guinea pig. Because I'd love something like that, but totally lack the chops to build it myself.

  4. John Athayde says:

    All these things are doable, for example when printing Moo Cards it links right into flickr and you can browse your flickr photos from _moo's interface!_

    There are some other apps, e.g. Spanning Sync which will actually sync between Google calendar and iCal, as opposed to syndicating from Google Calendar.

    That is excellent that Planypus already publishes to both. I'll have to look into that for some inspiration.

    I am going to start sketching this up and will be sending stuff around for comments. I just can't program it myself :)

  5. Tiff says:

    Yeah, finding a way to get it built would be a challenge. But it seems to me that most of these services have a fairly standard set of types of information to share: Dates, Photos, text (short form), text (long form), video, audio. It can get more granular than that- relationships and permissions can be tricky, but ultimately, there are only so many kinds of content you can share.

    So maybe it's an issue of figuring out what the common features are between sites, and writing an app that can do *that* subset of features well, and then worrying about the more complex and site-specific things later. Give the user a way to publish an event or a photo everywhere, and then they can go to Flickr to add notes, and to Facebook to tag with friends, etc. It wouldn't be a Holy Grail, but it would be an important step in the right direction.

    I'm willing to do SOME of the work myself, as a user. After all, I don't HAVE to be able to browse my Flickr photos from, say, LinkedIn, but why can't I feed LinkedIn a Flickr URL and have it grab my profile photo from it? I'm willing to do SOME work, but the app should be able to do some of it for me, and it's tiresome when social app developers decide, in the name of not having to keep up with every new app that comes up, to just pretend like there are NO other apps.

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