almost 9 years on 2008-04-01


crosstalk in the 'social' web, the inversion of the tower of babel, and our usb 'talking stick':

in the good old story/fable/what have you of the 'tower of babel' human beings reach too high so god fractures language so that no one can effectively communicate or get anything done. in the last several months the opposite phenomenon has started to emerge on the social web... as more and more social applications simultaneously expose apis and start trying to abstract each-other the 'social' web has started to become completely un-manageable because everyone is speaking the same language, at the same time, on top of each-other, constantly. rather than loosing the ability to speak on the same frequency, the frequency is getting completely jammed.

to give a concrete and personal example involving twitter, friendfeed, and facebook. if i post a note on twitter, facebook and friendfeed pick it up and re-publish it. friendfeed then actually re-publishes it back into facebook so i end up with duplicate entries on facebook almost instantaneously. from there, others can then reply and add comments on top of that note on all three services, which will in some cases will cross-distribute again. as each 'social' application simultaneously looks to abstract their competition and exposes apis which allow others to abstract them everyone is re-posting everyone else's content in what is starting to feel like a death spiral. one can only imagine that this trend is going to continue to compound itself over time. e.g. socialthing will abstract all of the other services, and then someone will use their api (or just scape it) to abstract them. perhaps google reader will sit on top of that next layer and microsoft god knows what after that.

the great conundrum that we now face is that everyone is trying to become a destination for people to filter, experience, and generate reply content on the backbone of other services that filter help people filter, experience, and generate reply content - read, the literal definition of a 'cluster fuck'. what this means is that there are no centralized conversations with meaningful or follow-able paths. users are completely losing touch and control of who is seeing what content and how they are reacting and responding to it. i am personally starting to treat all of these social applications (including blogging) as a simple 'fire and forget' where i assume that whatever i say will go everywhere and i won't even try to centralize or follow the response.

what is the way out?

if you will allow me even more expanse, let me try to tie in another anecdote. in the new offices we don't have phones. we use skype. whether this is a good idea or just silly is a point of hot debate in the office, but everyone does agree that there is at least one completely unanticipated positive side-effect... namely, when we do conference calls we are forced to use a uni-directional usb microphone which we pass from person to person. basically, we are forced to use a literal talking stick when doing calls - just like back at camp. this has been a hugely productive exercise, preventing people from talking over each-other and keeping the conversation productively flowing.

at some point someone is going to need to figure out what the 'talking stick' is for the social web. some might claim that we can build one through technology - that web 3.0 is going to involve intelligent enough design that someone will crack how to sift through and control all of the simultaneous cross conversation... this would be the equivalent of allowing unimaginable cross talk all the time and just sorting it appropriately so that the single listener on the other end of the conference call can follow the path.

another option is to intentionally build the walled garden - to force a return to a single or consolidated structure. this is socially tough to pull off, it is the opposite of the current trend. but if you play the current movement out for even another few years the future looks grim, so maybe there will be an opening... maybe this will come in a 'social separatist' movement by a certain segment of society.

i actually think that facebook understands this and is making a very large play attempting to abstract everyone else but not allow the abstraction of its own service. this is clear from several of their initiatives to allow people to publish streams of content into their application, but to my knowledge limited ability to pull feed content fully out - they may be the only ones powerful enough to pull this off. despite my personal strong belief in open data and standards, this might actually be a case where a single closed hegemonic power actually provides the greatest net utility... without some enormous changes in how people can integrate and sift through information (read what google search was for static/semi-static content) someone needs to set the standards or we will end up destroying much of the communicative value of the web. to end on a provocative note: i have enormous regard for hayek, but maybe a rule setting hegemony is needed.

happy 4th

original swl blogposts and letters 2007-2010