Home Is a Perfect Storm Forming For Distributed Social Networking?

Is a Perfect Storm Forming For Distributed Social Networking?

Maybe it’s better to host your own. That’s the thinking coming from a growing number of early technology adopters as service after service goes down, sells out or otherwise frustrates the users who have published their content online only to see the tools they use become broken or less desirable.

The prospect of a distributed, interoperable, self-hosted network of publishing, reading and discussion tools is nothing new – but the idea is gaining a lot more support as more people react to recent news like FriendFeed’s sale to Facebook, Tr.im’s up and down and Twitter’s denial of service attacks. The tide may not be turning, but there’s sure to be some new waves of innovation that come out of this period of frustration.

Isn’t This What Blogging Does For Us Already?

One of the analogies people are drawing is that we need a WordPress.org-type version of Twitter to put on our own servers as an alternative to the Twitter-hosted version that exists now like WordPress hosts blogs on WordPress.com.

Why do we need self-hosted lifestreaming, microblogging or social networks though when we’ve already got the ability to host our own blogs, own our own data there and set our own rules? Simply because these technologies fill different needs. Blogs are good for longer-form, author-centric communication. Quick, very social conversations around objects like links or media items can best be had in other settings. Thus the interest many people have in both writing a blog and sharing and discussing items on sites like Facebook (social networks), Twitter (microblogging) or FriendFeed (activity streams).

Twitter’s Down Time

Twitter went down again today, possibly for the second time in two weeks because of a Distributed Denial of Service attack. A swarm of zombified computers, distributed all around the world, is hitting Twitter’s centralized infrastructure over and over again until it can’t stay up.

If we all had a little piece of our microblogging network on our own servers and they spoke to each other, that couldn’t happen.

We’d also own our own data, our archives, our interface design and more. It would be like publishing little messages… like grown ups.

The two systems could co-exist, a hosted service has its advantages and many people wouldn’t use anything else. Realistically, no one is going to build something too much like Twitter if they could build a distributed version of something like FriendFeed or Facebook.

Facebook Eats FriendFeed

Social activity stream discussion network FriendFeed announced that it was selling itself to Facebook yesterday and many of its users were very upset. The acquisition is likely to change Facebook in interesting ways (FriendFeed’s creators were the inventors of GMail and Google Maps) but FriendFeed itself was important to its users.

The feeling of betrayal that comes from a transaction like this makes it hard to trust a hosted social networking company again.

Fortunately, there’s a long and growing list of ways to put all of your activity around the web in one place on your own website. When will those tools begin to include subscription to other peoples’ activity feeds and posting comments from your social lifestream viewing page that will appear back out on everyone else’s?

That’s a big part of the vision articulated by Anil Dash in his recent essay about what he calls The Push Button Web. It’s related as well to RSS pioneer Dave Winer’s recent promotion of a part of RSS called RSS Cloud. Developers are actively building on RSS Cloud and a similar protocol with the humorous name PubSubHubbub.

That’s also part of the vision of the Distributed Social Networking Project (DiSo). We haven’t heard much lately from this project, probably because its founders are busy building the technical standards that will allow the information to flow from one social network to another.

Tr.im Your Expectations

This weekend link shortening service Tr.im announced that it was shutting its doors. It was too expensive and hopeless to run the service without the funding, hype and official blessing from Twitter that competitor Bit.ly had won.

Big deal, right? It turns out that people freaked out. Tr.im’s biggest users were developers who were hip to the opportunities to do interesting things with the service. They had built on it and they felt a lot of frustration when they heard the news.

A dead URL shortener means dead links, broken content, lost data.

There are a number of different solutions being explored in response to this part of the problem. Developer Brian Hendrickson has already begun working on a service called rp.ly, a “community-owned URL shortener” based on cloning the Tr.im API.

There will, no doubt, be any number of other efforts that rise from the ashes of the trust that’s been burnt over the last week or more.

Are all of these circumstances and conversations going to push the social web over the edge, toward a more distributed and less centralized model? Probably not in a big way, immediately, but we’re pretty sure that some interesting innovation is going to come out of this. Dissatisfied engineers, working on a problem that a lot of people are interested in, can produce some fun and important work.

Some will hold out for Google Wave, the forthcoming open-source hyper communication head shift. We’re hearing that Wave may be too complicated, though, and we suspect that the most important innovations will come from coders building the kind of software that many, many people can hack on and help evolve.

In the future many of us may be microblogging, lifestreaming and social networking over technology that we control and can customize ourselves, instead of inside the owned networks of major companies like Facebook or Google. Those companies are seeking to branch out as well, trying to colonize the web (in the words of Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang) with tools like Facebook Connect.

But many of us may decide not to trust them anymore, and to use the tools that are becoming available to build and host our own systems of communication. People who control their own systems of communication can innovate on them outside the boundaries of the financial interests of big communication companies and we can all benefit from those innovations.

This summer is an important period in answering those questions.

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