Some topics never die, they just take a back seat waiting for an opportunity to return to the fore. The call for federated social networks is one of the big ones. Outages, privacy concerns and hamstringing developers with new API rules have all caused the subject to resurface but are the calls realistic?
Having social networks where we can communicate without any single, monolithic company being in control of our data is a great idea - perhaps a utopian ideal - but could they become reality and effectively scale up to millions of users?
Heeding the call
Those behind the push for are generally coming from a vocal minority - the tech savvy - and are not the general populace. Is Joe Public concerned about data portability? Do they even know what it is?
People understand email and sms: simple point-to-point interactions.
People understand monolithic social networks: create an account and can talk to anyone else with an account - write once, broadcast many (or all)
People may not understand federated networks "talk here - seen there (and there, and there)".
There is an explicit trust with current social networks, we sign up an account and trust the provider not to use those details for nefarious means. The sheer scale of the most popular sites and services tends to indicate to users that those sites can be trusted and there will no consideration otherwise.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation published "An Introduction to the Federated Social Network" which explains that rather than giving our details to one company we can give them to our choice of a selection of "profile providers" or even self host as the social software would be open source.
How many people would actually self host their own server (or node)? Not many will either know how to, have the means to or even want the hassle of doing so which means they still have to give their details to someone; it's just that this someone may be a smaller entity than the current networks and, consequently, may be less accountable than a company like Twitter or Facebook.
The current larger networks are now relied upon by millions including mainstream media organisations, local authorities and government departments and have an obligation to their users. I would argue that our data is safer in the hands of the big players than in those of a multitude of smaller outfits who may come and go as they please as nodes in a distributed network. How do we determine that these "nodes" are reliable?
If federated social software is open source and can be installed by anyone there is a larger scope for variance, people modifying the code - potentially even planting malware. We, therefore, have an issue of who will police any such network and ensure that all the contributing providers are playing by the rules and are fully compatible.
I don't pretend to understand how the technology behind a federated network would work but once user numbers grow we will undoubtedly run into capacity issues. Unlike a monolithic network, those capacity issues will be felt by a multitude of providers. Depending on how the technology fits together we could be looking at hundreds of databases, thousands of connections, with any node at risk of failure at any time cutting all those hosted there out of the conversation.
We could face immense data replication issues and potentially lose the immediacy we currently enjoy with a one-stop shop. Remember net-splits in IRC?
The social web is now big business and the major players are looking for more ways to be profitable. Millions of users distributed across multiple providers poses a significant challenge and the initial good intentions of those providers will fade once the costs involved start mounting up. Who is going to pay?
Once the sordid topic of coin is introduced it is inevitable that providers are going to be protective over their estate and this is perfectly understandable. They are not going to want to share revenue generating opportunities which may lead to a discrepancy in the way providers handle the data they hold.
While I believe that we need greater flexibility with our data that flexibility may come at a price we are not prepared to pay.
Image by Paul Giron