How #SecondLife may find their social media answer blowing in the wind…
Social Media Networks are essentially all the same on the surface. You’re connecting with friends, relatives, co-workers, and sharing information on a feed wall. Of course there is the addition of games, applications, and other plugins which give our social networks a sense of further connectivity, but in the long run they are all essentially laid out the same. When we take a look at the varying social networks, we have to ask ourselves what it is that makes one better than another, and at first glance we are hard pressed to see any real differences.
Take for instance, Facebook. It’s essentially a three pane layout with your controls on the left side, different information feeds in the center (wall) and on the right hand side are advertisements, and other things.
I’m sure the image above looks familiar. To me, this is a social media network that is showing its age in the amount of clutter that has managed to cram itself into the interface over time. If we take into account the addition of the Chat Sidebar view (which I’ve turned off) the far right side of the screen becomes a contact list. Aside from aesthetics, this sort of feature creep has turned what once was a clean layout without too much clutter or distraction into the digital equivalent to an advertising back-alley. Myspace had the same issue as well before its demise, when NewsCorp initially bought it up and then opened the flood gates for marketing. Now that Myspace is trying to be the place where musicians and artists can connect (read: spam) you, it is little wonder why anyone uses it any longer.
For the longest time, Facebook was the center of the social media world. Everyone was compared to them, and their 500+ Million users. Even today that happens, because that’s where everyone is at this particular moment. But there is always a paradigm shift on the horizon, and even Facebook knows that, which explains why they are looking for an IPO – the cash out. This can be seen in Zynga’s (Farmville, etc) sudden interest in an IPO as well.
Of course, this can also be explained in conjunction with the behemoth of media, Google, gaining ground with their Google+ Social Network. But something isn’t quite right…
With all of the hype surrounding Google+, for those that actually have gotten into the service have likely noticed that there is little difference between Facebook and Google+, other than the obligatory integration of Google services. Yes, Google+ has Circles and Sparks, and Hangouts, but Circles are a fancy way of saying “Groups”, Sparks is a fancy way of saying “RSS Search” and Hangout is just a Group VideoChat. Are these the killer features of the Google+ service? Sure they’ll throw in Games, because that’s obligatory for a social media network, and they’ll probably use their acquisition of Aardvark to offer a “Live Answers from Real People” service powered by the network.
I’m still unconvinced this is anything to really be excited about, especially when we take into account the Google+ stance on the use of pseudonyms as your profile identity, which you are not allowed to do based on their terms of service. People leaving Facebook based on privacy concerns to go to Google+ are finding out that they’ve essentially jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire as Google has decided to make all profiles public without an option to make them private, and they also insist you use your “wallet” name – that is a birth name on your profile or come under the scrutiny of the digital inquisition.
While the media has been focusing attention of Google+ and whether or not it will be a Facebook killer, there has been an ongoing development called Diaspora* in the background. A tech startup that is taking a different approach to all of this. But diaspora* isn’t a fly by night sort of operation that suddenly came out of nowhere; They’ve been around for a few years now, working diligently to create a social media network that is very different than Facebook or Google+.
We already know from the pictures that there is essentially little difference to the layout of these social media networks, so what are the underlying things that make these social media outlets different, and why should we care?
Privacy is Dead. (Or is It?)
When it comes to Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg once said “Privacy is dead” and when it comes to Google+ they are taking a similar stance in that your profiles must be tied to a real person (wallet name) and they will be insisting on making all profiles public. Aside from this very telling stance, Facebook and Google have a very large incentive to keep you public and “authentic” in that they earn their money on the zeitgeist advertising metrics. In this case, there is no room for the myriad of other ways we may present ourselves online, such as anonymously or through a pseudonym; Whether the pseudonym is a pen name or of your virtual world avatar is irrelevant, because they both act like a digital inquisition when challenged – asking for a cell phone number or other “approved” methods by which to validate your identity, which in turn defeat the point of anonymity or pseudonyms because those validation methods divulge private information about yourself that you had no intention of divulging – and more often than not shouldn’t be legally forced to divulge for something like a social media network.
Diaspora, on the other hand is the polar opposite to this “Privacy is dead” approach by stating it is specifically designed to facilitate your privacy in a decentralized and agnostic manner which each person is free to control entirely, while also giving users and entities the right to start their own “pod” in the network with the source code. This is a stark contrast to Google+ and Facebook where your information is housed centrally (thanks to Google and Facebook) and where Google and Facebook control what privacy (if any) you are allowed to have.
So while on the surface, these social media networks look essentially the same, the ideals of Diaspora and how it works are in stark contrast, almost in total defiance, to mainstream social media networks.
While Diaspora isn’t as fully featured as Facebook or Google+, you have to hand it to their small team in that they are diligently working on the code and making it better over time. Their greatest concern isn’t whether or not you can play Angry Birds, or beg for CafeWorld items on your stream, but in making the underlying system secure and privacy aware, even with encryption. Unlike Google+, they aren’t subject to corporate sponsor (or even intelligence agency) pressures to make everyone “authentic”. No, they simply care about whether or not you can control all the aspects of your privacy and persona.
Personally, I believe this is a “killer" app” for social media. It’s not the widgets, it’s not video games, it’s not a little “Like” button on websites. The killer application of social media is (and always should remain) the ability to represent yourself with privacy and security in whatever manner you decide. Advertisers and corporate entities will realize that reaching demographics is a privilege and not a right, and more so that the individual right to privacy will always trump their right to make a buck.
As of this moment, think about all of the information you voluntarily give them. Photos, videos, comments, likes, and all manner of user habits as they keep an eye on you. You’d think that would be enough to satisfy them, but now with Google+ they are extending that boundary further by insisting on a real name and not anonymous or pseudonym. If they challenge your “name” on a profile, they ask for a phone number to verify your identity or any other amount of “approved” identification methods such as maybe ID cards, or mainstream media references where your name is shown. Maybe a home address too?
Is it just me, or is all of this invasion of privacy becoming too much? If you use FourSquare, you’re already broadcasting everywhere you go, and I made a joke on Twitter about this to the tune of how the NSA can essentially track you without needing a warrant: Just make it into a game called FourSquare and you’ll be volunteering your whereabouts.
It’s one thing to make these privacy options… optional. But it crosses the line when these companies begin demanding instead of asking. That’s the one thing I will not stand for… will you?
Is there a SecondLife for Diaspora?
By now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with SecondLife since I’ve tagged the article for Twitter as such. Actually, this article has quite a lot to do with SecondLife and Linden Lab if we think about it.
Linden Lab wanted to create some sort of social media connection between their existing users and social media services that they use outside of SecondLife. Their initial thought on the subject was to find ways to integrate into Facebook (Skylight, etc) but found that when they put all their chips on the table to make that happen, they were shot down. Facebook decided to enforce their T.O.S. and wiped out quite a lot of Avatar Identity Profiles on the Facebook service. Since connecting SecondLife to Facebook would require Linden Lab to follow the Facebook terms of service, they would be forced to only allow “authentic” users to connect, which is a very different reality to what sort of user they already have of their service in Avatar identities. With Google+ the option wasn’t even on the table, as Google began enforcing their T.O.S. even in closed beta, removing “fake” avatar identities which were really SecondLife citizens looking for a privacy aware alternative haven for social media.
It is possible that the push for “Display Names” came about as a short sighted workaround to address the “authentic” names issue on Facebook, but then it was realized that not many people were going to change their display names to a real name, thus making that idea bunk. However, Display Names does have at least the side effect of allowing people to choose a name – so whether that is putting your real name over your head or just choosing something less arbitrary than the name you were assigned on rez-day is inconsequential.
The answer, at least in the short term, for Linden Lab has been to simply develop Social Profiles for their citizens – a walled garden social network for their own avatar users where they can have a safe haven. If you can’t join them, then you make your own… But this isn’t entirely the best idea either, even though it shows that Linden lab is at least thinking forward on this in terms of their own users. I mean, if we ignore the acquisition of Avatar United and shutting it down in the first place.
The problem still remains that the avatar identities are still blacklisted from mainstream social media, and those that are not have either given their real names, are on borrowed time, or have invented some plausible name that will escape detection from the digital inquisition. Creating an entirely new network specifically for just avatar identities is not solving the overall problem either, because the situation is reversed – in that instead of avatars being persecuted on social media, now “real people” are persecuted since they have to have an avatar to participate in Social Profiles.
This is where a stroke of genius comes in.
Diaspora is open source, and they wholly encourage people to set up their own “pods” in the decentralized network. They are privacy aware, and don’t care if you are anonymous, pseudonymous or authentic. Why build a social media network from the ground up that will only service a walled garden, when you can connect to an open source framework that prides itself on privacy and user identity in all forms?
I propose, then, that the SecondLife Social Profiles run on Diaspora as part of the decentralized social network infrastructure. This is the secret as to how we can bring the “authentic” people and the “avatar identities” together under a single banner, while remaining accessible to the outside world and cross platform. Why not? Diaspora seems to be the social network of choice gaining favor quickly with Avatar identities. It meets all of the needs for a Social Profile in SecondLife, and for the needs it does not meet, the code is open source and extendable freely as needed.
Diaspora + SecondLife, think about it.
There is also the main reason why I really believe that SecondLife should be using Diaspora as their Social Profiles system, and it’s the biggest reason:
Time and again I find myself writing about interoperability and the future of the Metaverse. More recently in the context of research papers and now as the Object Interoperability Lead for IEEE Virtual Worlds Standards Workgroup. The most consistent thing I find myself saying, and getting agreement on, is that open formats and methods are favored over proprietary methods at all points. The agnostic descriptions usually state things such as that the methods must be available via open source, without patents or litigation, and must be implementable by anyone who wishes without royalty, fee or restrictive license.
In the recent research paper with Dr. Dionisio and Dr. Gilbert, there exists a chart to illustrate how Social Media and virtual Environments offer two different forms of ecosystem, in that social media freely shares with each other, and while virtual environments sometimes connect to those social media outlets, it is often a one way street as virtual environments remain within their walled gardens.
Social Profiles as they exist today do not qualify for standards compliance, however the introduction of Diaspora as the backbone method by which to integrate Social Profiles for SecondLife would have far more benefits and easily qualifies under standards compliancy, while truly offering a method to reach outside of the walled garden, and reach back in.