Has Social Networking Reached the End of its Cycle?


Summary

Most of the hot trends on computing seem like more of the same and people start to wonder how all this personal data they're sharing can help improve their lives. Personal clouds and life management platforms offer a revolutionary answer to what's next.

Tim Berners-Lee

A couple of articles related to what people call the social Web caught my eye this week. The first was a report on Tim Berners-Lee entitled "Demand your data from Google and Facebook." I presume this was related his keynote at WWW2012 which happened earlier this week, although the reporter doesn't say. There are several audio excerpts in the article.

Berners-Lee talks about the need for open data, and decries the rise of applications that are not web based. He says:

"My computer has a great understanding of my state of fitness, of the things I'm eating, of the places I'm at. My phone understands from being in my pocket how much exercise I've been getting and how many stairs I've been walking up and so on."

Exploiting such data could provide hugely useful services to individuals, he said, but only if their computers had access to personal data held about them by web companies. "One of the issues of social networking silos is that they have the data and I don't ... There are no programmes that I can run on my computer which allow me to use all the data in each of the social networking systems that I use plus all the data in my calendar plus in my running map site, plus the data in my little fitness gadget and so on to really provide an excellent support to me."

I find it refreshing that more and more people, especially people of Berners-Lee's stature are standing up for user's having more control over their personal data and how it's used. He's talking what we're calling "personal clouds" or "life management platforms" (a term from EIC this past week). He goes on to describes how such control could contribute to helping people with personal information management and decision support.

Once the data outputs from different sites had been standardised, he said, our computers would be able to offer increasingly sophisticated services such as telling us what to read in the morning. "It will know not only what's happening out there but also what I've read already and also what my mood is, and who I'm meeting later on."

An article by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic called "The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future" is more biting, in an "emperor has no clothes kind of way:"

What we've seen since have been evolutionary improvements on the patterns established five years ago. The platforms that have seemed hot in the last couple of years—Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest—add a bit of design or mobile intelligence to the established ways of thinking. The most exciting thing to come along in the consumer space between then and now is the iPad. But despite its glorious screen and extended battery life, it really is a scaled up iPhone that offers developers more space and speed to do roughly the same things they were doing before. The top apps for the iPad look startlingly similar the top apps for the iPhone: casual games, social networking, light productivity software.

For at least five years, we've been working with the same operating logic in the consumer technology game. This is what it looks like:

There will be ratings and photos and a network of friends imported, borrowed, or stolen from one of the big social networks. There will be an emphasis on connections between people, things, and places. That is to say, the software you run on your phone will try to get you to help it understand what and who you care about out there in the world. Because all that stuff can be transmuted into valuable information for advertisers.

That paradigm has run its course. It's not quite over yet, but I think we're into the mobile social fin de siecle.

His point? There's very little new under the sun over the last five years and no one really proposing much that seems revolutionary. I'd invite you to read the whole article to understand Madrigal's entire argument. I'd invite Madrigal to look at what we're doing with personal clouds and cloud operating systems or life management platforms, if you'd rather. Those terms aren't very sexy—that's why we need people like Madrigal to write about them, to help with the language. But they provide, to paraphrase Madrigal, a vision of "the affordances of the future that seem wonderful and impossible."

My recent white paper on personal clouds and cloud operating systems describes a revolutionary platform that let's people create and control personal clouds that interact as peers with other network services. This is game-changing because it upsets the client-server power structure that has long characterized online interactions. By restructuring our online interactions we unlock new potential in the Internet: our intentions drive online interactions so that we get more of what we want with less risk, less hassle, less friction, and, as a result, less cost. Such a system, helping people manage their lives, is revolutionary.