Where is interoperability for social media?

A seemingly esoteric question actually turns out to be vital for dealing effectively with the trend toward silos of communication everywhere, from social networks to online communities.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

A funny thing is happening along the way towards connecting all of us together via social media: We've ended up at a place where we have thousands of seperate islands of communication, instead of the seamless, pervasive mass connectedness that seemed to be happening early on.

Admittedly, Facebook and Twitter, and their counterparts in Asia and around the world, have created very large social worlds where it doesn't seem like there are many barriers to connect with one another. But it turns out that the reality couldn't be further from the truth.

There is however little question that the basic change in approach -- and the fundamental innovation -- that social media brought to digital communication, specifically that information should be shared with everyone by default, stood things on their head and fundamentally changed the game. Because openly posting and sharing knowledge has proven to be much more powerful than automatically hiding it from non-recipients, as in older systems like e-mail, social media has since become the leading activity online and the top form of digital communication globally.

But the evolution of the industry ultimately led to a land grab that is still taking place. The key decision was made early on by the large commercial social networking services to build their social platforms as digital walled gardens. They could have made things interoperable but they didn't. In reality though, the early technologies and standards to enable it just weren't capable. And, I've pointed out in the past, there was little incentive to connect services together because maintaining ownership and control of a service's members, which are the real product in a commercial social network, has been key to the success of their business models and valuation.

That's not to say that there isn't enormous value in today's largest social networks. There certainly is and nearly two billion people seem to agree or they wouldn't use them. But the side effect of having a) poor technologies for interoperability from the outset and b) the business need of the large social networks to capitalize on their members is that in the end there is still virtually no way to connect with or engage between these services.

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In practice, this isn't always a big deal, in particular in the consumer world, for which most people are already members of the largest social networking services. But it has a very different effect in two important places: 1) Out on the edges of the social Web where special purpose communities and social networks have formed, and 2) in the business world where communication -- while it can greatly benefit from the open sharing model of social media -- by necessity is more private and in internal social networks.

Where is SMTP for collaboration?

So there is a good reason why e-mail is still the top form of communication in business, namely that you can talk to anyone with an e-mail address, no matter where they are.  On an individual social network, you can only really communicate with those on the same network. This is essentially a non-starter for business, and a growing problem for newer social networks and online communities, where it's increasingly difficult to grow participation because everyone is already a member of so many different services already.

Of course, we didn't start out with social media fragmentation, and we don't necessarily need to end up with it. But to resolve it requires a concrete solution that is 1) friendly to the business needs of the large social networks, 2) makes it very easy to communicate between any two social environments, and 3) can be readily realized without complex technology implementation or esoteric standards which would slow down adoption or make it unwieldy and unreliable.

The analogue for this in the e-mail world is SMTP. Any two e-mail systems in the world can exchange messages easily and reliably, and we absolutely count on this standard today to stay connected in the business world. In the early days of social, we had RSS and ATOM (and of course still do) that knitted together the early social media world using feeds and aggregation. But because of the historical process I outlined above, we never developed the equivalent of SMTP for the social world and now we are paying the price: By simple virtue of service proliferation and growth of private social networks, more and more fragmentation exists between social environments, making it increasingly difficult for all but the largest existing players to thrive.

It hasn't helped that deploying yet another social tool (with a matching isolated environment) is so often the knee-jerk reaction in a new social business initiative as the starting point for hopefully realizing the benefits of enterprise social media. Yet as soon as its users find they are sharply constrained by who they can collaborate with, they end up going back to solutions that have no such constraints. This is one of the main reasons that business e-mail has survived well into the social media era, despite steady declines in the consumer world.

I'll be bold and state clearly that until interoperability is addressed successfully, social networks outside of the major services -- and I'm talking consumer and well as enterprise -- have such a strong headwind that they will always be fighting to retain their users and grow.

In short, social media silos are currently a significant and substantial hindrance to business results. But identifying social silos as a problem, which by now is increasingly understood and widely discussed in the industry, is very different than developing a viable solution. On its face, it shouldn't be the hard part because both the Internet and Web have such a strong history of developing open standards that have connected billions of people all together very successfully.

But we just don't have today the equivalent of HTTP (interoperability for the Web) or SMTP (interoperability for e-mail) for the social world, and it's nowhere in sight.  The closest thing we have is OAuth, but that is primarily for sharing identity between two online services, not sharing messages themselves.

There have of course been attempts to resolve this over the years. The W3C (the body that manages most key Internet standards) has been trying to address this for years, but with limited success so far.  But I now believe there is an imperative for such interoperability standards for social business, especially for use in the enterprise.

As I look at dozens of large enterprise social networking implementations, it's clear that it has become one of the most pressing issues in adoption and sustainability: Every time you create a new social environment without interoperability, you create a significant barrier to communicating with those you are trying to collaborate with. That is the opposite of what we intended to do of course, but it's the natural consequence and outcome of our current situation.

What does a standard for social interop look like?

So what might a solution be for breaking down social media silos? What might such a standard look like? While I don't have all the details any more than anyone else, it seems clear to me that it should have some or all of these following aspects:

  • A consistent way to universally address anyone in any social network.  For interoperability between social media to work, we must have a global address system which is simple, consistent, and broadly understood. Frankly, to achieve this it may very well look a lot like an e-mail address. Every member of every social network would have such an address.
  • A mechanism to follow people and see posts from any social network in the activity stream of your favorite social network. The key here is that you don't actually address people very much in social networks -- instead most posts are for everyone to see. Thus outside of private messages, addressing is primary for mentioning people or replying to them in public threads. But your activity stream should show all posts from the people you're following across various social networks.
  • Support for social metadata. There must be a common way for social networks to share likes, retweets, and other information related to posts/status updates that have become nearly universal across social networks.
  • Extensibility points. I'm wary of such mechanisms because they usually become co-opted and re-introduce the fragmentation that you originally tried to prevent with the standard. But the standards industry has learned ways to minimize this. Without extensibility, it's hard for an industry to evolve and innovate, and differentiation is lost as well, so I'll keep this on the list for now.
  • Business model support. To be blunt, without something to preserve the interests of the large services, there will never be a successful social media interoperability standard. What this looks like is also one of the hardest issues to resolve, but it's also the linchpin in my opinion to making any interoperability standard a success.

For now, a putative social media transfer protocol (SMTP) looking like the one above, or something altogether different, is relatively far in the future. I find that consumer and enterprises both have too many other pressing matters to rally around this topic, yet it's clear that it's become a major obstacle and is leading us directly towards a social media monoculture, with all the attendant ramifications for lock-in, poor diversity, and poor connectedness outside of a few major services.

As many of you know, I've been a proponent of open social business standards and remain a board member of the OpenSocial Foundation (OSF), which is working towards various methods to address some of these issues. But we must continue to discuss this as an industry if we are to have progress. I'm hoping all of us, along with organizations like the W3C and OSF, and the commercial social networking services, will continue to push for what could very well be the next major breakthrough in social media. I do hope you'll help.

Additional Reading:

Facebook throws in towel on email

Enabling collaboration with open APIs

The major enterprise collaboration platforms and their mobile clients

Editorial standards