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May 22, 2013
What the hell happened to Federated Social Networks?

"Facebook quitters, is this guy your savior?"

Ho boy, was I proud of this title ^^^ and blog post by @scobleizer. It was on May 22nd 2010, exactly three years ago. Facebook was engulfed in a major privacy scandal, the Diaspora team was wrapping up an amazing kickstarter campaing and Google was having multiple "social web" sessions at I/O and I had just been interviewed by Robert on the topic of Federated Social Networks and presenting him our work on Onesocialweb

It felt like a perfect storm for making Federated Social Networks happen. Yet.. three years later, this dream feels further away than ever. What went wrong? Where do we go from here?

What went wrong?

Although many things eventually played against the various projects, I think we can single out three key factors:

  1. Loosing the leaders: A big chunk of the thought leaders got hired by major companies in a very short period of time. In fact, most of them went to Google.
  2. Analysis paralysis: Although we shared the same goals, the Federated Social Web community got quickly paralysed by endless debates on how to get there. XML vs JSON vs RDF, email vs uri identifier,etc... 
  3. Building Cathedrals: We were too busy architecturing the perfect protocols and not paying enough attention to the developers (and the challenges of interoperability) and the end users.

I think this last point is crucial, and was nicely phrased by @tomcoates as the following (in CAPS indeed :-) : "THINGS THAT USERS DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT DON'T MAKE MONEY **DO NOT SUCCEED**. THEY GO BUST OR FALL AWAY AND GET REPLACED BY THINGS THAT DO MAKE MONEY AND THAT USERS GET!"

What next then?

Well, over the last months I fell in love with the #indieweb community. Which, could be summarized as: "stop talking, start coding". The idea is simple: get your own domain, host your site there, and slowly work towards federating with others.

Instead of focusing on protocols, it focuses back on YOU and your needs. You get immediate value out of it (you got a blog) and you make exciting progress with a community of likeminded folks. As an example; a couple weeks ago, we managed to federate 5 different implementations around a single comment thread. Yes, this stuff is real.

I also like the 'low-tech' approach of the indieweb. Instead of complex API, we rely on the web and some simple markup in html pages to share content in an interoperable way.

So, no big kickstarter campaign this time and no Cathedrals. We just need you to reclaim your identity, get your domain, host your blog, and join the federation. If interested, hop into #indieweb on #freenode and we'll gladly help out.

What do you think? Are federated social communications doomed? What do we need to make it happen? What do YOU need to join the movement?


Ben Werdmuller Gravtar
on 22 May 13 at 19:14 CEST
I've also fallen in love with #indieweb over the last few months, and have made a commitment to moving over to my own platform, which I'm on track to do by the end of the month.

There was some leadership drain, but there were a lot of stalwarts in the federated social web community. Honestly, though, I think Tom hit the nail on the head, and the movement was stymied by complexity (and the bureaucracy that you described). Brad Fitzpatrick's frustration at the last Federated Social Web Summit was also spot on.

Indieweb will succeed, I believe, because it's easy. You can get *something* up and running in an afternoon. There's lots of great software springing up (and I hope mine gets to be part of the mix). The next trick is, finding the business cases for building these features in, and keeping them in.
eschnou Gravtar
on 22 May 13 at 19:28 CEST Thanks! Great to see you want to move to your own platform. I'm looking forward to receive your first pingback and indieweb comments :-) Stop by on irc when you get a chance.
Ben Werdmuller Gravtar
on 23 May 13 at 17:11 CEST
I'm lurking on the channel a lot!

I wanted to come back and say: I think the federated social web software that was produced, and is being produced, is amazing. Honestly showing us the future, way ahead of time. And my comments above about complexity should not detract from that; the point is that the platforms people are writing abstract that complexity away from end-users, which is great.
Felix Gravtar
on 28 May 13 at 15:47 CEST
Similar questions have been asked regarding's upcoming migration from StatusNet to Evan Prodromou has always wanted to give people software for making their own federated networks, but what they wanted was an open alternative to Twitter -- in other words, a central gathering place. And that makes sense, because in federated networks the biggest problem is discovery. Consider the hoops you must jump through to make sure all your contacts know when you change your e-mail address or IM handles.

Also, not everyone has the skills and disposition to rent a VPS and set up the complex software infrastructure required to run something like, especially as it has nothing to do with the usual LAMP stack. At least Diaspora is built on RoR, which is provided even on shared hosting accounts.

Ultimately, having a balance serves people best, like with WordPress the software and WordPress the service. But that's not what the federated networks crowd wants...
Leonardo Gravtar
on 1 Jul 13 at 21:14 CEST
Hey Laurent, thank you for this post. It revealed me a world that I imagined would exist but weren't able to find.
I could join #indieweb immediately because I had just setup a personal website a few days before!
Unfortunately I am not a tech guy, also setting up a Jekyll site on aws was a challenge for me ;)
But I dream of a world where your activity on social networks is not "filtered" by any company (FB?), and where Mr. Average can set up his personal website and control his content, without any particular tech skill. In this respect I want to be the experimenter and guinea pig at the same time :)