Reader and Facebook

We’ve lost Google Reader. Facebook continues to suck. Can we please consider a new way to publish our data?

It always has bothered me that social networks have managed to garner so much attention when they have so little to truly offer. Social networks that lack a creative focus (like Facebook, Plus, MySpace and Twitter) are kind of like pyramid schemes. Users are tasked with growing the network with friends so they can use it and have a place to communicate. What is somewhat seedy about it all is that users feel entitled, when in fact they are slaves to the network. They sign agreements that provide the social network with the ability to profit from user’s data and network. The social network can change anything they want and eventually charge for aspects that were previously free.

The first thing that needs to change is users need to own their data.

The other aspect of social networks that seemed off is the actual network of friends. Most social networks have begun to rally around facebook and use that as a basis of your network. That doesn’t mean that when you publish data that your network sees it. Facebook started throttling this sort of thing, most likely because handling the traversal of the network is expensive when the system is also responsible for publishing.

The second thing that needs to change is users need to own their list of friends.

The answer to owning data is to create a blog. It doesn’t matter so much if that blog is on or is self hosted because a blog is something you migrate relatively cheaply as services rise and fall. The answer to owning the friend list is more difficult, but definitely doable.

Now that Reader is gone, there is an opportunity to start taking ownership of the friend listing. Each “friend” is a URL to their blog (or Facebook profile). You subscribe to your friends feeds. When they get sick of Facebook, or add another slick social network, the feed reader can be notified in the feed and the user can add the new network. With that in mind, assuming the social network can post content to the blog, then the new content can just show up.

The fly in the ointment is that this whole system doesn’t have to be based on advertising. Losing advertising helps users a great deal because there are less distractions. More importantly though, applications that want to include content in a person’s feed must actually provide some value and/or enjoyment to that user. If they don’t provide enough value to cause a person to pay for the service, then they can’t survive. If you are a glass half full kind of person, you’ll quickly realize that app developers can focus on writing tools that help people express themselves rather than having to worry about scaling up some infrastructure to handle the massive social network they are creating. While it sounds fun to be tasked with “scaling”, from a business perspective, you can stop paying for servers and development time.

For this to work there will need to be some re-branding. There needs to be a change in the social dictionary that provides a name for this social “Windows 95” moment. The users also need to take ownership of their content as something of value. I suspect that sharing ad revenue from the readers applications could be a great motivator here.

I’m not holding my breath that we’ll see a huge paradigm shift any time soon. At some point it has to come though. The amount of money spent on maintaining a social graph is daunting to say the least. It is unlikely that we can continue to centralize our resources into social silos. Eventually, users will see the value in an online persona they own and won’t have a problem paying for the privilege.