Wow! There's a ton going on over the past few months in the field of what I am going to call social networking applications. Until recently, social networking advances were about communication to (and later in coordination with) other people. Now, we're beginning to see social networking beginning the process of maturing:
- Shared authentication systems: These haven't really taken off yet but they're gaining ground. OpenID is gaining traction - allowing users to use the same identity across platforms (including Yahoo!). 'Undercover' shared IDs are in use at Ning and other aggregative services that use the same ID for many networks on their platform.
- Aggregating services: Ping.fm is a neat service that acts as a communication hub for a user's online life. It allows somebody to post to multiple networks simultaneously using the same interface.
The early days of social networking had similar issues where fake identities were common and it wasn't always clear who somebody was. Amazon changed this by implementing their Real Name service so that you knew somebody was who they claimed to be. Facebook was founded on a similar emphasis on tending to 'real' users. In the end, alternate identities are not only unavoidable, they are necessary. Credit cards and building passes offer insight into the future of social networks. Typically, people have multiple credentials for purchasing goods through the credit card network, or accessing money through the ATM network, or getting into a building through that building's authorization list.
This type of situation where you have a single prime mover (not to be too Cartesian, 'me'), associated credentials that identify the user on different networks, the ability for those credentials to be passed across network boundaries, and authorizations for each of those credentials on each network. We are only just barely able to manage credentials in a portable way. Let's hope that OpenID or something similar to it really does gain acceptance. Then, we need to hope that groups like Ping.fm become gatekeepers in a way that makes credentials portability possible. Finally, when those two steps have been successful, the final step is for social networks to become neutral. By neutral, I'm not implying that there won't be exclusivity or that networks won't have their own rules. Rather, I'm theorizing that networks will be able to exchange the credentials of a prime mover without that prime mover having to be involved in the process. This allows users to have relationships managed in a way that is isolated from themselves. This probably sounds esoteric, but this solution allows users to find other users in a much more user-controlled way. Similarly, it also allows users to protect themselves without the help of the networks in which they participate.
For example, in this landscape, a person's identity on one social network could find a person on another network with similar interests without either person knowing about the transaction nor with the social network itself mediating that interaction. Enough for today ... back to work on the project.