So I was listening to an IT Conversations podcast today, and Valdis Krebs offered quite an interesting perspective. Lately I’ve been thinking about social identity and how people can manage their online identities more efficiently, since I’m not aware of any tools that enable users to bridge social networks with one identity.
Anyway, Krebs asserted that today’s “social networks” such as LinkedIn and Facebook are in fact not very representative of the real world. A person’s social network consists of various groups of people, such as family, friends, coworkers, former coworkers, etc. It does not typically include people that sent you an invite that you feel obliged to accept. Regardless of that, he asserts that the technology that most realistically mirrors a person’s true social network is E-Mail. He suggests that people who go to LinkedIn or Facebook are going to a location that is not part of their natural social network in order to connect with people online; he refers to this as the ‘top down’ approach.
In contrast, a ‘bottoms up’ approach might be to leverage the communications technologies that people already use to build their online social networks. For example, building social applications based on a person’s IM client, E-Mail account, and twitter account would
more closely represent a person’s true social network, while at the same time providing convenience for that person. So the ‘bottoms up’ approach builds the network from the person out, instead of from the network down.
I find this idea very intriguing. From a technology perspective, I don’t see why applications couldn’t be built on top of IM clients as a starting point. As a former colleague of mine (excitedly) points out in a recent blog post, XMPP is an extensible protocol that sits at the heart of some IM client implementations. Why couldn’t social profile information be built out on top of these IM clients?
In fact, some IM providers are halfway there already (XMPP or not). If you try to edit your profile in Yahoo IM or AOL IM, you end up at a web page. This seems like a great place to build out a Facebook clone, if you ask me. It wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of having multiple social identities (unless that IM provider worked towards that goal via partnering agreements and open standards), but it would bridge the disconnect between the ‘social network’ web sites and the actual social networks that people already have in their IM clients.
So maybe OpenID isn’t the best answer to the problem. Maybe XMPP is. I’m certainly not making a proclamation here, but I’m convinced that XMPP deserves more careful thought.