Moving Toward a Relationship Network


Summary

Would you have your electronic bills delivered by Facebook or Twitter? Not likely. You bank won't trust them and neither will you. You need a channel that is designed for banking with the right security, privacy, and legal foundations. A standards-based, decentralized, multi-channel relationship network, however, could easily be used for this purpose because the banks and companies delivering bills could define the nature of the channel. They don't have to wait for Facebook to get around to it and then hope they do it right.

Braided channels of Matanuska river near palmer

In Facebook Domination Isn't Inevitable--It's Not Even Likely, I made a case that just as SMTP-based email represented a decentralization of systems like AOL Mail, it is likely, given market forces, that Facebook will face a protocol-based, decentralized service that posesses similar features. This system—for lack of a better word, let's call it a relationship network—will provide more flexibility and greater scale than what can even be achieved with a centralized system, regardless of how much money Facebook has.

In some ways, Facebook is like email, except it provides multiple channels. Think of each relation in your social graph as a channel. By friending someone, you've essentially opened a symmetric channel between your Facebook account and theirs. By virtue of that link, you can post on their wall and they can post on yours. No link, no post. If someone keeps posting things you don't like, you can sever the link—close the channel—and they can no longer use it to contact you.

Email, of course, is single channel. You have a single email address and once you've given it to someone, they can continue to contact or harass you forever unless you're willing to close the account. Sure, you can write rules to ignore their email but they can easily work around that by using, or even forging, a different "from" address. Email's single channel design is the reason SPAM exists.

If we classify communication systems along two axes, one saying whether the system is centralized or decentralized and the other indicating whether the system uses a single channel or multiple channels, we might visualize the following matrix:

Moving toward a relationship network

This matrix gives us a tidy way of exploring the idea of a decentralized relationship network. Whether you view a relationship network as an evolution of email or an evolution of Facebook, the progression is a natural one.

The forcing function is simple: the nature of relationships in the Facebook system can never be as varied and rich as relationships in the real world because people aren't free to define those relationships on Facebook. Rather, Facebook defines them. As a walled garden, Facebook will always be unable to match the richness and variety of the real world.

In Ranking for signal to noise ratio, Seth Godin says:

Signal to noise ratio is a measurement of the relationship between the stuff you want to hear and the stuff you don't. And here's the thing: Twitter and email and Facebook all have a bad ratio, and it's getting worse.

The clickthrough rates on tweets is getting closer and closer to zero. Not because there aren't links worth clicking on, but because there's so much junk you don't have the attention or time to sort it all out.

Spam (and worse, spamlike messages from organizations and people that ought to treasure your attention and permission) are turning a medium (email) that used to be incredibly rich into one that's becoming very noisy as well.

And you really can't do much to fix these media and still use them the way you're used to using them.

From Seth's Blog: Ranking for signal to noise ratio
Referenced Tue May 22 2012 14:58:59 GMT-0600 (MDT)

The answer to noise is more flexible channels that can serve their purpose more closely. You can easily control the noise, but more importantly you can define the nature of the relationship and automate interactions.

A bigger problem is trust. Facebook's channels are fine for talking about your vacation, but not appropriate for other topics. For example, would you have electronic bills delivered by Facebook or Twitter? Not likely. Your bank won't trust them and neither will you. You need a channel that is designed for banking with the right security, privacy, and legal foundations. A open standards-based, decentralized, multi-channel relationship network, however, could easily be used for this purpose because the banks and companies delivering bills could define the nature of the channel. They don't have to wait for Facebook to get around to it and then hope they do it "right." Relationship networks will support multiple, competing trust frameworks in the same way that the Web supports multiple, competing search engines. Such trust frameworks will provide the reputation systems that enable new relationships to form.

In the matrix I show above, I put relationship networks emerging in 2016. I don't have any science behind that, it's a complete SWAG. Nevertheless, I believe that market forces are driving us inexorably toward relationship networks even if my time-frame is off. I simply don't believe that humans will allow the entirety of their lives to be pruned, manicured, and domesticated inside someone else's walled garden for long. Relationship networks provide a compelling alternative to today's so-called social networks.