With Facebook's recent stumbles in online privacy, a lot of people are now calling for distribtued information sharing systems, which people can use to interoperate between different servers, different providers, or run your own if you so choose. The Diaspora project has been started by a bunch of grad students to do exactly that, and it looks like they've gone viral. At the time of writing, they had raised over $160,000, when all they were looking for is $10,000. Not bad for a first round of funding, especially considering all they've done so far is produce a video.
After talking about this at the pub on friday (the pub is where I do most of my best theorising :)), a friend suggested that I look at the Friend of a Friend Project. He suggested that distributed social networking has been around for ages. Unfortunately, foaf does not deal properly with security or webs of trust, so I feel that it is useless for what most people would want.
There's no technical impediment to stop distributed social networking from working. In the end, it would be a much more secure, robust and scalable solution. As we've seen a number of times, Twitter sometimes struggles with stability and when it goes down, all of Twitter goes down. These are the original principles upon which the Internet was founded. The problem is that modern, slick systems take a lot of resources to put together. Many people and companies don't view the internet as a way of speaking together in an interoperable fashion any more; they want to make money which means not being interoperable. Google, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook provide these services so that they can make money of the information we give them. We make a choice to trade our privacy for the service that we are provided.
I wish the Diaspora guys good luck. The biggest hurdle they will face is getting the masses to care. In order to get enough take up of their solution, they will need to either convince your average user to host their own server, or find companies that are willing to host the service but not get access to any of the data. I can't think of any big company that would want to do that. There's nothing in it for them if they can't mine all of your data. Most ISPs will host email for you, but they do it as a method of lock in. once you're on email@example.com, it provides a reason to stay with that ISP rather than taking your email with you. Besides, email was well entrenched before the rise of the ISP. Every ISP had to provide email. It was just expected. There's no reason to start hosting a social networking server unless everyone else does, which means you've got a chicken and egg problem.
Its something I've been thinking about a lot this weekend. How do we make the general populace care enough about their personal data to protect it? I don't know the answer.