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t3knomanser's Fustian Deposits


How Random Babbling Becomes Corporate Policy

run the fuck away

Mad science gone horribly, horribly wrong(or right).


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run the fuck away
Yesterday, I mentioned my move over to identi.ca, but I gave the site short shrift. The service, and more to the point, the underlying engine, Laconica represents a sea change in social networks.

I'm going to skip to the end, and then go back to what's going on under the hood. Here's the end: Laconica represents a completely distributed social network. Anyone can set up a Laconica server. They can then communicate with users on any other Laconica server. Gone is the, "I can't leave, all my friends are here!" friction. Laconica lets you leave and take your friends with you.


How does it do this? Well, there's a couple of very cool technologies running under the hood. First, there's OpenID. Back in the day, you might remember Microsoft Passport. The idea was that you could have one user name and password (owned by Microsoft) and use it to log into any site (that paid its tribute to Microsoft). Shockingly, that never caught on.

OpenID serves the same goal, but with the opposite philosophy. Anybody can set up an OpenID server and give out accounts. LiveJournal is the most obvious example for those reading here. LiveJournal gives out accounts, and those accounts exist inside its OpenID server. Okay, so, you're logged into LiveJournal, and you swing over to Identi.ca.

You click the OpenID link, and put in your LiveJournal address and Identi.ca sends you over to LiveJournal. It's asking LiveJournal, "Hey, you know this guy? You wanna vouch for him?"

LiveJournal sees that you're logged in, but it doesn't vouch for you just yet. It gives you a page that says, "Hey, this Identi.ca guy has been asking about you. What should I say?"

Assuming you hit the "Yeah, this is cool. Tell him you know me," button, you get sent back to Identi.ca with a little note from LiveJournal, telling Identi.ca that this is all cool, and you can talk.

The beauty here is that anybody who wants to can setup an OpenID server. OpenID provides limited identity. It can't prove that I'm Remy Porter, but it can prove that the LiveJournal OpenID server knows me and calls me t3knomanser. This server here will say it knows you and make up a new name for you every time. Completely anonymous.


OAuth is another idea like OpenID. I've got an Identi.ca account, and I want to subscribe to you over on SomeOtherSite.com. OAuth is a protocol for me to give SomeOtherSite.com limited permission to access my Identi.ca data. The OAuth site describes it as a "valet key"- I can give SomeOtherSite a key to my "car" that only works for driving a mile or two, and won't open the trunk. I don't have to trust SomeOtherSite very much to give it that data.

Shared Data

So, with OpenID and OAuth, we've got a "trust network". LiveJournal vouches for me at Identi.ca. I can swing past other people's Laconica servers and share information about my identity over at Identi.ca without giving them the keys to the kingdom. The only site in the chain with any important personal information is LiveJournal. Identi.ca trusts LiveJournal when it vouches for me, and SomeOtherSite.com trusts Identi.ca when it passes along OAuth information.

Compare that with new social site Ping.fm. Ping gives you a one-stop-shop for updating everything from Twitter to LiveJournal to MySpace via email and IM. But in order to do that, you have to give Ping.fm the username and password for each of your sites. Ouch- Ping.fm now knows everything about you, and if their data is compromised- well, you're screwed. This is the exact opposite of the OpenID/OAuth architecture. You have to trust Ping.fm a hell of a lot, and you also have to trust all of your other sites to, and put the same personal information in again and again.

So, tell me why this matters

Okay, so what's the big deal. "Trust" and "OAuth" and servers and crap. I don't care. How does this affect the price of tea in China?

The big deal is this: right now, every social network is what we call a "silo". They've got their own box of data about you, and there's no way to get at that data from the outside. Or, if there is a way, it's a site specific tool: the way you get your Twitter data from outside is different from how you download all of your LJ posts.

There are a lot of disadvantages of silos. First, as I already mentioned, when you ditch a social network, you ditch all the friends you've made on that network. You've gotta get them to come with you somehow. With OpenID and OAuth (and services like Laconica), we can reduce that burden. We have protocols that let you keep track of your friends no matter where they are.

Second, LiveJournal owns your posts. If the owners evaporate tomorrow, so does all of your content. Oops. OpenID and OAuth don't, themselves, do anything to stop that. But the fact that you can use those tools to make something like Laconica- well, that means you can be your own LiveJournal, without giving up the social network you've created.

Coming attractions

Okay, this is all pretty nascent. I'm not the sort of person that says, "Hey, run your own server, it's easy!" It's not easy, and it's not worth it for most people. We generally don't worry about LJ evaporating. But the good news is that these tools are going to pressure the silos to open up: LJ's going to need to open up your account data so that you can easily archive and backup your posts to stay competitive. LJ will need to provide a better way to track your friends on other social sites than just RSS to stay competitive. More and more sites are going to grow that are focused on helping you share your information and stay connected to people.

And that's why Identi.ca and Laconica represent a sea-change. It's not the first service to work with a distributed architecture, but it's the first one to put it into the right package at the right time. With the growing Twitter discontent, they're well positioned to create a robust, decentralized network that creates the massively-multisite social network. My powers of prognostication don't let me say that Identi.ca and Laconica are going to be the killer apps that do this, but if they're not, whatever does take their place will use the framework they laid out.
  • Re: sea change in social network

    spot-on, and very well said!

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