July 22, 2024

Archives for October 2009

Antisocial networking

I just got my invitation to Google Wave. The prototype that’s now public doesn’t have all of the amazing features in the original video demos. At this point, it’s pretty much just a way of collecting IM-style conversations all in one place. But several of my friends are already there, and I’ve had a few conversations there already.

How am I supposed to know that there’s something new going on at Wave? Right now, I need to keep a tab open in my browser and check in, every once in a while, to see what’s up. Right now, my standard set of tabs includes my Gmail, calendar, RSS reader, New York Times homepage, Facebook page, and now Google Wave. Add in the occasional Twitter tab (or dedicated Twitter client, if I feel like running it) plus I’ll occasionally have an IM window open. All of these things are competing for my attention when I’m supposed to be getting real work done.

A common way that people try to solve this problem is by building bridges between these services. If you use Twitter and Facebook, there are several ways to arrange for your tweets to show up at Facebook (bewildering Facebook users with all the #hashtags and @references) and there are also a handful of ways for getting data out of Facebook. I’d been using FriendFeed as a central hub for all this, but it would sometimes stop working for days at a time. Now that they’ve been bought out by Facebook, maybe this will shake itself out.

The bigger problem is that these various vendors and technologies have different data models for visibility and for how metadata is represented. In Twitter, everything is default-public, follow-up comments are first-class objects in the system, and there’s effectively no metadata outside of the message, causing Twitter users to have adopted a variety of seemingly obscure conventions (e.g., “RT” to indicate a retweet of some other tweet). Contrast this with Facebook, where comments are a very different sort of message from the parent messages, where they have all sorts of security rules (that nobody really understands) about who can see what, and where there is actually structure to a message. If I link to a Youtube video, it gets magically embedded, versus the annoying URL shorteners that people have to use to shoehorn messages into Twitter.

Comments are a favorite area for people to complain. Twitter comments are often implicit with the @username tags. If I’m following a friend and a friend-of-my-friend comments on one of their tweets, I won’t necessary see it. In Facebook, I have a better shot at seeing those comments. But what if I wrote a blog post here at Freedom to Tinker, which Facebook nicely picks it up and makes it look just like I posted a note on my Facebook page. Now we’ll have comments on Freedom to Tinker and more comments inside Facebook which won’t intermingle. Of course, thanks to FriendFeed, a tweet will (probably) be automatically generated when I post this, causing some small amount of Twitter commenting traffic, and there may be comments within FriendFeed itself as well as Google Reader commentary (which is also different from Google Reader’s “share with note” commentary).

Given these disparate data models, there’s no easy way to unify Twitter and Facebook, much less the commenting disaspora, even assuming you could sort out the security concerns and you could work around Facebook’s tendency to want to restrict the flow of data out of its system. This is all the more frustrating because RSS completely solved the initial problem of distributing new blog posts in the blog universe. I used to keep a bunch of tabs open to various blog-like things that I followed, but that quickly proved unwieldy, whereas an RSS aggregator (Google Reader, for me) solved the problem nicely. Could there ever be a social network/microblogging aggregator?

There are no lack of standards-in-the-wings that would like to do this. (See, for example, OpenMicroBlogging, or our own work on BirdFeeder.) Something like Google Wave could subsume every one of these platforms, although I fear that integrating so many different data models would inevitably result in a deeply clunky UI.

In the end, I think the federation ideas behind Google Wave and BirdFeeder, and good old RSS blog feeds, will ultimately win out, with interoperability between the big vendors, just like they interoperate with email. Getting there, however, isn’t going to happen easily.