Premature optimism

Despite careful future-proofing and a structure that was deliberately built to evolve over time so that it would remain current, my elderly Social Computing course has pretty much reached the end of its useful life, so I have started to revise and refactor it. While doing so, I came across this 2007 article that I had bookmarked for the course. The headline of the article was “Checkmate? MySpace, Bebo and SixApart To Join Google OpenSocial (confirmed).” The answer to the question posed in the headline was, as we now know, a very resounding NO.

Involving every social network of note, apart from Facebook, in a consortium, as well as having the support of many other huge industry players, OpenSocial seemed to me, and to almost everyone else in the field, to be the beginning of something amazing. At the time, I blogged about this article thus:

This is probably the biggest thing ever to happen in the world of social software.
Wow.
MySpace, Bebo and SixApart are in on the deal that already includes Orkut, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Ning, Hi5, Plaxo, Friendster, Viadeo and Oracle (yes, Oracle). As the article says, checkmate for Facebook, but it can’t be long before they join in.
I can hardly wait to start playing.
The range of possible educational uses is staggeringly large. Maybe not as big as the invention of the Web itself, but potentially as transforming. I think that we have just seen the start of a new era.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Facebook did not join in at all and it was anything but killed off by the consortium. In fact, the Evil One took the precise opposite course, ruthlessly locking more and more and more in, sucking in more and more from other systems, and giving less and less back, until they pretty much owned the space. Facebook always fought dirtier, with a more single minded focus on one and only one thing (building a social network), regardless of the consequences or moral imperatives, than anyone else. Of the list of prominent OpenSocial members back in 2007, a few just about limp along, but many are dead, including Google’s own Orkut and Google Plus. Friendster died, had a brief revamp as a gaming network then died again. MySpace and Hi5 limp along miserably. Ning did what seemed to be a really bad thing by completely closing its (originally beautiful, elegant, crowd-sourced, evolving) system and converting it into a paid social media hosting service, but it still survives in that role. SixApart is an empty shell company doing nothing of note. The rest barely register, then or now.

A fair number of social software companies fought back by trying to use Facebook’s own evil strategies, mostly without much success – I was particularly sad that Twitter, in particular, slowly removed most means to use its data in any meaningful or useful way outside the application.  A number of them survived by being what Terry Anderson and I call sets rather than networks, thereby avoiding head-on confrontation by not being perceived as social networks. Though many had a social network, that wasn’t their primary role. Many of these remain hugely successful – indeed, YouTube remains perhaps the only centralized social medium to resoundingly beat Facebook in user numbers, though Wikipedia comes pretty close by some measures. Reddit continues to thrive largely unaffected by the evil giant, and the set-oriented face of Twitter continues to do pretty well, even if its social networking side waned long ago. Though too seldom recognized as social media in commentaries on the subject, the success of Amazon and eBay is largely down to their clever use of social software: they are vast, and support vast communities. There are also lots of systems that are doing comfortably in their non-competing niches, such as Pinterest, Tumblr, Medium, and many others. A few vertical social networks, with specific foci (LinkedIn being by far the biggest and most successful example), continue to to very well: in my own fields of education and technology, Academia.edu, GitHub, ResearchGate and StackOverflow are doing fine, for instance (though they tend to be quite set-oriented, which helps), and various MOOC providers and MOOC-ish providers like the Khan Academy are thriving through the use of social software. A few did too well and got taken over by bigger companies, including by the evil cousins Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram) and Microsoft (GitHub and LinkedIn). This is tragic.

OpenSocial is not exactly dead: there is still a group working on it within the W3C and there are a few implementations still available in minor social systems like MySpace and Hi5. However, it has not progressed significantly since 2013, and Apache closed down Shindig, the main reference implementation, several years ago. Other related standards, like OpenID, OAuth and even the venerable RSS are still going strong but slowly decaying, albeit that they have an enormous momentum that won’t make them easy to kill for a long time to come.

Those of us who continue to dream of an open, distributed, social Web appear to lurk around the periphery. Mastodon continues to grow, Solid looks promising, though I would certainly not put any money on either of them coming to challenge the monoliths in any serious way. However, the biggest distributed social web system, by orders of magnitude, is sitting in front of us, hiding in plain view, and it is still growing very successfully. The open source WordPress powers about a third of all websites, and is rich in social features right out of the box. To put that in perspective, there are as many or more sites running on WordPress than there are sites of any description running on any of the major web servers (obviously, WordPress can run on any major web server). There are plugins to support most distributed standards and protocols, from WebMention to Solid, and much in between, and it supports basics like RSS, in-site collaboration, and public comments (including trackbacks and pingbacks) out of the box. There’s plentiful support, mainly through plugins or manual embedding, for mashups. Sure, it is a long way from the vision that many of us have of a fully distributed open social web, but it does much of the job well enough. And, yes, many WordPress sites are not particularly, if at all, social, but the majority of them have at least some support for engagement, and virtually all are an active part of the Web itself, linking to one another and other sites in many ways, including blogrolls and embedded feeds. A vast number, again most likely the majority, provide hooks or feeds into more than one of the monoliths which, though bad in itself, sneaks in distribution via the back door because the posts themselves remain independent and not locked in. My own site feeds its posts into Twitter, for example, and has the usual set of links that allow its pages to be shared via various social media. It also automatically sucks in a few of my RSS feeds from the Landing and elsewhere, so it is already a mashup. A fair number use BuddyPress, which explicitly overlays a social network onto the system, though they are all at the shallowest end of the long tail.

WordPress itself is inelegant from a software perspective (and it is built on similarly inelegant systems like PHP and MySQL) but, like the tools it is made from, it is very well evolved indeed. It just works. It is one of the most manageable server-based apps I have ever used and demands little skill of its users for authoring. It has an incredibly rich developer community that provides tens of thousands of themes and plugins that can be used to make it do almost anything. Its hybrid open/proprietary model is about the most sensible I have seen. Automattic (the company responsible for it) do try to sell you their hosted services, especially through the JetPack bundle of plugins that it comes with by default, but not objectionably, and they very actively support the open source code and its self-hosting users. Most of their services provide an acceptable free tier and, of course, you don’t have to use them at all as there are many alternatives available. Automattic make their money through providing high quality, convenient tools and services at fair prices, not by locking you in. The plugin marketplace is wide open, with a good balance of open source and commercial options that again provide plentiful choice, and there’s a lot more to be found outside the plugin site hosted by WordPress themselves. And, yes, there are even a couple of OpenSocial plugins, albeit feebly implementing a tiny subset of the standard. It’s not the future we all dreamed of, but it’s as good as it gets right now.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/4013155/premature-optimism

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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