Social Media have been defined before “walled gardens” referring to their ability to create a proposition attractive enough for users to aggregate a community around them but at the same time raise a barrier around this community to prevent it from moving elsewhere, essentially to maximise the opportunity for the community creators to monetize its success.
This is a strategy that could and did work at the beginning of Social Media: people got intrigued by the new tools, and didn’t really think too much about registering several times; longer term, however, the maintenance of multiple profiles started to become taxing – at the same time, cool new functionality being developed by newer tools dented the loyalty of existing communities: as microblogging became hot, for example, people spent less time on Facebook.
In many cases a lot of the content created by users (blog posts, comments, uploaded pictures and videos) was made somewhat portable by the underlying XML technology and users were able to e.g. get their blog posts on the LinkedIn profile, as well as stick a little LinkedIn button on their blog profile; despite all these crufty arrangements however, the situation is still one of having le leave a garden to enter another, and exiting a garden means leaving behind all the social connections that make the garden so attractive to start with.
In a word, the social capital accumulated by the individual is not really controlled by the individual: it is the property of the hosting community.
But how long can this continue? Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang in his “The future of the Social Web” predicts the emergence of smarter Identity Management solutions that will enable easier interconnections of gardens, and this is certainly a needed step.
However, I think, the issue goes a little deeper than that. Making sure the user is put back in control of his Identity is needed both to assuage privacy concerns, but – perhaps more importantly for the user – to make the whole experience significantly less frustrating. But there is more than that, more than the user needs to be put back in control; in other words, the digital Self of any person is made up by more than just its Identity; let me attempt to describe these key components.
The Key components of the digital Self
Let’s start with the simple stuff. Identity means making sure Gianni is Gianni – as Owyang says, this is perhaps the cornerstone, as any transaction which involves e.g. transfer of money or rendering of services needs to happen between well-defined parties. It is unclear how this can be addressed. Efforts like OpenID do not seem to get much traction and are definitely not robust enough to support e.g. a financial transaction.
The perfect ID must be as forgery-impervious as possible: while I don’t think it’s possible to avoid forgeries altogether, you can make the life of a forgerer really tough: I’m thinking of a chip+biometric+communications combo or something like that; which also means I do believe that a robust Identity Management solution requires a custodian, but it is unclear to me who makes the best custodian: is it a bank? is it a government entity? is it a telco provider? is it a technology provider? Each of these categories can legitimately claim to have bits in place supporting its claim but AFAIK none has stepped forward to claim it, so we’re probably six to nine months away from that.
The Social Graph
Once identities have been established, independent of each walled garden, but common to them all, links between identities become qualified, based on the flavor of each social network; I therefore might be linked to someone with a “business” qualification and with a “friend” qualification, or both – the social network becomes a provider of services (applications) of the most varied nature. Which means social networks would need to provide some unique service to distinguish themselves from the others, not unlike a club trying to attract new members, but this is inevitable already.
One such qualifications would be a “weak” one – currently very hard to track – as it would merely refer to the fact we both participated in a discussion on a certain topic, bringing social networks one step closer to real life, where I can meet people in various capacities and therefore develop with them a multifaceted relationship.
Anonymity would have to be dealt with, but this could easily be left to the individual network to decide whether users have to ID themselves or not: there might be cases where anonymity would be absolutely needed (e.g. a political protest group) but it should never be a choice out of practicality (i.e. because it’s a pain in the neck to register). In any case it would be explicitly stated and agreed by all participants.
User Generated Content
The final element of the digital Self is the mass of User Generated Content each user adds to the cloud: pictures, comments, blog posts, videos – all of which is logically intellectual property of the individual whatever the platform of residence is. Which would also mean the user (and unless it’s an explicitly anonymous platform we now have absolute certainty about his/her Identity) is responsible for it.
This would also have the advantage of easily being able to reuse the best content in many instances: where at the moment I have to go through a sometimes painstaking process of individually linking content I want te reuse (think linking one of your blog posts in a discussion) and different platforms might even influence how you go about such a simple thing, think instead of “attaching” your post picking it from a “social desktop” where all of your UGC is recorded.
Imagine further comments or interactions being tracked on the image of your own contribution (instead of having to remember where you left that witty comment or, worse, having your email inbox clogged with notifications).
- Do we have all the technology that’s needed for the digital Self? Probably yes.
- Do we have systems & processes in place? Probably not.
- Is the digital Self going to happen? I bet it will, simply because the current system is so unmanageable for users, they might start to pull out – and nobody wants this.