Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: social networking

Islands vs Continents

If you look at just one aspect of sharing information on the web, there are two approaches: islands and continents. Islands are bunch of individuals, each with their own corner of the web, where they publish whatever they want. Continents are where a bunch of individuals all sign up for user accounts and interact through that site’s back end. This post got me thinking about this, and this response got me thinking more about it.

Islands are anything that the user runs in their own web space: such as this blog or a self-hosted photo gallery. Continents are big destination sites like Facebook or flickr.

Continents do have their appeal: for one, they’re easier for the user to get started with.

More importantly, there are more ways to make money off them: advertising, membership fees, selling user data. With islands, the methods for monetization aren’t the same: you can sell the software, and maybe you can sell a support package to go along with it. The notorious difficulty of getting people to pay for anything on the web may explain why the software underlying islands tends to be open source, though there are exceptions. Beyond just the immediate revenue model, a popular website is exactly the sort of thing that its creators can hope to sell to one of the big boys for big, big money (like Instagram selling out to Facebook for [pinky to lip] one billion dollars). Software projects…not so much.

Continents have one huge disadvantage: most of the big ones are supported through advertising and the sale of user data, and as has been said many times, if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. It is in Facebook’s interest to make their site appealing to the extent that it keeps us around long enough to show us more ads, but not necessarily in their interest to really do right by their users.

The advantages of islands may only appeal to nerds: you controls your data, how it looks, how it’s used. Nobody is selling advertising around your data.

In theory, there’s nothing preventing me from hosting my photos in my own web space, even though I don’t. Back in the old days, web space was doled out in such small parcels that it would have been unrealistic for me to throw everything up there. These days, that’s not such a big deal. But flickr, for all its faults and neglect at the hands of a company that doesn’t know what to do with it, still has features that I haven’t seen in self-hosted photo galleries. One of these is that your photos can be viewed in the context of photos by other people: other people can follow your photos can comment on them. You can post them to groups that are organized around a topic or theme. You can organize galleries of photos by other people. You can see other photos that have all been tagged Tokyo or whatever.

In short, because you’re on a continent, you don’t need any bridges to get around. This social connection is huge, and it’s the weak spot of islands. All the island software out there works on one island in isolation. It doesn’t include bridges to your neighbors.

Diaspora is a social network based on the island + bridges model. Perhaps I should say based on a “big island” model, since most pods (as they’re called) have a lot of users, but there are many pods and they all intercommunicate. This is a promising idea, but Diaspora gets discouragingly little use. I’ve got 37 contacts on Diaspora. Two of them use it. Part of this is a chicken-and-egg problem, but Facebook also has useful features (events and invitations, groups, etc) that Diaspora lacks.

The only things that Diaspora has going for it is that you actually are the customer (they run on donations), and you own your own data—stuff that a lot of people just don’t think that hard about. But it’s a big deal. Now that Facebook has gone public, it needs to justify itself to shareholders, and there will be even more tension between doing what’s right for its customers vs its users.

I want it both ways. I want to have control over my data, and not to be someone else’s product. And I also want to connect with my friends and with people I don’t even know yet.

The Diaspora guys have the right idea, and so does Brent Simmons: we don’t just need islands. We need bridges to connect them.

Update: This is the kind of thing I’m talking about

Social networking as an API

A little while back, Sean had the insight that social networks should be a feature, not a service. I think he was right, but I’ll go him a step further and say social networks should be an API, not a feature. Rather than the current state of affairs, where some slice of your social network is represented on every site you participate in, all of your social network would be consolidated in one place of your own choosing. This approach is being referred to as a “distributed social network,” but that strikes me as a misnomer. The current fragmented situation is also distributed, just along a different axis.

My idea is inspired by the concept behind OpenID: basically, that you’ve got one “identity server” and use your credentials on that server to log in everywhere. All identity servers speak the same language, so when you’re trying to log in somewhere, as long as it knows how to communicate with any identity server, it can communicate with yours.

Your social network could function the same way. In fact, it would make sense for your OpenID server to also be the central repository for your social-network information. While this wouldn’t be necessary, it simplifies things, and for the rest of this entry, I’ll be assuming it’s the case.

So how would this work?
Continue reading


I just signed up for the beta version of Imity. I’m still not sure what to make of it, except that it is freaky.

The idea is a form of augmented reality, or embodied virtuality, or whatever you want to call it. It takes the idea behind social networks like Friendster et al and attempts to replicate them in meatspace (in fact, I suspect they are going to try to tie into existing social networks, so that you don’t have to re-enter all your friends yet another time).

Ok, that’s still pretty vague. Let me try again. You need to have a fairly snazzy cellphone for this to work: the phone is your “presence marker.” You sign up on their website, download a little java app to the phone, and whenever the phone gets in range of another bluetooth device, it logs that event. If that bluetooth device happens to belong to someone you know, maybe your phone will beep at you or something. And later, you can go back to the imity website, and see all the bluetooth-contact events that you logged, and you’ll slap your forehead when you realize your best friend was at the same movie as you, even though you never saw each other.

But the freaky thing is, your phone logs all bluetooth contacts. I went to a coffee shop and logged eight contacts while I was there. Several of these were clearly people using Macs (which all have Bluetooth as well), as they were identified by Apple’s default computer names, “John Doe’s Computer” and the like. So now I can take an educated guess at the names of several complete strangers in a coffee shop. And it will count every time you’re around John Doe’s computer, so that perhaps after you’ve been in the same place at the same time enough, you’ll break down and introduce yourself—”Hi, John Doe. You and I have shown up at the same place at the same time on 37 occasions, so I thought I’d introduce myself.” I don’t know. Maybe not. Like I said, it’s freaky.

It gets even freakier when you imagine matching these bluetooth events against a GPS breadcrumb trail. It’s one thing to look at your imity log after the fact and note “at 17:23, I was near John Doe’s computer” and then try to figure out where you were at that time. It’s another when you know “at 17:23, I was at Clementine coffee shop, and was near John Doe’s computer.” Super-freaky. Then you’d push all that data into Google Earth and develop a model of where people hang out.

Or maybe not you. Maybe Starbuck’s installs Imity-like Bluetooth sensors at all their doors, or better yet, a consortium of retailers that all share this data, so they can work out where people go and when. Even if they spend cash, or don’t spend anything, they can track you via your bluetooth device. Of course, you can also track that they’re tracking you.

© 2017 Adam Rice

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑