Why we're not quite ready for everyone to build their own social networking site

Whether or not you should build your own social networking site and/or make use of sites like facebook is currently a hot topic within the not-for-profit web developer/consultant world. The launch of sites like Amnesty International’s “unsubscribed”, which bears many hallmarks of a social networking site, combined with growing attention for facebook campaigns and tools like SuperBadger bring the options and potential into clear focus. Elizabeth Dunn’s post last month “social networks, walled gardens, and decision trees” makes a compelling argument that non-profits should be focussing on these questions now even if they’re not key for their current audience: sooner or later they will be and you don’t want to be playing catchup.

There are certainly many advantages to having your own social networking site. A facebook or myspace presence may attract attention, but the data you’ll be able to gather about your supporters and the potential for inserting your own branding are limited. Set up your own social network and you have full flexibility to integrate that data with your supporter databases, and to tune the site to your very specific requirements. But not only are they a significant investment of resources, there’s also a significant cost of time for supporters who will need to sign up for yet another site, identify their friends once again and give their attention to even more online data. Online campaigning’s great strength so far has been its low barrier to entry; for cause-specific social networks to really make sense their barriers need to fall.

That desire is definitely not unique to non-profits. As Brian Suda’s “Portable Social Networks: Take Your Friends With You” highlights, finding ways to let users move their data from site to site is a hot topic across the web development world. Sites like traveller network dopplr have succeeded in part by letting their (so far highly tech savvy) users import data from other social networks such as twitter. The real breakthrough will be when the mass-networks of the moment (as facebook is today) become similarly open. That won’t make it easy, but it will mean that there is suddenly a huge audience who can become fully signed up for your site with just a couple of clicks.

Right now most efforts hinge on a set of emerging standards, two of which will be familiar to anyone who’s been reading this blog for some time but which bear some more attention. There’s plenty of information around the web on these so I’ll just touch on them briefly:

Microformats are a way of taking plain old HTML and, by following some conventions, adding meaning to the content that could be understood by machines. While a human might be able to look at some information and infer that it is describing an event, machines aren’t so good at that, so we need standardised ways to say “this is describing an event, that bit is the date,” or “this link is to the homepage of my brother.” There were already ways to do that, but it involved adding extra things to your website. With microformats, so long as you (or your content management system) follow some simple conventions when creating a page, a machine can get the content out of the page as easily as a human reader can. That lets us identify friends/contact lists in a portable way, among other useful functions.

OpenID is a way to get rid of the frustration of having to create a username and password for every new site you visit. Instead when you visit a new site that you want to sign up for, you enter a URL that is your OpenID and that site will check with a central system (which may require you to log in) whether you do in fact own that OpenID. Rather than having to remember dozens of usernames and passwords, you’ll probably just have to remember one URL, one username, and one password. And because you’re using that same OpenID for lots of sites, when you sign up for a new site you can be identified on others. So if you sign up for a new site I’ve created using the same OpenID you use on livejournal my software can identify you on livejournal and import your posts from there. So there’s less work for you to tell that new site you’re creating a profile on how to find your blog and to import the posts, and an easy way to make your profile active and informative.

OAuth is the newest of the standards and goes hand-in-hand with OpenID. It allows you to grant one web application permission to access certain parts of your data in another application without giving your usernames and passwords all over the places. If you’ve ever used a site that redirected you to flickr to get your permission to do something with your photos, you’ve seen something like it. If OAuth is widely adopted, no longer will you have to give every social networking site your webmail username and password in order to have your address book checked for other users of the site, simply trusting that they won’t abuse it. Instead, it becomes easy to give a one-off permission while keeping your details as secret as they should be.

What these pieces add up to is a significant reduction in the psychological hurdles that might prevent your supporters from joining your new social network. Instead of pouring hours into their friendster profile only to find everyone has moved to myspace, and so not signing up for your site because they’d have to go through the whole process all over again, they can sign up with their OpenID, perhaps grant you a few permissions with OAuth (knowing that they’re not handing over the keys to their email, online photos, or whatever) and be signed up with an already complete profile.

In other words, persuading people to sign up and build their profiles is no longer the issue and you can focus on providing them with compelling reasons to keep coming back.

So if you’re wondering whether now is the time to start building out your campaign’s fancy new social networking site, it just may be, but chances are a few months from now will be a better time. As OpenID and OAuth become better established—and maybe even get adopted by some of the big players—your life is going to be easier and provided you pick web developers who’ve been keeping up you’ll be able to focus on your campaign strategy rather than coaxing visitors to spend another few hours re-entering the same old details.

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  1. We’re also working on enabling the open social web, but trying to minimize the work an end user has to do. Our service http://freemyfriends.com allows users to automatically rebuild their social graphs on any site. Thoughts?

  2. Matt: that definitely looks like an interesting contribution. I’ve heard a few mentions of it around the place but this is the first time I’ve actually had a chance to look in any detail.

    My chief concern with this approach is that it seems very centralised. What I like about the microformats, OpenID and OAuth approach is that the infrastructure is already in place. There’s no need for a clearing house, we just need URLs, HTTP and a couple of standardised APIs.

    That means that there’s then no single point of failure and people can maintain their profile data, social networks, etc on their blog as easily as in one of the existing social networking sites/utilities/whathaveyou.

  3. James,
    Thanks for your response.

    For the average end user who may not be as tech savvy as we are, we feel that the less work they have to do the better. That’s really our goal with FreeMyFriends to reduce the end user effort to 0. To them their social graph should travel automatically from each site to site and give them the option to build it as they see fit.

    One central point of failure is one of the concerns we plan to address in the future by making FreeMyFriends similar to the DNS system.

    As it stands right now, FreeMyFriends allows the social graph to be replicated differently at each site the user is on. Since the graph is replicated, even if FreeMyFriends goes down, the graphs still remain at each site. If FreeMyFriends goes down, you don’t lose your social graph.

    You comment about “I’ve heard a few mentions of it around the place”
    We are trying to get the word out to see what other people think and so I’m curious if you are referring specifically to FreeMyFriends or other services like it.