An Infrastructural Insufficiency of the Internet

An overextended metaphor?

406 words

The Internet, when I first started using it, felt like a social desert. People had email, instant messaging, chat rooms, and discussion forums, but these channels for communication felt separate from everything else and more like alternatives to existing real-world channels. Communication was isolated from destinations for the consumption of content, from tools for the creation of content, and from platforms for the publishing of content.

Eventually, sites for the social sharing of content appeared, and each of these maintained separate representations of the social graph. Over time people collected contacts on Flickr, friends on Facebook, and followers on Twitter, and such sites became oases of social functionality. At first these patches of green built walls to keep out the marauding hordes of anonymity, but as they grew larger they also grew more open, and they started to trade content amongst themselves.

Each real-world individual, however, was forced to maintain a separate existence in each of them simultaneously. It was difficult for people to travel with various aspects of their digital identities between walled oases, and it was nearly impossible for them to take their friends with them when they did. As a result, people were forced to duplicate their selves and their relationships. Some walled gardens tried to build roads to connect with (and undermine!) the others, but nothing really improved. Everyone had to maintain a copy of themselves in each oasis in which they wanted to produce and share content, and life was a mess for everyone. It was time to build something new, a sort of subway under the blossoming desert, so that every aspect of every person could be wherever it was appropriate for it to be, all the time, all at the same time…

The Internet has outgrown its social infrastructure. It’s becoming increasingly inconvenient and infeasible to create and maintain multiple copies of our networks, with all of their social complexities (friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, ex-girlfriends, etc), and with all of their nuances of interaction (friend requests, @replies, emails, wall posts, blog comments, etc). Tools such as Facebook Connect are hopelessly hindered by over-saturated social graphs, pre-existing notions of privacy, and misguided attempts to pull content back into single cluttered interfaces. Identity and content aggregators such as, Plaxo and Friendfeed don’t provide the tools for web-wide social graph management. Put simply, we need new tools for the modern social Internet.

What will they be like?
Who will build them?