Friday, February 15, 2008

Who owns a social connection?

Re-reading, I see I didn't draw out a point I meant to draw out in my recent post on Facebook:

If I keep my own database of social connections, in my own store and on my own dime, and then essentially copy that information up to a new social networking site when I join it, in what sense can that site claim it owns that connection?

Just to keep the bot question out of it, suppose that my friends and I make an agreement that whenever one of us joins a site another is already on, we'll link up with each other. This is pretty much what is going to happen anyway. The agreement just formalizes the process (and the bot, if any, automates it).

As far as I can tell, a site that provides social networking features is doing two things:
  • Making it easy to navigate from your immediate circle, which you instinctively hold in your head, to the next few layers out, which quickly become larger-than-human-sized. (the networking part)
  • Provide a badge of identity for something resembling a community. (the social part).
The first part is technical. You don't need a social networking site to do this sort of navigation. You need permission to access your friends' connection data (and technical means, such as formats and protocols, to enable this). The more I think about this aspect, the less I see it as something that any particular site can own. Your immediate connections belong to you.

The graph of everyone's connections to everyone doesn't belong to anyone. You can navigate through it by getting permission from the various owners. This means that the graph is split up and that there's probably no one who can navigate anywhere at will, but I tend to think that's a good thing. It exactly reflects privacy in the real world because that, too, rests with the individual (modulo some classic philosophical arguments about the rights of individuals vs. society as a whole -- but the point is that those arguments apply equally in the real and virtual worlds).

Technically, it also seems dodgy that each entity that wants to feature social networking produces its own slightly different implementation.

On the other hand it seems natural and probably useful for sites to provide banners that people can organize themselves under.

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