Pelle Wessman

Things about me and the world around us

Why federate just the social web?

Twitter’s stricter API-terms resulted in reactions like and to be launched and in the question of a federated social web yet again being a topic that gathered interest from around the web.

The concept of a federated social web is a good one - why leave the innovation of something as useful and important as our online social life to just a few big companies? When we could instead rather rely on an open infrastructure where innovation could happen wherever good ideas could be found? It sounds like such an obvious thing and hopefully we will get there eventually through techniques like OStatus or similar.

But the core concept of a federated social web – that it’s an open platform which everyone can take part of, a distributed platform which everyone can take part in without relying on anyone else, but yet federated so that all different parts comes together as one - is that limited to only the social web? Surely it can’t be so.

What other parts of the web could need the same changes? What other parts of the web has its innovation power limited by closed platforms? Two comes to mind - the monetary web (Paypal, Flattr etc) and the media web (Spotify, Netflix etc).

Think about it - what if a federated monetary web existed where everyone could expose assets of their own and set up exchanges between different assets so that I could easily pay for something in an asset that I choose to use and have it flow through the web to an asset that the seller has choosen to use. A donation from one crowdfunding site, like Flattr, could end up in another, like Kickstarter - the users wouldn’t have to pick the same service.

Imagine the possibilities a federated monetary web would enable - smaller sites being able to compete with the big without lacking any network effect of their own. OpenTransact is an attempt in this direction and has implementations like PicoMoney but money laundry laws and such probably makes it a headache to take a lead in. Smaller steps like Rel-Payment is probably what we are left with in the near future but even just that is a step in the right direction.

A federated media web then? Why isn’t there a standardized API on which I can build a Spotify or Netflix competitor? Why do I have to implement a thousand different API:s and, in the case of non-free materials negotiate, why do I have to negotiate a thousand contracts to get all the material that Spotify and Netflix has? Why should it be the best negotiator that gets the best media service and not the most innovative media services? And why should the smaller record labels be excluded because the services don’t have an interest in adding them?

Imagine record labels as well as Creative Commons sites all exposing their catalogues through standard API:s and for those wanting payment letting you sign up for access to that API using a simple credit card and a standard term. Imagine aggregators being allowed to merge many small catalogues into big ones and to re-license materials so that you yourself only have to sign up for payment to one or a few aggregators to find yourself having most of the worlds music and movies at your fingertips. Imagine the innovations that such a possibility would enable and not just in how media players themselves work could but also in other aspects. Big players and small ones would be put at the same level - it would be as easy to include materials from small indie labels as it would be from large catalogs - the democratizing power of the web would truly enter the world of music and movies (and e-books!).

Is the federated media web happening? No idea - haven’t seen any work in that direction, but I haven’t been looking that hard either. The DRM-hatred amongst part of the open source community has probably made it hard for any such work to happen - after all - who wants to be exposed as the one who helped the devil get paid? Hopefully the community will get past that and realize that paying for something - DRM-infested or not - isn’t something bad - it’s a valid ecosystem in which a lot of lovely content get created, it just needs a good and open system in which it can grow and flourish in a fair fashion.

It would be fun to see the vision of a federated social web extend beyond the social web and to enable alternatives to not just Facebook and Twitter, but also to other things like Paypal, Spotify and Netflix. Extending the open web and unlocking the innovation power that’s out there can lead to amazing things - I therefor certainly hope that we will see more initiatives like the federated social web and not less.

See mentions of this post
Have you written a response to this? Let me know the URL: