Friday, February 01, 2008

Social Networking - Gated Communities on the Web

Comrade Danyl Strype comments on the rise of corporate-controlled 'social networking' sites and the potential for community-controlled alternatives.

I spent about an hour today unsuccessfully trying to contact the organizers of the Luminate 08 eco-festival through their MySpace page, the only web presence they seem to have.

The first problem was that I was not a member of MySpace, which informed me that I needed to login to send a message to another member. Although every woman and her dog seems to have a MySpace site these days, until today I had resisted because MySpace is owned by corporate media baron Rupert Murdoch. Instead I have an old school html homepage hosted by a local Internet Service Provider in Aotearoa, and post my writing here on Indymedia rather than handing control of my personal information and articles to a corporate-owned blog host.

However, since Luminate's page lacked an email address, I buckled under, and signed up for a MySpace user account. This allowed me to compose my message, only to discover that I couldn't send a message to another member without being an approved node in their network. In the end I resorted to contacting one of the organizers directly through an email address on her own homepage, but many potential correspondents would have become frustrated and given up long before.

Like most mainstream media organisations and indeed most 'free' services on the web, social networking sites like MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, Orkut and Friendster are for-profit enterprises selling their users attention spans to advertisers. In order to garner more eyeball time, social networking sites create online gated communities in which people can only communicate and share information with others using the same site. Imagine you could only send email to people using the same email host as you. This defeats the key reason for having an internet - to allow for open communication across an unlimited number of independent systems.

The same problem can be seen with instant messaging (IM) networks like MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and ICQ. These systems are designed so that users can only chat with others using the same software and servers, closed systems controlled by corporate owners. Imagine using a free cell phone which could only call other cell phones made by the same company, using only their network.

Luckily in the case of IM, an alternative has emerged. The Jabber protocol allows anyone to run an IM server or write chat programs which can connect to them. Google has made their Gtalk IM system Jabber-compatible and other corporate interests like the owners of the Wengo system have followed suit. However, the protocol remains a common good controlled by a community of interested developers and users, rather than an intellectual property owned and controlled by the likes of Microsoft.

In the early days of the web, users had a single homepage, containing whatever information about themselves they wanted to share. Due to the gated nature of sites like MySpace, unless we can convince everyone we know to agree on one site, we end up having to put our personal information into a separate profile on each of the networking sites we need to use. To change one piece of information, we have to login to multiple sites and change each profile. Is this really progress?

On the other hand, sites like MySpace do have a certain appeal to users. The users need no knowledge of code or servers to set up their own web presence and regularly add content. Most importantly they offer a way to share thoughts, ideas and information across a network of people that develops in a way analogous to the neural networks that form among the neurons in the brain - potentially a new form of social intelligence which is much more adaptive than the regimented, heirarchical social systems of corporations and nation-states.

It is probably pragmatic to make some use of these services at this time, just as we used free corporate services like Yahoo before we had the option of using independently-run services like However, in the long term I believe we need to create the online equivalent of intentional communities, as an alternative to corporate-controlled gated ones like MySpace.

So what would a free and open social networking system look like? Firstly, it would allow sharing of communication and content between an unlimited number of separate servers run by different groups. It would be compatible with free software/ open source software. It may well be made up of a cluster of separate services. For example a site could specialize in hosting people's profiles, and make that information available in an open format that could be accessed by other sites, which in turn might specialize in hosting blogs, image galleries, video etc. It might make use of an open ID protocol, that allows people to sign up once and use the same username and password to log into each of these different sites.

Most importantly it could provide a way for people to organize themselves more efficiently than the corporate managers and government officials currently trying to do their organizing for them. This potential of the internet, as demonstrated in the use of net-based communication tools in the mobilization of protesters against globalization since the late 90s, threatens the myth that complex societies need heirarchy and centralization of power to get things done. This may be the motive behind the rise of the gated social networking trend and a good reason for activists to involve themselves in building alternatives.