How the web supports different types of cross-site social networks

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As we grow more comfortable with social networking, we are learning to create multiple networks of friends. We can find people to follow on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter – there is a seemingly endless supply of new places to connect. Some of these use actual open web infrastructure to spread data and control to the edges and form a true network, while others take a hybrid approach. Micro-blogging at Mastodon is an example of a true network where friends are made between Web sites. Micro.blog and WordPress publish their feeds to the open web but require a feed reader if you want to aggregate feeds from friends on multiple networks. Slack alternatives like Matrix, Rocket Chat and Mattermost support fully private, real networks.

True network

If you could follow Twitter users’ updates from Facebook, and vice-versa, then you would be using a real, decentralized social network. That sort of thing is currently possible if you are using Mastodon.social and you want to follow a user on a different installation of Mastodon software. I call this “level 1” of open web social networking, where people are forming a social network that crosses boundaries of Web sites and connects them together.

Hybrid network

Micro.blog is the crowdfunded darling of social networking fans, people are following each other there but are not able to follow users on Mastodon or other social networks. This is similar to WordPress.com where people can publish feeds easily but don’t have an easy way to aggregate friends from multiple networks into one feed. These hybrid networks are what I call “level 2” of open web social networking – they publish to the open web but I need a separate feed reader to aggregate bloggers on these networks.

Private, real network

Many companies have adopted internal social networking tools such as Yammer and Slack, and these have spawned open source alternatives such as Matrix, Rocket Chat and Mattermost. I call these potentially fully private networks “level 3” of open web social networking. They are open source and in some cases are built on decentralized protocols, but are less focused on the traditional aggregating and following pattern.

Leveling up

A blog can be upgraded to “level 1” with a Webmention plugin, which allows a commenter to reply to a post by writing a post on their own blog. All they have to do is include a link to the original post in their reply, and their blogging software will send a Webmention between websites to the original author’s blog. You can send a comment/reply to this blog post just by linking to it from a post on your site!

Today the open social web has real decentralized social networks like Mastodon which allow people to connect to friends across many different sites, and also feed readers that can go straight to many sources and aggregate updates. Feeds of photos on the web can be public or private the same way a Twitter or Instagram page can be public or private. These tools may not be ready for grandma and grandpa yet but they point the way to a more powerful version of social media where content from many different sites can be combined to give users more control of their experience.

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