Web 3.0 - the future of social networking

Note: re-posted after withdrawing post a few days ago; no changes made since then.I would put this very much on par with a past Scoble moment, as I’ve been lucky enough to see something which actually impresses me.

Note: re-posted after withdrawing post a few days ago; no changes made since then.

I would put this very much on par with a past Scoble moment, as I’ve been lucky enough to see something which actually impresses me. I’ve seen a lot over my life, the first real windowed operating system, Windows 95 - the World Wide Web being born, through to the MySpace generation, to seeing on-demand content and multicast streams. This probably tops a good proportion of the stuff I’ve seen over my life in technology.

Social networks nowadays aren't just used for socialising (hence the name) but also for meeting new business partners and clients. For students it can be a medium for those who need support with their work - allowing them to connect with their colleagues as a virtual workplace to share ideas, thoughts, constructs, and progress with work.

I was asked to a conference call last Friday to be briefed over another social network web-startup; I must say at this point I was somewhat apprehensive, considering the average start-up nowadays seems to start-down and doesn’t get any further than an optimistic idea.

I was wrong, hopelessly wrong.

Vivaty (pronounced "vivv-at-ee"), a small company in the San Francisco area, has developed over the course of two years a platform designed for rich web content, 3D experiences as well as wider ambitions. With the invested support of Google, Amazon, Electronic Arts and others in the process, they have created an application which will be out of private beta into a more advanced, better working public beta this Tuesday 8th July.

The interoperability of Vivaty Scenes, the 3D environment I’ll talk about in a minute, works with AIM and Facebook as an added application. Scenes is not a social network, rather a platform which plugs into your already setup, defined and working social network. It plugs straight into your social network seamlessly; the platform itself designed to carefully piggy-back off what is already there and expand upon it.

Scenes, however, is a 3-dimensional translation of your 2-dimensional virtual life. You can walk around as a virtual you, build your world or “scene” around you, and you can decide explicitly where things go, what they do and how you can interact with them. Consider this another Second Life, but also throw in The Sims, your own social network and (if you still remember it).

I spoke to the CEO of Vivaty, Keith McCurdy on the phone last week and he talked me through what they have, how they’re doing and what this is all for.

Vivaty want this be easy on the user – they don’t want the user to have to go through endless installs, plugin downloads, upgrades, anything like that. It works with most, if not all browsers, and there’s very little user intervention needed to get Scenes up and running.

Note: For the sake of clarity: "Vivaty" is the company who have created a product called "Scenes". In Scenes, you can create your own "scene", hence the name. I realised half way through the following paragraphs that I was confusing myself, so God knows how anyone else can understand what I'm saying.

You start in your scene, a three-dimensional model, blank and bare, with nobody around and nothing much to do. It’s a fresh start, a clean break, and you can start customising every little bit of your Scene with the content that you want. Say for example, you want to share a Facebook album with the world - you can create an actual picture frame on one of your walls, and set the content to be that particular album. Someone can come along, admire the photo in the frame, click on it and the next photo appears. It doesn't just interact with Facebook though; if your content is out there on the web, you can put it in your scene and customise it.

I asked Keith about the legalities of copyrighted material in your scenes, especially in the wake of the Google/YouTube/Viacom fiasco. Because you aren't downloading and reuploading the content to your scene, you aren't violating copyrights. The general consensus, although not always right, is if it is already there on the Internet, then you can redistribute it, link to it, copy it, and use it because it is in the public domain, but also because your scene is a semi-private space, limited to your social network, it's deemed safe from the likes of Viacom.

A new scene is like a template: you start with a basic, physical yet virtual structure, and your 3D representation of yourself in your scene, ready for you to modify, create, share, play around with, and utterly customise every aspect of this virtual haven. What really makes Scenes work, is the ability to translate back from the 3D world to your 2D social network again. Your Facebook wall for example, can be displayed and used in your scene, but people can write on your virtual wall and the mini-feed gets updated on your 2D Facebook page. Even though you're using a 3D representation of Facebook, the platform ports back your information so others can see it.

Even though I have mentioned Facebook a lot, AIM is perfectly compatible with Vivaty Scenes and works as a "module" which applies the same social network platform that Facebook has, except to your friends and contacts on your AIM contact list.

Considering you have your own scene, customised and perfected to just how you like it, you're not the only one, remember? Your friends can use Scenes and have their own scenes, allowing you to effectively walk to and from different scenes, interacting with different virtual people, the people that you know, in the scenes that they've created, customised to just how they like it. You can bring up your friends list in Vivaty Scenes, click on a friend and teleport into their room or wherever they are. If they're in someone else's scene, you'll jump out of your scene straight to where they are.

At this point in the phone conversation, I became a little concerned. I, like many others, enjoy catching up with my friends in the pub down the road, sipping away on a nice cold pint, reminiscing about how only a few years ago we were drinking neat vodka out of the bottle outside Tesco's on the corner of the High Street (this is what typical British teenagers do by the way). I asked whether we as a generation are virtualising too much, in terms of emulating actual, physical movements in the real world. Scenes isn't meant to replace real life, it's simply more of an advancement of social networking in the online world; he told me, "it's just a bit of fun!"

Even though I don't develop, I asked about the development platform, because after all, Scenes is a web platform. It's designed to work well on any HTML platform, to the point where it could easily be rolled out across the web; Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, IRC perhaps, expanding/rollover advertising space on websites, even other social networks like Bebo (my sister would be extremely pleased) or MySpace (not so pleased). Their trick is, a decade old set of IFRAME tags making it embeddable into anything. There isn't a definitive roadmap defined for Scenes development as yet; these people know what they're doing and are just taking their time to make it just right.

I bet at some point during this article you've thought the words "Second Life" and I don't blame you. When I first got correspondence through from the PR, I thought, "so what, what's the difference?" There is a difference. Second Life was the first 3D dedicated social network, and it was a great idea and still is. Many people took to it - concerts were held in Second Life, meetings, advertising, but it never really has taken off. It's a walled, restricted garden which lets you do certain things but not others. Scenes piggy-backs onto your online social group, keeping everything that is already there but adding to it, translating from 2D to 3D, and the more people who use it, the bigger the overall network becomes.

I asked about how the structure of Vivaty Scenes worked. The backend support systems of these online ventures are often immense; Windows Live Messenger is complicated enough, and Facebook has a huge server farm containing database after database, holding your online worlds together. Scenes runs on simple web servers using standard web technologies. Yes, it seems boring, but that's all it really needs. With Second Life, the masses of users supports the mesh-style setup of the world, all working together and sharing the load, whereas Scenes runs all backend for the time being. Once the scene you're in is loaded, there is little bandwidth being used, although they recommend a broadband connection still. Other content within the scene - a Flickr gallery on a wall or a YouTube clip on your virtual television will use more bandwidth, but it's loaded directly from their own respective websites, and doesn't proxy through Vivaty's servers.

With my past history with child protection and web safety, I felt it was an important point to bring up the safety of users, children, privacy and suchlike. Scenes is aimed primarily at a younger audience, 18-24 year olds inclusive but not limited to. Because the platform extends from the existing social network, whether it be AIM or Facebook, it carries on those settings through Scenes. You can't chat to others in Scenes if they're not on your friends list, for example, and it follows the social graph and rule set of your host social network. Obviously you can expand upon these - block specific people whilst making your scene entirely public to everybody, or block everyone except a very few.

Web 2.0 has been and gone, some sites are still lingering around, but we've already seen the most recent "mass-change" in Internet media. I can honestly say, if there is a Web 3.0 on the horizon, this is what will spur it on; merging online and offline, but enabling user interaction in virtual form.

Some things which I asked and were discussed aren't available at this time due to an embargo on particular things. Once I get the go ahead from the PR person (who might I add is lovely) I'll bring it to you here. I think you'll like some of the things they're planning; it'll make you think twice before you pick up a Coke can on the street... not in a way like, "argh, this Coke can is diseased, why does it smell of pee?" - rather in a, "wow, that's pretty cool" way.

As I've written this, I feel I've struggled telling you how awesomely cool this is. Words can't justify Vivaty Scenes; it's something you have to see with your own eyes. Vivaty Scenes opens up on the 8th July - I'll post again when it launches.