Social Networking Utopia
In discussing the network topology of social networks — whether centralized like Facebook or federated like ActivityPub — I think the ultimate goal is for users to never actually encounter the underlying architecture.
To remain human-centric, ideally services wouldn’t bend social interactions to fit a chosen technical design. Instead, you would just publish to the network you choose, freely pick your persona for each place (how you present yourself), and keep control of your content (i.e. you still have it if a network goes offline, and you can move it from place to place). For bonus points, you could also build dynamic new social interactions on the network.
This idea isn’t revolutionary; we’ve seen most of these things in one form or another. But have we ever had it all in one place?
A Social App
From a user perspective, I think this would entail a “Social” client, similar to web browsers or any chat app like Slack or Discord. On a technical level, it would:
- speak several different purpose-made, standardized protocols (e.g. one for private chatting and another for public social networking)
- connect to many communities (not tied to this server or that chat group), and let the user seamlessly switch between them and hang out wherever they want
- store user’s various usernames / handles / profiles / personas (e.g. one for friends, one for family, one for a professional network)
The client is critical here — especially for data ownership and a seamless experience across networks. It brings us closer to the idea that the web itself is the public space, social network, etc. It means you can truly own your content, because it’s not just stored on FaceCorp’s servers or permanently etched into some blockchain, but also kept on your own physical device.
Multiple identities are also crucial. Humans present themselves differently in different social contexts, and our social platforms should reflect that. And as far as I can see, privacy and data consent on social networks depends on the ability to interact with any name you choose — a digital equivalent to the relative anonymity you enjoy on a busy city street.
Basically, this new design is a higher level of abstraction for what we know as social media right now.
You’re no longer logging into Facebook, then logging into Twitter. Instead you’re opening your “Social” app and checking in on family (powered by the Facebook network), then posting a quick thought to friends on the Twitter network. You’re joining a conversation in your weekly book club chat (powered by Slack or Discord). You’re commenting on videos delivered via the YouTube or TikTok network. You’re publishing an essay on your personal website and sending it out to newsletter followers (powered by Substack or Mailchimp).
All along, you never leave the dedicated app. You post from whichever identity you want — even using the same name to interact across different networks. And the work you produce is saved in a standard way that makes it possible to open in other apps you already use (like for photo or video editing), and to take it to any other online service (like a different blogging or newsletter platform).
As a user, you get to pick the “Social” app that fits you best. Maybe one has a nicer design than the rest. One might display ads, while others don’t. One might be made for desktop, and another for mobile. One could be oriented toward a niche like social media marketers, and have the relevant features to assist them.
If we’re avoiding the same old advertising business model of today’s platforms, we can find some examples of places where people might pay.
First, there’s the “Social” app. If everyone is speaking common protocols, developers and companies can bring their own ideas to the table in building the interface / gateway app to this new social world. There are opportunities to provide more “premium” experiences on the client-side, or interfaces tailored toward certain niches (e.g. the marketers mentioned above). But outside of that, from an adoption standpoint, most of these apps will probably want to be as free and seamless as possible — just like web browsers are.
Most business opportunities would probably lie in the same place they do today: with online services, hosting, and networks / memberships. For example, WordPress.com could continue hosting blogs and personal sites, and charging for it — you’d just publish there from your “Social” app. Substack can continue taking a percentage of what newsletter writers make on their platform. Twitter can still offer a free network with a premium tier that unlocks more functionality (albeit on the protocol level now, instead of the application level).
Niche network and community membership — especially paid — is an interesting trend that I think would benefit the most from this new setup. As communities form on these networks, they get more useful — easier for communities to find new members, and easier for people to join new communities. And if the “Social” app integrates payments, it could make it easier for users to join premium communities.
Broadly, end users and community members have the most to gain — they no longer have to keep Slack, Discord, Whatsapp, Telegram, their web browser, etc. open just to keep up with all the different communities they’re already a part of today.
Interestingly enough, all of these ideas are entirely within our reach right now.
None of this requires tearing down the web and building a whole new “web3” around shaky virtual currency. We don’t all need to buy virtual reality goggles to access a phantasmagoric “metaverse.” While there’s always space for these far-fetched ideas, it’s worth paying attention to what we can leverage on the web, as it is today, as billions of people actually use it in the real world.
There are already long-standing, concerted efforts to build some of the protocols and clients that could support this new, decentralized form of “social networking.” For example, Matrix could support private messaging and other real-time communication. ActivityPub could support public social networking — and it already hosts a vibrant ecosystem of platforms with a network of over 5 million people, enabling the exact kind of interactions I outlined above.
Tapping into these, and any other protocols that further this goal, could help us build more humane social spaces on the web. We can build spaces that cultivate social trust instead of offloading to “trustless” systems; ones that lack the surveillance imperative driving the ad platforms of today; ones that are formed more democratically and run more communally.
Thoughts or ideas? Discuss...