The Future May Come in Waves

Another article has popped up proclaiming the death of Facebook. I read this with interest in part because I’ve become a bit disillusioned with Facebook myself for reasons I’ve discussed before. And I’d read some of what Phoebe Connelly referenced in her Guardian article. But her comments about the risks of data in the cloud resonated a bit and got me to thinking about possible solutions.

It seems pretty clear by now that social networking sites/services are here to stay. The question being, what form will these take in the future? Popular services come, mature, and go away as people’s interests and technology changes. Can any of this be future-proofed? Probably not, but it seemed clear to me that having all of your eggs or data in one basket is a bad idea. So I started to think about what a distributed, federated social networking service might look like. This would be a service which allows the same kind of sharing we are familiar with on Facebook, but with individual members having their homes on servers maintained by different companies. This would be pretty seamless from the user’s point of view just as it doesn’t really matter what company hosts your email these days.

Well, my rush to the patent office was cut short by the realization that the smart folks at Google had already begun the process of building this as Google Wave! A little Googling turned up this article on New Rowley, Google Wave: Users may need it, but it will be hard to get them to use it. It may well be that users familiar and comfortable with Facebook, and Myspace may eschew Wave based services and stay put. But I suspect that the tech people and the Cool Kids are going to cause a rapid expansion of the Wave space once it enters a wider release. I’m going to try to ride this wave myself,  and the pun was definitely intended!

Now I know why the folks who run Facebook, MySpace, and perhaps Twitter, may be a bit worried. Google Wave may take the bat right out of their hands. In any case, it won’t happen overnight and if they’re smart, they’ll quickly provide their own Wave compatible services and just accept that they have to share some of their revenue with someone else or risk losing more members entirely.

Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanegawa

Ultimately, federated social networking services should give users more control over their social data and how it is used. But like most freedoms, this one comes with responsibilities and risks. Users will have to be more responsible for managing the collection of services they use. They’ll also have to ready for those times when some of those services fail. At least in this scenario, the failure of one provider won’t result in the loss of all of your data! Finally, as always, let the user beware! Not all service providers will be uprigtht and honest. There will be some rip offs! But in the end, I think this is the next wave, so get your board ready, you won’t want to miss it!

2 replies on “The Future May Come in Waves”

From the point of view of a user concerned about privacy and sharing of his or her personal information, the distribution of personal data, friends lists, etc. over a wider number of collection points will make it more difficult to know who’s actually collecting which data about them. How does one know for sure whether their privacy will be protected, if they don’t even know who owns the databases where their information is ending up?

I quit MySpace because it appeared to be overrun with spammers, criminals and other assorted creeps, and MySpace’s management appeared to have little or no control over the community which they’d created. Also, the fact that it’s owned by Fox Interactive doesn’t sit well with me. It’s no wonder that a service owned by Rupert Murdoch’s “News Corporation” would be so irresponsible, sleazy and exploitative.

Facebook, Inc. appears to be a bit better about the management side, but the trade-off between usefulness and invasiveness still seems a bit unfair. Facebook promotes a lot of useless “apps” with dubious, shallow entertainment value in exchange for sharing personal data with unknown parties. At least Facebook warns users that their information is being shared before allowing them access to apps.

Now I’m not some paranoid conspiracy theorist or anything like that, but I have concerns about the extent to which Google is collecting personal information on the Internet at large. Taking into account Google’s popularity and the breadth of it’s scope, it appears to me like a huge information funnel that indiscriminately collects and catalogs everything into one place for somewhat obscure purposes. Of course, it’s a commmercial entity so it’s obvious they’re using the information for marketing purposes. That doesn’t necessarily bother me so much, as long as personal data is kept personal. My point is that once such technologies are developed, they tend to not go away, but spread out to more generalized purpose. To what end is this endeavor ultimately leading?

Surely, Google is very good at what they do. I use some of their services, but try to be mindful and careful while doing so. For example, I may use Google Docs to share information on collaborative projects, but only in cases where all involved parties intend to make the shared information publicly available. Some development jobs I’ve worked (on short-term contract basis) have actually shared their company’s product details and development notes via Google Docs, and this baffles me. Wouldn’t you want such information to remain within resources which your company actually controls, instead of sticking it out there on GDocs, where Google automatically assumes non-exclusive rights to it?

When it comes to usability, Google gets a lot of things right, but sometimes they defy boundaries in an annoying way. For example, the current integration of Google Chat into Gmail is something I find irritating. Email to me is primarily a business tool. When I’m reading my email, I’m not often interested in being engaged in real-time chat. I’m wondering how they plan to integrate Wave into their other information-sharing services.

I’ll certainly try Wave. Given Google’s track record, I expect to be impressed. Whether or not I’ll use it on a daily basis depends largely on how pervasive it becomes. If it does turn out to be the “next big thing” in social networking, then I’m sure I’ll jump on board, because after all a social networking site is only as good as its user base.

Well said! I think at this point, the genie is out of the bottle. So I think that legislative remedies are going to be primarily of the punitive nature. On the user side, I think a new way of thinking out about these things will develop over time.

I like to think of this as a renormalization wherein many of the things that are causing us discomfort, because they are new and disruptive become mainstream and no longer a big deal. For example, there have been numerous stories of people not getting jobs because of some party pictures of them on Facebook or MySpace. It’s not like no one partied before MySpace, but right now having a record of these types of activities publicly available is a new thing. At least new for us noncelebs. In a few years this won’t be a big deal. It’ll be like, who doesn’t have pictures of them partying on the internet. Indeed, not having a vibrant internet presence will probably be considered abnormal.

In the meantime, we must suffer the disruptions as the rules we live by have to be rewritten to accommodate these new modes of social interaction and commerce.

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