Online social networking is now in its second decade. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are enormously popular: Facebook claims over 1 billion active accounts and an average of 58 million unique messages (Tweets) pass through Twitter every day. The recent explosion in smart-phone ownership with their associated ‘app’ cultures has also fuelled the growth of mobile social networking with the introduction of apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. We can see from this that online social networking is a popular and central activity to a large proportion of the global population. This is not surprising: we humans are social animals with a need to communicate with each other. Social networking augments our existing ‘offline social networks’, allowing us to keep in touch with people over great distances, share our experiences and associated content (e.g., photos, videos, soundtracks and reports), organise our social lives and discover new social networks that were previously beyond our reach.
We note however that most online social networks suffer from a common problem that prevents them from capturing the true richness of our offline social networks. As social beings, we all participate in different, overlapping social groups. We also adjust our identities to match our social contexts, and our use to match the constraints imposed by the social network platform in question. For example my identity, the way I behave and communicate, is different in a working context than it is in the context of a group of friends, though I may share individuals between my work social network and leisure social network. Users may choose to distribute, or not, certain content within certain networks due to the terms imposed by those networks. Online social networks however try to push their users to have a single online identity; a one-size-fits-all approach that we believe does not capture the true richness of our offline social interactions and is a limiting factor to the growth of online social networking.
We are developing a new way of approaching online social networking that takes into account at its very root the concept that users must be able to express themselves through multiple independent identities. Our approach is not to replace existing online social networks services but instead to look at ways of providing a connecting layer over the top of them. Our development is informed by the development of the Internet’s core TCP/IP networking protocols that were developed during the 1970s that provided a way for proprietary computer networks to interoperate. In an analogous way, we hope that our explorations will inform the development of more flexible online social networking services in the future.
We are still in the initial stages of exploring this idea and to that end we are developing an initial prototype software platform to act as a layer over existing online social networks (focussing on Twitter and Facebook initially). The platform, as shown in the diagram, has shim layers that read social network messages from multiple sites (and multiple accounts on sites) into a common format (multi-part MIME [email]) that can then be read by a client. The client also has the capability to transmit messages through the shim layers to the online social network sites. So far, this is functionally no different to existing social network aggregators like Tweetdeck, excepting that being implemented only within the user devices, the existence of multiple identities is not shared with any one online service provider. Where we intend to experiment further however is in the layer between the client and the social networks. It is at this stage we intend to develop ability for messages to be processed as they pass through, both during reception and transmission. This will enable much greater user control over the appearance and presentation of their content to specific recipients and on specific social network platforms.
We currently have two planned processors that we will build into the prototype. The first is an adaptive filter for reception of messages. It is common for people to have accounts on different social networks and to have overlapping groups of contacts on those social networks. It is also common to send the same message through different social networking channels. Typically this means that a user can receive the same message multiple times. An adaptive filter would be able to detect duplicate messages and filter them out. In a similar way, if a user is sending a message targeted at a specific user or group of users, an adaptive filter could potentially send the message through the social network in which the recipient user is most likely to respond on (e.g., by learning over time which social network the recipient makes the most use of).
Our second planned processor is intended to help users understand better the consequences of posting copyrightable content (e.g., photos) onto different online social networks. Online social networks such as Facebook allow users to post media content like photos and videos to the service where the media itself is hosted by the online service. In order to do this, the terms and conditions of the service specify that the user must transfer some rights to the media file to the service. Whilst this may be fine for a lot of users, there are also a lot of situations under which transferring some rights to the service may not be acceptable. For example, a musician wishing to share their latest track may not wish to transfer rights for commercial reasons. We propose an intermediate service in our platform under which a user can specify which rights they are happy to share and which they wish to maintain, the intermediate service can then identify instances in which licence ‘collisions’ may occur and warn the user before posting the message to the online social network service.
We are still in the very early stages of development but we hope to build the platform over the next few months so that we and any other interested parties can begin to experiment with the platform/idea. You can follow our development efforts at our github.com repository https://github.com/CREATe-centre.