The Social Web

# Something I've written about a lot over the years is the social web. The context and scope of what that entails has changed sometimes but when I think of it now I know exactly what I'm referring to. Still, after my recent comment, I wanted to really get my thoughts together.

When we hear the word social we invariably follow it with media or network - the pervasiveness of Twitter and Facebook et al. has co-opted the word in 21st century parlance. Such is their power.

What is social?


  1. of or relating to society or its organization.
  2. needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.

Four and a half years ago I came up with:

"Social is a series of shared experiences."

Shared experiences can happen anywhere - online, offline, a social network, the comments on an article, a forum, a football stadium, discussing last night's TV on your lunch break.

The point is that social is so much bigger than social networks, even if Facebook does have over two billion active users.

It's not quantity that's important, it's not reach nor influence. No, it's the quality of the connection itself that's key. It's the relationship that is built between individuals rather than the metrics games of followers, likes and retweets.

Numbers mean nothing if they are empty.

The social web encompasses so much more than a timeline, it is any means to interact and engage with someone else via the internet. Any way that we can mention someone, get a message across, talk to them and discuss - this is the social web.

Email, blogs, forums, anywhere that allows comments or replies, anyone who responds to something and links back to the original piece, it is those connections that matter.

Cal Newport described the difference between the social internet and social media as follows:

"The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

"Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital."

I've always used web rather than internet but it's the same thing.

Yes, social media is a part of the social web - it used to supplement it perfectly - but it has become increasingly closed, increasingly profit driven, for the benefit of the networks rather than those who use them.

And we went along with it.

The social web shrank because people and businesses abandoned their own properties, closed comments, posted on the social networks to once again reach those that no longer visited. How many times have we heard "go where your audience is" as an online strategy.

For an offline equivalent consider how many rural communities are dying as successive generations abandon them and flee to the cities in search of work and a "better" life. Then the transport links to those communities suffer as is it not economically viable to run regular services, further isolating those that remain.

The same thing happened to the social web. The networks grew in size and scope meaning you almost never had to leave. Everything you ever needed was a few clicks away, held within the walls of these great cities. Personal websites sat idle like the empty second homes of those who holiday in the country a couple of times a year.

Convenience is a powerful motivator even if there is a cost.

Recently, however, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the networks and some seek a return to the social web, to their own sites and ways to connect them with those of others. They look to move back to those rural communities and re-establish those links but in better, more efficient ways than before.

Cal talks of "social protocols" whereby people can "create and own a digital identity" and for those "digital identities to agree to establish a descriptive social link" such that we know who we are dealing with and can trust those interactions. The Indieweb sees the domain as this identity.

He is right - "there are few serious technical obstacles to implementing these protocols" but there are major cultural obstacles and the unwillingness of the networks to cede even the slightest control of the data housed within their walls.

Whatever form these new social protocols ultimately take, their use must at least match the convenience of the networks or the social web could be lost forever.

  1. adders says: #
    The use of "social" to mean "social networks" has always vexed me. It seems a massive over-reach that implies that social networks now encompass all human to human interaction, rather than just being a tool for it. It's a bit like calling the telephone “talking”.

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