Reconnect the Dots: Toward a Decentralized Social Network

November 20th, 2007 | Category: Essays

About a year ago, I had a discussion with my friend Ryan Lane about a “Trillian for social networks.” Having no idea how such a thing would work (and realizing that I probably wasn’t the only one thinking about it), I was trying bouncing aspects of it around with someone who might have an idea how it would work. Skip ahead to last summer, my friend Justin Kistner and I had a similar conversation. Well, in the meantime, Justin has gone several more steps toward making this a reality.

The basic idea is to have one place — and only one place — to log in to in order to carry out all of the functions of social networking. Cerillian Studios’ Trillian accomplishes this for instant messaging. It’s an IM client that logs one into all the other IM clients (and IRC) from one interface. We all have friends on all the major IM networks, and Trillian allows one to talk to them all through one application. It’s a beautiful thing.

We also — whether we participate or not — all have friends scattered across all the major social networks, which currently include MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Xanga, and several others. Logging in and maintaining profiles on each to keep in touch with said friends is much more time-intensive than instant messaging logins. My proposal was one interface, or website, that connects to all, maintains one’s profile, sends messages through each (e.g., “bulletin posts” on MySpace or “wall writing” on Facebook) and brings back updates from each (e.g., “bulletin posts” and “wall writing,” as well as network-specific email messages). I know nothing of how that would look code/protocol/authentication-wise, but I do know enough to know that it’s an idea much easier talked or written about than fully done up in web-compliant code.

Justin may have cracked the idea wide open though. His conception of the network connects one’s blog or site to others creating a decentralized social network (DSN). In his version, would be, in essence, my profile on the network — a metanetwork of social networks. This connection is accomplished through what Justin calls an “identity layer.”

Identity Flow

[Justin’s “Identity Flow” chart from Metafluence]

Justin’s recent presentation on at IgnitePortland lays down the basic requirements, and his post on the “4Cs of the decentralized social network” (i.e., Contacts, Contracts, Content, and Context) elaborates them further. How much better would one profile be to maintain? For the seasoned web user, this coming to fruition would be good news, but if its interface makes it easy enough for the newbie to join in on the fun, it could ignite something really significant.

Further Posting:


  • Justin Kistner said:

    I love the way you put it, “Trillian for social networks”. I’m going to make a follow up post to that one, which will explore how microformats, XFN, FOAF, OpenID, and LDAP could be combined to make all of this possible.

    Someone will still have to write the CMS plugins to tie them all together. Like one ring to rule them all..

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Ha. That was just the first way I was able to conceptualize some sort of remedy to my frustration with constantly logging in to disparate social sites. Your name for it certainly sounds much more thought-out.

    Here’s to watching it come together.

  • Brian said:

    This is the kind of thing that could only come together with some tinkering guys. I can’t imagine there being a financial gain significant enough for a company to put manpower behind it.

    This would be a blessing for many of my comrade-in-arms.

  • Ryan said:

    Isn’t this the basic idea of Google’s Open Social? I’ve been playing around with this concept for sometime. Even if there was just a central director to start that pulled in via all the APIs of all the services that I’m a member of would be cool. I’ve been tossing the idea around here at MS, and they might do a light version of this on the Live side.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Our friend and colleague Mark Wieman sent me this link to a post on C|Net’s “Matter/Anti-Matter” blog about what Tim Berners-Lee is now calling the “Social Graph.”

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Here‘s another story about the social graph and the desire for a decentralized social network, and here‘s one on WordPress as the next social network.

    The meme is definitely spreading.