Monday, 12 September 2011

Social Media: It's Time to Open Up

The final straw has been cast onto the camel's back of my social-media tolerance.  And now you must endure my whinging about said straw ... and the two before that - you lucky lucky things.

The final straw was cast by the mobile handset manufacturer HTC - who I did have a lot of respect for - but who have now spent however many millions of dollars on developing a very slick and feature-rich phone.  It looks like a nice phone.  I might even have considered it for my next upgrade.  Except for one tiny little detail.  And that tiny little detail happens to be a rather familiar blue-square-with-a-white-F-in-it motif.  Yes, it's been unashamedly branded as a Facebook phone.  I don't just mean it's a phone on which you can use Facebook - you can do that on any smartphone.  No, I mean that this phone's one-and-only little button, is none other than the aforementioned blue square we cannot seem to escape these days.  And what does the button do?  Well it rather nauseatingly offers a 'one touch to Facebook' capability, of course.  Excuse me while I decide whether to cry or vomit.

The penultimate straw was Google+.  I've lived through FriendsReunited and MySpace and Facebook and the one positive that can be stated for this progression is that it was a progression in the that the forerunners fell by the way side and slipped into near obscurity.  But this trend has stopped.  New services are forming without the old ones dying off. Google+ is the latest to join the fray.  Does the world really need another address book to manage?  Before the internet, I only had one!  Technology was supposed to make life easier.  It was supposed to do away with mundane tasks, not pile on evermore layers of social bookkeeping.

The antepenultimate straw was the explosion of these social media brands into every corner of my life, in particular onto public services like the BBC.  I don't believe that it's appropriate for a supposedly non-commercial and impartial entity like the BBC to say the words Facebook and Twitter a million times a day.  How is it different from them saying, "and if you'd like a drink after the show, why not try Coca-Cola?"  And it's not just those two names, many times I've heard the News chaps say "and joining us by Skype".  Why do we need to know?  Do they think it makes them seem hip and trendy?  It doesn't.  It's product placement just the same.

So, that's it.  I've had enough.  It's time for me to spell out the next great evolutionary step that the internet must take - for all our sakes.  But we'll get to that.  First, let me offer some context.

You would be forgiven for thinking that we didn't know how to communicate before the likes of Twitterbook and SkypedIn and whatever the hell other globalised monsters have emerged from the Valley of Silicon.  But we did know, and we did so without the utterance of a brand name or the reliance on bespoke technology.  We never had to say 'send me a RoyalMail' or 'I'll give you a BritishTelecom later.'  And even when the internet trundled into existence we could simply 'email' people - we didn't have to 'Hotmail' them.  I didn't need to have a Hotmail account to email someone who did, or a Lycos account to email someone who chose that as their provider.  It almost went that way.  In the early days, CompuServe and (the original form of) AOL were closed off networks, with the internet just providing the route to their door.  But common sense (or something) prevailed, open standards were written, and lo we could all communicate and exchange our various monikers in a brandless fashion.  Even when the web came along, it was all beautifully non-proprietary.  At the end of the BBC News they never had to say, visit our 'Yahoo page' - they still don't.

Fortunately, it was understood at an early stage that an electronic mail system and the world wide web would only ever work as an open enterprise, because these two services are arguably the two most fundamental services built on top of the internet.  Of course, the internet hosts countless other applications: multi-player video games, financial transactions, video conferencing, streaming TV and radio.  But there is a key difference with these applications ... it doesn't matter if people don't all use the same one.  It doesn't matter if some people play Call of Duty, some play World of Warcraft and some play Pacman - and it doesn't matter if these games don't interact with each other.  In fact, it's better that way ... it's called competition.  But with email and the web - just like the internet that underpins them - we all have to be a part of the same system.  We all have to be part of a single globally defined addressing and naming scheme.

Think of the web (or email) like a railway system.  The stations can all be owned by different people and look totally different, just like websites or email providers do.  But there can only be one rail network running between them.  And the trains themselves, well they can have anything in them, just like your emails can, as long as the outside of the train is the right shape.  The magic would is protocol.  Anyone can build a train, or lay tracks or run a rail service, just as long as there is an agreed protocol that they all conform to.  Such a non-proprietary protocol is often called an 'open standard' - one which anyone is free to use.

So what does this have to do with Facebook phones?  Well, I have a very serious point to make.  In fact, I have what might be termed a Big Idea.  It's an idea that could revolutionize the internet.  Or it could be read by about 6 people and ignored.  Time will tell.  Anyway, my Big Idea is this:
An open standard to exchange social media information
Boring, huh?  Well maybe, but revolutionary it is too.  Because social media is no longer a little experiment by a few enterprising start-ups.  There are in fact no words to describe just how big it is.  Facebook is pushing a billion users all on its own.  A billion.  That's insane.  On this scale we cannot deny that a social media facility is now the third fundamental service offered by the internet, after email and the web.  It's time for it to be recognised as such and it's time for it to be treated in the same way.  And by the same way, I mean: a single social media addressing system and a choice of whatever vendor's application you like to exploit it - just like email or the web.

The belief that this makes sense hinges on the realisation that we have reached a point where all the social media sites are converging on the same set of features.  Those being:
  • Defining a set of contacts (be they friends, associates or whoever)
  • Posting status updates
  • Uploading pictures
  • Instant messaging
  • Video/voice chat
  • Installation of arbitrary third-party apps/plug-ins.
All of the following do no more than the above: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Skype.  And yet I have an account with all of them!  I don't want to have.  All I want is a single application, with fine control over who-sees-what (and indeed, what-I-see).  And what would be the result?  Well, I could use Facebook and you could use Google+ and somebody else could use an open source offering - and we could all share our social media.  How jolly!  Only in this way can we avoid in a few years time an endless list of brands being reeled off at the end of every TV and radio show: "follow us on this, join our page on that, visit us over here".  Only in this way can we avoid having to jump on a new social bandwagon every few years, with all the overheads that entails.

So it's time for me to stand up and make a request to the world for
An open standard to exchange social media information.
It is feasible.  Not trivial, but feasible.  I know, as well as anyone, how much effort it will require to put together such a standard.  But it is needed.  I absolutely believe that it is.  If you believe that it is too, please just spread the word.  I here social media is a good way of doing that :)

Over and out,
Newell ... you can follow me on Twitter ;)