Since a number of years, the so called "social networking" is dominated by a small number of service providers like Facebook or LinkedIn.
This centralized approach does have some serious problems, especially when it comes to information security and information protection. Beyond that, centralization constricts competition to very few providers, since it requires a certain amount of possible contacts using the same platform in order to be successful.
Webfinger: first step towards decentralization
In my opinion, Webfinger is currently the most underrated new technology.
Webfinger provides a simple way to attach information on additional data and services to an e-mail like identifier, like firstname.lastname@example.org. While this identifier does not necessarily need to be a working e-mail address, having the same identifier certainly has a few advantages.
Using Webfinger, our personal information manager application would only need a simple query, to fetch additional information on how to reach me via Wave, SIP (VoIP), XMPP (IM) or just get my profiles on various social networking sites.
The possibilities are endless, which makes Webfinger a great starting point for distributed social networking.
Who is behind webfinger?
Webfingers list of contributers is actually quite impressive:
Brad Fitzpatrick, Google Engineer, Founder of Livejournal and former Six Apart Chief Architekt.
Eran Hammer-Lahav, Yahoo Open Source Evangelist and editor for the core OAuth specification.
Chris Messina, well-known proponent of microformats and OAuth.
Blaine Cook, former lead developer of Twitter, principal co-author of the OAuth specification.
John Panzer, Tech Lead Manager at Google.
Joseph Smarr, Chief Technology Officer at Plaxo.
Google and Yahoo alreay implemented Webfinger for their e-mail services. If you own a @gmail.com, @googlemail.com or @yahoo.com e-mail address, a rudimentary Webfinger implementation already allows people to query your profile for more information.
Distributed networking to the rescue
Currently, the single most successful social networking and communication application is e-mail. One cornerstone of its success is its distributed character and its wide acceptance. I guess it's safe to assume, that nearly every Internet user has access to at least one e-mail account.
Technically, there's no reason why other social networking services (like activity streams) would require a centralized approach. With OpenID and OAuth, there are already established protocols for authentication and authorization. Google even combined both protocols as an OAuth extension to the OpenID standard in order to reduce complexity.
Building upon Webfingers glory and using well defined open standards like FOAF, OpenSocial, activity streams, Atom Activity, Portable Contacts or FeedSync, there's a great opportunity of actually replacing centralized social networking providers.
Currently, neither Google or Yahoo own a successful social networking provider. Googles Orkut flopped for most of the world, Yahoo! Mash didn't even leave beta status. Both company's would profit from an open, distributed social network based on e-mail like identifiers, since profile information could be easily integrated into their search products (like Google already did with their Social Graph API). Additional to that, it would make their e-mail products much more attractive.
There's a chance, that a lot more e-mail providers could jump on to this idea. Germany's biggest personal e-mail provider united internet already failed launching a social network named "UNDDU. They however already support Jabber/XMPP and might be interested in offering additional services to their customers.
Decentralized social networking has a lot of advantages:
- Full control over the visability of your personal data
- No need for joining multiple social networks in order to connect to your contacts
- Ability to choose your identifier
- Simple access to additional identities (e.g. private and business related identities
... and many more. I'd really love to see Webfinger based decentralized social networking within the next year. And chances aren't too bad this might actually happen.