How Can a Renegade Social Network Survive?

In the previous post, Even the Paranoid Have Enemies: Social Media and Law Enforcement, we examined some good reasons why the Occupy movement might want their own network, which they announced via a manifesto entitled The Global Square: Towards an Online Platform for the Occupy Movement. In this post, we examine how this effort could represent a threat to the Facebook social network hegemony and ignite a fragmentation movement for other niche groups to create their own networks.

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Facebook is a social media goliath with more than 900 million users and growing by 10 million a month. According to Jeff Bullas, “One in every 13 people on Earth is on Facebook. More than 2.5 million websites have integrated with Facebook, including over 80 of comScore’s U.S. Top 100 websites and over half of comScore’s Global Top 100 websites.”

So what’s to worry?

If we’ve learned anything from social media history (I’m looking at you guys, Friendster and MySpace) it’s that things can change very quickly. The buzz dissipates and the crowd moves on to the next bright shiny thing. Facebook, Google, YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitter all look pretty stable right now but one false move, and their lead could evaporate.

Thinking conventionally about the threat to the established commercial social networking sites, one might project that if these site will fall, it would be because they were supplanted by an upstart like Google+ that would attract the hundreds of millions to itself like a massive black hole.

But it could be that the threat might be from a constellation of more-niche networks like Global Square where millions of members who are dissatisfied with existing choices splinter into dozens or hundreds of specialty social sites.

The Global Square manifesto enumerates other reasons beyond privacy for needing a special social network:

While Facebook and Twitter have been very helpful for disseminating basic information and aiding mass mobilization, they do not provide us with the tools for extending our participatory model of decision-making beyond the direct reach of the assemblies and up to the global level. What we need, at this point, is a platform that allows us to radically democratize our global organizational efforts. In addition to the local squares, we now need a global square where people of all nations can come together as equals to participate in the coordination of collective actions and the formulation of common goals and aspirations.

OK, you say, but how many people are this radical? Granted, the majority probably aren’t. But if you read between the lines of this paragraph you see that some of the current social network shortcomings might be shared by others, including corporations.

The big social networks don’t currently provide:

  • Efficient collaboration— I personally have been waiting for this one. Sure, you can use Google Docs to collaborate on a document, but this is very rudimentary. You can use tools such as WebEx and GoToMeeting to show a common view to lots of people. You can use Twitter or Instant Messaging or Skype to create a real-time conferences. But cobbling these platforms together is unsatisfying and comprehensive sharing suites provided by the likes of Cisco are premium-priced.

What if Global Square solves this problem on their way to “extending our participatory model of decision-making beyond the direct reach of the assemblies and up to the global level?”

  • Distributed decision-making — Global Square wants to enable the “leaderless” distributed model that runs Occupy events. We’ve seen similar types of coalescence in social media via flash mobs, the so-called “smash and grab” flash mobs such as the one that terrorized shoppers at the Mall of America, and even in Groupon’s business model.

What if Global Square takes us all the way to a true distributed decision-making model? Such a model was envisioned in John Brunner’s classic, Shockwave Rider in which Delphi pools used the wisdom of crowds by enabling citizens to bet on important issues with the government making policy based on the results. Using prediction markets is not that far-fetched. The Bush administration’s John Poindexter’s Policy Analysis Market concept was abandoned (so they say) as a way to predict terrorist attacks. Embedding such markets in a social network to guide all kinds of decision-making is certainly feasible, and may well be an attractive feature to non-radicals.

  • Real-time language translation— For Global Square to achieve “a global square where people of all nations can come together as equals to participate in the coordination of collective actions and the formulation of common goals and aspirations” people speaking different languages need to be able to converse in real-time. This implies integration of a fast real-time translation capability which is already in use in some social networks.

Wouldn’t this capability be attractive to businesses and other multi-national organizations?

  • Project management — Organizing an Occupy protest, especially in a decentralized organization, requires good project management. Organizing a worldwide protest requires management and coordination on a large scale. In addition, a centralized inventory of Occupy assets worldwide would be required for Global Square’s mission.

This is another feature that may prove quite attractive to businesses and other multi-national organizations.

  • Anonymous alternative to the social graph — Facebook introduced their Social Graph as a means for users to log in to other sites using Facebook credentials. This has two effects. It enables many sites to streamline their login procedures, and it also allows external sites access to some or all of a Facebook user’s information. In addition, use of social graph on shared computers can be problematic, as a user’s login session can persist after they’ve left the computer. Although the manifesto doesn’t specifically call for an anonymous single sign-on, it seems clear that a network concerned with preventing user information from falling into law enforcement or governmental hands would require an anonymous way for users to log in, and that method would undoubtedly be extended to other participating networks.

Many social media users are concerned with privacy matters and might be attracted to networks that offer more control than Facebook.

If Global Square succeeds in building their network with these features, their effort could embolden others to challenge the status quo by adopting their feature set. If Global Square takes the step of offering their code via an Open Source license, adoption by current or new social networks would be assured.

All of this would feed into a rapidly accelerating trend called the Web of One. With all the personalization of users’ experience — extending from Google localization and personalization to the nichification of TV news represented by Fox News and MSNBC — users can increasingly cocoon themselves into a self-referential personalized world where they only experience things that they already know they’ll like.

No matter what you think of this trend, it is unmistakable. And this might be the gale force driving the dismantling of the Facebook empire through the proliferation of Global-Square-like niche networks.

Or not. The only thing we know for sure is that size does not necessarily ensure survival, online or in the real world. Remember, only General Electric remains of the original 1896 Dow Jones index, and Ford is the only intact company among the top 100 corporations from 1900. And so the question that titles this post should be transformed as How Can the Current Social Networks Survive?

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