By Mark Lenz
I had a great conversation today about social media that inspired me to share my thoughts on social media and its future, an open and distributed network that reflects the intent of the Internet. Everyone on The Business Source team met for an extended lunch to discuss our goals for the next few months. One of the major focuses in our discussion was helping businesses get the full potential from their social media efforts. Social media can be a valuable marketing tool, but many businesses run into issues utilizing the tool and integrating it into their overall marketing strategy. Laurel Cavalluzzo, owner of Madison Marketing Communications, has joined our team to use her knowledge and experience to provide sound, valuable advice on doing just that.
If you know me you know I have a few qualms with social networking sites. If you don’t know me, it may be because I’m not on Facebook. Maybe it’s the engineer in me since 85% of engineers don’t like Twitter. I admit I just started using LinkedIn and social networking sites can be useful, but they also have their disadvantages. One recent example is the latest attack on Twitter by an Australian high school student which wasn’t malicious but could easily have been. The main issues I have with the current state of social networking and media is security, ownership, privacy, redundancy and censorship. In fact, even though site membership has increased, users are hardly satisfied with current social media sites according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. So given my feelings you can begin to imagine where our social media conversation went.
Laurel responded to each of my inquiries with precision, but with so many other interesting and important topics to discuss there was little time to share my complete vision, nor I’m sure Laurel’s. I believe that social media is a very important new communication and archival vehicle, and we’ve only seen the very tiny tip of a very large iceberg. Not to sound prophetic, but I think “Web 3.0″ is nearly upon us and it includes full integration of social media and traditional websites through an open social media network. We can solve many of the issues with social media by developing and harnessing an open network, and there are many additional benefits to an open network.
The most critical concern of any business should be protecting its assets. Social networking sites are famous for their lack of security. From attacks similar to the Twitter attack that take control of users’ accounts to users themselves leaking sensitive information with and without intention. A recent article describes many of these problems faced by small and medium businesses, costing many businesses upwards of $5,000 in the first half of the year. That’s just another unpredictable cost of using social media sites, and with everyone’s accounts in one place it makes for an easy decision when choosing targets to attack.
As an example of the fragility, a few days ago Facebook was mysteriously offline twice in 24 hours, and the lack of security with regard to the U.S.’s networks is one of the NSA’s top concerns. The NSA chief and head of the U.S. Cyber Command recently told reporters he wants to create a secure partition of the Internet to protect our most vital infrastructure. One attacker could get millions of users’ private information with one attack. Issues with security will probably never be completely solved, but we can continue to improve.
The ways in which you can use your content on a social networking site are governed by the how each site is designed. None of the social networking sites make it easy to swap content between sites or export it to other media. When a social networking site becomes obsolete, as MySpace has, all of your content, friends and likes are stuck on that site and you have to rebuild your profile and connections on another site. If I were a betting man I would wager that Facebook won’t be the social networking site du jour forever, and the new Google Me or Apple Ping could be the replacement. Businesses haven’t been the first-movers in this space. So businesses will eventually be forced into paying to rebuild their status on a new site once a critical mass has migrated. If we could retain control of our content by hosting it ourselves, or through web hosting providers, issues over ownership and portability would not exist.
Privacy issues arise in part because of a lack of security but also for various other reasons. Facebook has dealt with many privacy issues in the past. Many of the issues were due to features created by Facebook to increase the sharing of user content and from changes in privacy settings. Google Buzz launched to loud criticism because of the amount of private information that it automatically shared. Since you have little control over how your content is shared and displayed on social media sites, and many settings can be buried under layers of obscure menus, you may not know exactly who can view which elements of your profile or how to change those settings. I don’t think these issues will be solved by incremental changes to the current social media sites.
Though social media sites have made progress to protect private data there continue to be privacy concerns. Software techniques called machine learning can be used to infer many surprising and private things using the data collected from you and your friends’ public content. Not only is your public data and behavior being tracked, but the sites and applications you use also track your private data. The same machine learning techniques used with your private data can infer even more things about you with an even higher degree of accuracy. Since your content is hosted and controlled by a third party it is difficult to control and know exactly how your content is used. Clearly retaining control of your own content would streamline social media.
Current social media sites are horribly redundant. Not only do you have to waste time sifting through the abundant noise on social media sites, but you also have to waste time replicating the same content across your website and potentially several social media sites. To make matters worse, replication is manual since none of the sites provide a feature for exporting your profile and content. Third party tools can be used to alleviate some of the pain, but they add another layer of complexity and potential for more security and privacy issues. Also, there is no simple or standard way to integrate social media from each site into your traditional website. Integration generally consists of links between social media sites and a business’s website, and though this is useful, tighter integration has the potential to increase the quality and timeliness of communication. By removing the redundancy you have more time to focus on your message and effectively communicating it.
Nearly every social media site has censored user content at one time or another for one reason or another. This can be a touchy subject, but I feel that the community should decide what is appropriate instead of just a few people. One way to reduce freedom of speech violations is to make this decision open and transparent to the extent it is for hosted websites, which in the U.S. websites aren’t taken down without a court order or DMCA notice. An open and distributed social media network would be systematically identical to the traditional website network, providing the means to a more open decision-making process.
Open Social Networking
So it’s clear there are some significant issues with the current state of social media. Will the current social media sites fix these issues? They will probably fix many over time, but the reason these issues exist now is the reason they will persist in the future. Their profit comes from displaying our content, not protecting it. So they need to exert some control. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the way it is.
However, as a society I think we can and we want to do better, and we can do it by developing and harnessing an open and distributed social media network. Such a social media network would consist of an open source software platform that is installed and run in the same way as a webserver. In fact, you would replace your webserver with it. Instead of everyone communicating on sites such as Facebook, you’ll communicate on your website, and you’ll be able to search your entire social network from your website. You’ll be able to easily integrate photos and videos from your friends’ websites into your website and vice versa. You’ll control who sees what content and how. You will have nearly complete control over your virtual presence. Sounds awesome, right?
Security risks would be significantly reduced due to the sheer number of people that are self-motivated to improve the security of the platform who would be looking for issues in the relatively simple code. This has been shown to be true in many large open source projects, which I assume such a platform would become. Also, since the network would span the Internet, there would no longer be one point of failure. You wouldn’t have to worry about the security of a third party social media site, freeing you to add more focus to your efforts securing your own website. Security issues will still exist, but an open social media platform would allow you to more effectively protect your online and Internet-connected assets.
Ownership of content and privacy are basically non-issues with an open social media network. Everyone with a computer and an Internet connection could easily host their own social media site linked to the entire social media network, allowing you to retain complete control of your content. The software would still need to be developed with enough granular control, but given that it would be open source that’s practically inevitable. So if you want what happens in Vegas to stay in Vegas, or at least away from Grandma, you have that control with an open social media network.
Social media would no longer need to be redundant with an open network. An open social media network and platorm would let business and personal websites merge with social media. Gone would be the days of checking and updating your website, blog, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages. Instead they can be rolled into one social media website linked to the global social media network. Think of the amount of friends and followers you can accumulate from that pool!
So if this open social media platform blathering really makes sense why aren’t we doing it? Well, some people actually are. Four students from the New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Dan Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, found funding through Kickstarter and developed the platform they call Diaspora. If I were to bet again I would say that they and many others have had similar thoughts as myself. I applaud them for taking the initiative and turning ideas into reality. The Diaspora project will definitely kickstart the creation of an open social media network, and it’s already doing so. I’m seriously considering becoming actively involved in the Diaspora project, if at the very least by creating a presence on the network, but I say that only to try to express my confidence in the project’s direction. Regardless of any involvement from me, Diaspora will become the realization of an open social media network.
Neither Diaspora nor the idea of an open social media platform is perfect, and they are bound to create other issues, but it’s progress, open and transparent. Since the software behind Diaspora is open source, development happens transparently and critical security issues can be quickly discovered and resolved. Within two days of releasing the source code for Diaspora many critical bugs were discovered by outside developers. Diaspora isn’t the last such open platform to be created either. In fact, it will probably spawn many other platforms that will link to the same network. You won’t have to use each platform but instead pick one platform to create your social media site that will link to the global social media network. This should also increase competition and innovation as different platforms create distinguishing features to compete for your use.
It will take some time for the world to migrate to an open social media network. Migrating to a new social network requires a significant amount of effort and motivation. There must be enough compelling reasons for enough people to switch to reach a critical mass. It’s happened at least once before. I outlined a few compelling reasons for an open social media network, and there’s bound to be more. Yet there is one more roadblock, Internet bandwidth, not so much for businesses who already have websites but for individual users who currently rely on the social media sites for hosting. The bandwidth required to host a site increases with increased traffic. That means if you want a lot of friends with a lot of conversation you may need more bandwidth than most households can access. However, web hosting is a low-cost solution to the lack of bandwidth that individuals can take advantage of, and none of these issues are show-stoppers.
Don’t start closing your Facebook and Twitter accounts yet. Diaspora isn’t quite ready for primetime, but it won’t be long and more like it will follow. So dust off your social media strategy because social media is about to become an integral part of every business’s marketing toolkit.
Originally posted on the Code of Intelligence blog.