Baby Steps to a Distributed Social Web

While at DrupalCon I attended the OpenID, Drupal, and the Open Web presentation by James Walker. It was briefly touched on the technologies that are moving us closer to a distributed social network. While I think it is still a while off before we are able to seamlessly move from site to site with one identity while maintaining full control over our content, sharing with those we choose, and effortlessly enjoying the shares of our friends and family, I think we can help to lay the foundation for the distributed social web.

Erik Summerfield, Director of Engineering
#Development | Posted

While at DrupalCon I attended the OpenID, Drupal, and the Open Web presentation by James Walker. It was briefly touched on the technologies that are moving us closer to a distributed social network. While I think it is still a while off before we are able to seamlessly move from site to site with one identity while maintaining full control over our content, sharing with those we choose, and effortlessly enjoying the shares of our friends and family, I think we can help to lay the foundation for the distributed social web.

Most new web sites incorporate some form of social network, and as the builders and designers of these sites, we can help clients to see the advantages of being a part of a wide network, as opposed to being yet another closed off shop. In the long run moving towards the ideas embodied by the http://diso-project.org/. But in the short term we can recommend and evangelize for the following:

  • Use OpenID
  • easily distrubted content
  • easily accpted distrubted content
  • content center design

Use OpenID

The first step is the easiest, have sites accept open id authentication. Users being able to identify themselves across sites with the same identity is the foundation of a distributed social web, yet the benefits of that identification will not be realized for some time. Until then, allowing your users the option of having one less login should be enough of a incentive to have it as an option.

While I understand that there are usability issues with openID, the more people use it the less this will be a problem.

Distributed Content

RSS for everything! Let your users distribute their content in every crazy way possible. Running a site that organizes people around shared music taste? Then every member should have there personal favorite band feed, or recent concert feed, or recent concert of my favorite band feed. You get the idea? Let your site be the database of music taste to the rest of the world. This way you only have to be good at organizing people around music and do not have to be the center of everyone's world.

Accept Distributed Content

The flip side of Distributed Content is accepting content from other sites. Empower users to bring their content to your site, and you get a more full site. With our music site example, allowing the user to pull in their favorite movies feed ( from the movie social network site) allows your site a new feature, that can recommended movies to user that share music tastes. The goal here is to allow users to use their content, created elsewhere on the web, to show who they are on your site. The easy way of going about this, is by allowing users to pull in feeds from other sources.

content centric design

The road block that many run into on they way to the social web, is site centric design, the old goal of driving traffic to a site and keeping it there. This runs right up against the first three action items, using openID allows people to take there identity away, distributing content means your effort might be used on a different site, and accepting content means, people are using other sites to generate their content. So at the heart of things, is a need to help move people away from site centric design and towards content centric design, where the site is there to showcase content and to help users find related content.

Site centric design is like every city only allowing one brand of car, to stop people from shopping in other towns. If Alexandria, VA requires Ford, Washington, DC requires GM, then few people would go from one city to the other for shopping. Of course it also means that no one would want to live there. It would be fine if every city had a crazy rule like that, but as city moved away from this rule Washington and Alexandria would be left in the dust.

Doing these step up front, will put any site in a first mover position when the rest of the web moves in the same direction. Hopeful as people take these baby steps, the allure of the silo will fade, and we can move to a more integrate social web.

Image from here and modified.

Erik Summerfield

Director of Engineering