What business models will work for the Federated Social Web?

With status.net sites such as identi.ca offering a free, open, and federated alternative to Twitter, and with Friendica, Buddycloud and Diaspora becoming more and more promising as interoperable alternatives to closed social networks such as Facebook or Google+, it seems that the Federated Social Web is on the verge of becoming a reality.

When I tell my friends of my enthusiasm for Friendica, the most common response is: “That sounds great, we should all leave Facebook and sign up to that!”

This shows how hard it can be to explain what the Federated Social Web is. It isn’t a particular social networking website, like Facebook or Twitter, it isn’t even a particular open-source platform, like WordPress or Dreamwidth. Fundamentally, the Federated Social Web is a collection of social networking platforms that can talk to each-other, sending data from one to another.

So far enthusiasm for the Federated Social Web has come from people who are interested in software and the web, and particularly in the power of software to change society for the better. The values associated with the Federated Social Web are freedom, openness, and respect for privacy. But will the Federated Social Web, as it evolves, live up to these values? Who will pay for it? The software may be free, but someone is going to have to pay to run the servers. I can imagine a two-tier social web evolving, with the relatively well-off and technically-minded paying to participate in the FSW, with everyone else still using the same tired old walled-gardens which compromise their privacy, erode their freedom of expression, and sell their data. To me this would be a dystopian nightmare. Freedom isn’t really freedom if it’s only available to those who can afford to pay, and even Facebook, for all its many faults, offers social networking to everyone (or at least, to everyone with a reasonably fast Internet connection).

Funding models

It’s obvious to me that a social network cannot be considered ‘open’ if access is limited to those who can pay, and equally obvious that any business model that included selling user data would be unacceptable.

I’m also going to reject selling ads. Not (only) because ads are often annoying or offensive, but for the more subtle reasons given by Dreamwidth: if you sell ads, your customers are advertisers, not users, and you end up having to make decisions based on what the advertisers want. Dreamwidth’s business model is a combination of paid subscriptions, and a limited number of invitation-only free accounts.

Federation of providers

In discussions about the FSW there is sometimes a confusion between the underlying server and protocols, and the website itself. People still ask each-other whether they are “on Diaspora”, or “on Buddycloud”. The confusion is understandable, since at the moment we have been seeing one-server-with-one-web-client style development. So for example if you install Buddycloud, you install the server and the web-client at the same time.

This makes sense at this early stage of development, since the server is the important part and the web-client is mostly there for testing and for getting a feel for the user’s experience. However one of the great things about the FSW concept is that it should allow web-clients to be developed separately, without the web-client developer needing to know very much about the underlying server. This will make rapid development of new social networking websites possible, using platforms such as Django, Ruby on Rails, or even WordPress, all plugging in to the same underlying server architecture (or a few, interoperable, server architectures). From the user’s perspective, this would mean being able to choose from a variety of social networking websites to connect to the Federated Social Web.

Fast development, crowd-sourced feedback

On the face of it, it looks like the odds are stacked against the development of a truly open FSW. The FSW has far fewer sources of funding available to it than the likes of Facebook. However the FSW also has some advantages:

— Everyone hates Facebook, and Google+ has proved to be almost as bad, by insisting on a Real Names policy. There is plenty of desire for a FSW out there.

— The outlay for starting up a FSW hosting service will be small: hosts will be able to start small, grow organically, and build a great relationship with users.

— Fast development of web-clients will make it possible for providers to quickly respond to bug reports and feature requests.

— Providers can ask users not only for money, if they have it, but for contributions to documentation, and crowd-sourced usability testing.

— Providers will have the flexibility to try experiments that would be unthinkable for monoliths such as Facebook and Google: for instance, they can try out different funding models, they can run themselves as co-operatives or as members’ clubs, they can open their books in order to gain the trust of their users, and of course they can share what they learn with other providers.

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