Taking Charge of Content

Access to simple tools empowers us to mix and mash, blog, and mesh. We create content on our terms and share the results with social networks we have chosen to join based on common interests and expertise. What's more, the proliferation of social networks means we benefit from an abundance of choice. From Facebook to LinkedIn, we have the freedom to belong to any number of networks. But that freedom has limits.

Social network sites push the envelope when it comes to encouraging interaction, but they are far from "open." To the contrary, these centralized networks essentially create data silos and lock users into the equivalent of a proprietary walled garden. We create content, contacts, and collaboration, but can't take the data with us. Nor can we connect our social networks atwill to watch people and ideas bump, connect, and bubble up. We may own the copyright of our digital content, but we need new functionality to make sure the content we create belongs to us, not the social networking companies that run the portals we use.

To take social networks to the next level, the industry needs new APIs and techniques to connect social networks into a new kind of social web. There are already those working towards that end. Macromedia founder Marc Canter's current company, Broadband Mechanics, is deliciously disruptive and determined to leave an indelible mark on the industry.

Designed from the ground up to unleash users and their content, the company aims to interconnect the world's social networks and ultimately create a meshed universe of infinite social networks. Canter envisions as many networks as there are people, to match each individual's multi-faceted personal and professional personae.

His mission is to enable the social web by providing the software and open standards necessary to interconnect disparate social networks and blogging tools. "Platforms by definition lock up people's data and content by simply not providing import/export capability," Canter argues. "Social capital is content, user profile data is content, and our own media is content. If my content is locked up in social network and I can't get it out, that's theft."

To free our content—and our minds—Canter has launched PeopleAggregator, a social network web service and social networking tool complete with open APIs to enable users to build their own standalone social networks. Put simply, users of PeopleAggregator can download the code and set up a social network, or choose to let Broadband Mechanics host the network.

To allow users to import and export data and content freely, the system needs an iron-clad authentication system—so Canter has focused his efforts on establishing the PeopleAggregator as an "Identity Hub." The idea, he says, is to support any or all open ID systems that exist and make it possible for users to come to the system and use their username from any of these open ID systems.

By normalizing the namespace and creating a federated identity space, PeopleAggregator paves the way for a whole series of compelling end-user solutions. Of course, success depends on broad vendor support. But that's in reach now that even Microsoft and IBM recognize the importance of federated authentication. Biggies like AOL and Yahoo! are also buying in to the concept of open ID and the vision of a "content mesh." Apple and MySpace have yet to follow suit, but even laggards like these will soon realize openness is inevitable and sits at the core of a sustainable business model.

Next up comes what Canter calls "common actions." This refers to all the things people can do with each other between disparate networks or systems and includes creating a relationship (adding a friend), creating or joining groups, sending messages, and posting content. Granted, the company couldn't squeeze everything into Version 1.0, but it has made an impressive start.

Canter's company has also developed external web services that enable users to mash up and build social networks to suit the spirit of the moment. For example, users could take a Google map, do a search of a specific area, identify like-minded individuals, and then take that search result and spawn off a group from its engine. "You could create the perfect social network down to the smallest detail," he says. Imagine a network of Indian biotech entrepreneurs or San Francisco playwrights. Just goes to prove there are no limits to what users can create—provided they have complete control of their digital content.