Your single social network

I’ve been enjoying twittering over on Twitter recently (here I am). If you hate blogs because you think they’re full of people rambling about pointless details of their mundane lives you’ll hate Twitter, which makes it as easy as possible to post snippets to the web (and your friends’ phones and instant messengers) letting everyone know exactly what you’re doing RIGHT NOW. I’m not sure how much I’ll use it when the novelty wears off but it reminded me of a couple of ideas I had recently. Here’s the first, with the second to come later…

When I signed up on Twitter my whole body groaned as I realised I had to build another bloody social network. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to tell computers who my friends are. I really, really want a single service where I can say “these people are my friends” and then when I sign up to any new website I can sync it with my previously-defined social network.

You’d sign up to the service and your network of friends would be stored there. When you sign up to Twitter (for example) you’d give it your account details for this new service and Twitter would fetch the list of your friends and match them up with any existing Twitter accounts. Hey presto, you’ve just avoided hunting for all your friends on a new website. A benefit for Twitter (or whoever) could be that they have an option for you to invite every one of your friends who doesn’t already have a Twitter account.

Of course, this is all easier said than done but so many people spend so much time reconstructing lists of friends that it must be worthwhile trying to find a solution. To succeed it would need some major social networky sites to cooperate and enable their code to work with the new service, so it’s as much a political/financial problem as a technical one.

One obvious technical problem is how to identify people. How do you say “this person on Flickr is the same as this person on Twitter”? It could be that any site wanting to use the service would have to identify users by the same method, email addresses being the obvious choice.

Another difficulty is the different social groups we have for different situations. I’d want to be connected to different people on LiveJournal than I would on Linked In. Maybe our new service could let you group your contacts into whatever groups you liked: “Best friends”, “People at work”, “Old school friends”, etc. Then, when joining a new service, you could just say “Connect me with all the contacts in my ‘Best friends’ and ‘People at work’ groups”.

This system could also help keep your network up to date on each site. Let’s say I’ve signed up with Twitter, and told it about my social network, and it’s magically connected me with all its users who are also in my network. But one of my friends isn’t on Twitter yet. If he joins Twitter in the future, Twitter knows that he was in my social network, double-checks with the service to see if he still is, and then automatically adds him to my network of Twitter friends.

Of course, if this service did exist, we’d have to populate it with our social networks to get going. Ideally it would be possible to work things in reverse, so I could say “here’s my Flickr account, import all my Contacts”, saving you much of the hassle.

Yes, I’m glossing over horribly huge difficulties with permissions and identities and synchronisation and profits and chickens and eggs and the effort sites would have to put in to work with the new service, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if this could be made to work?


  • FOAF, surely, was all about this?

    So e.g. Flickr would give you a FOAF file about who you know there, LinkedIn could give you another, etc. And when you sign up to a new service, you just give it your FOAF file, optionally filter it, and you're away. Didn't Flickr used to do FOAF anyway? (Not that my Flickr friends, a mixture of people I know and people whose photos I like, are the same as my LinkedIn connections, people I know and people I might do business with... anyway.)

    Sites should be able to scrape XFN from your blogroll too, if you don't have FOAF around.

    FOAF keys this to mailbox hashes, and I'm pretty sure you can tell it about multiple email addresses. There are interesting tools around - e.g. this one makes a FOAF file out of an address book and mixes in your popular tags as interests:

    LOAF was only an address book hash that kind of did the same thing - I could freely distribute my LOAF file and you could ask it if I knew someone, without being able to find out who was in my address book.

    Too many rhetorical questions?

  • You're right Tom. After writing this I remembered FOAF and realised it could/should/would be an integral part of this. I was a bit excited about FOAF four years ago but then had no idea what to do with it...

  • FOAF was the one social network system to rule them all. Unfortunately, it didn't work out, yet. So we're left to input ourselves over and over again. And wonder who will come up with an elegant way to fluidly and continually describe our social relationships as they are machine-mediated?

    I am coming to believe that user-controlled personal surveillance could be a solution to these problems. Watch me correspond, watch me communicate, and figure out what these relationships are from timing/frequency/subject matter/keywords, etc.

  • Yes, I'm glossing over horribly huge difficulties with permissions and identities and synchronisation and profits and chickens and eggs and the effort sites would have to put in to work with the new service, but wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if this could be made to work?

    I agree, it would be a wonderful thing if it could be made to work. But I just don't see the social networking sites being too eager to adopt. Right now, the big differentiator between social blogging sites like LiveJournal is the networking data in their silos. Take away that exclusivity, and you've turned social network/blogging sites into a commodity. Let's face it, the whole reason to sign up with LiveJournal vs. some other blogging site is the fact that it's what all your friends use. No business wants to spend their own time & money architecting their demise.

  • I'm particularly excited about OpenID + hCard + XFN solving this problem. is already doing this, but of course it'll take 1) angry users demanding exportable friend lists and 2) support on the service side to make this a reality.

    Or we could just do an end-run around this and use the browser to help aggregator our social networks for us.

  • Chris, ditto re: openid + hcard + xfn. ClaimID is offering OpenID-based contact lists now, too.

  • This idea must be sold to the USER.

    The user will love it when she understands that it places her back to her rightful place : at the center.

    Thanks god closed social networks carry the seeds of their own undoing !

    Surviving networks will be those who open up and offer something useful to their users.

    Freely-moving users will remain no longer because they are trapped but because they like it here.

    Building networks is already passé. Now is the time to add specific value on top of the Global Social Network.

    What Global Social Network ?
    Oh, yet, it still has top be built, but the pressure is on and somehow it will get built.

  • There's still an inherent catch-22: if there's a logical place for a Canonical Contact List, it's on the desktop rather than in the cloud, but you actually make those connections out in the cloud.

    'Import from webmail to Facebook/LinkedIn' was a big deal, from my perspective, because it makes visible a list of potential contacts, but leaves it to the user to initiate the contact on the site. The problem comes from the sense of opening up your email account to a third party. So, that needs to be abstracted, and then you can add a bit of grain, stipulate auto-includes, or make it opt-in or opt-out for the matching.

    (I still haven't viscerally taken to OpenID: not just the technology, but the unitary nature of it,)

  • Don't you think they are too many social networks out there? It gives me a real headache...

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Sunday 19 November 2006, 12:22pm

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19 Nov 2006 in Photos

19 Nov 2006 at Twitter

  • 9:48pm: Watching a history of house music and wishing I had a more mis-spent youth.
  • 6:39pm: Enough computing for the weekend... off to read and stuff now... relax...
  • 11:15am: Sorting through a cache of dusty old cassettes I found under the bed.

On this day I was reading