The thing that still blows my mind about the Internet is that through all the dramatic changes over the last 2 or 3 decades it remains a mostly open public commons that everyone can use.
There are many land ownership battles happening all around it. But it has so far withstood challenges to its shape, its size, its governance and its role in all aspects of our lives.
Will that always be the case? Or are too many special interests with unbalanced power breaking down the core principles that made it our space, a shared space owned by nobody and available to everybody?
It used to be that corporate interests were aligned with public interests on the Internet.
Many early pioneers thrived because they recognized how to create and earn value across the network, in the connection between things, the edges (read more on Graph Theory). They succeeded by developing services that offered unfettered and easy access to something useful, often embracing some sort of sharing model for partners powered by revenue models built on network effects.
These innovators were dependent on open and public participation and a highly distributed network adhering to common standards such as HTTP and HTML.
The public and private interests were aligned. Everyone’s a winner!
However, hypertext was designed for connecting text, not for connecting people. The standards designed for communication such as SMTP and later XMPP were fine, but no standard for connecting people to other people achieved global adoption.
Even backing from the web’s founder for a standard called FOAF and a Bill of Rights for Social Networking Users backed by Arrington and Scoble failed to lift the movement for standards in social connections.
Without a standard the entrepreneurs got busy coming up with solutions, and, eventually, Facebook and Twitter were born. Like their predecessors, they recognized how to create and earn value in the connections between things, in this case, a network of people, a privately owned social graph.
But the social graph that they created is not an open, owner-less, public commons.
Facebook is interested in Facebook’s existence and have no interest in FOAF or XMPP. Industry standards are to be ignored at Facebook (and Apple, Microsoft and sometimes Google, too) unless they help to acquire customers or to generate PR.
Governance is held privately in these spaces. They consult with their customers, but they write their own privacy policies and are held accountable to nobody but public opinion and antiquated legal frameworks around the world.
Now, it’s a very appealing idea to think about an open and public alternative to the dominant social networks. Many have tried, including StatusNet and Diaspora. And more challengers are on the way.
But there are harder problems to solve here that I think matter more than that temporary band-aid.
- We need to know why the industry failed to adopt a global standard for social networking. Will we go through this again as a market forms inevitably around a digital network of real-world things? Will it repeat again when we learn how to connect raw data, too?
- Can the benefits (and therefore the incentives) to ensuring contributions are owned and controlled by a platform’s contributors in perpetuity be more commercially viable and legally sensible? Are there ways to support those benefits globally?
- In what ways can those who are adversely affected by centralized control of social activity hold those forces to account? Where is the balance of power coming from, and how can it be amplified to be an equal force?
Much like the founders of the U.S. Constitution, there were some very clever folks who codified open access to this public space we call the Internet in ways that effectively future-proofed it. They structured it to reward individual contributions that also benefit the wider community.
Instead of pen and paper, the Internet’s founders used technology standards to accomplish this goal.
While it seems very doable to build a successful and lasting digital business that embraces these ideals, the temptation of money and power, the unrelenting competitive pressures, and weak incentives to collaborate will steer many good intentions in bad directions over time.
I don’t think Facebook was ever motivated to support an open public commons, so it’s no surprise when they threaten such a thing. But Twitter somehow seemed different.
At the moment, it seems from outside Twitter HQ that the company is being crushed by the weight of all these things and making some bad choices over small issues that will have big impact over time.
It’s not what Facebook and Twitter do that really matters, though.
The greater concern, in my opinion, is that the types of people who originally created this global network for the rest of us to enjoy aren’t being heard or, worse, not getting involved at all anymore.
I’m not suggesting we need more powerful bureaucratic standards bodies to slow things down. Arguably, these increasingly powerful platforms are already crushing competition and squeezing out great innovations. We don’t need more of that. Stifling innovation always has disastrous effects.
What I’m suggesting is that more people will benefit in more ways over a longer period of time if someone can solve this broader organizational problem – the need to codify open access, shared governance, and other future-proofing tactics for public spaces in whatever shape they take.
Social networking is threatening the open public network today. Something else will threaten it tomorrow.
We need to work out what can be done today to fuel and secure an ongoing and healthy co-dependency between our public spaces and commercial interests.