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).

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