Is Social Media Decentralization the Problem or the Solution?

Mike Arrington is complaining about fragmentation of his personal media:

Everything is decentralized, and no one is working to centralize stuff. I’ve got photos on Flickr, Posterous and Facebook (and even a few on MySpace), reviews on Yelp (but movie reviews on Flixster), location on Foursquare, Loopt and Gowalla, status updates on Facebook and Twitter, and videos on YouTube. Etc. I’ve got dozens of social graphs on dozens of sites, and trying to remember which friends puts his or her pictures on which site is a huge challenge…

Someone will eventually help us make sense of all these various types of services…

He says the problem is decentralization, but I think he means fragmentation, rather than decentralization. After all, if he didn’t like decentralization he could simply “just do Facebook” (or whatever single site) and there would be no problem. But like most, he doesn’t seem to be interested in picking a single centralized service.

To which Kevin Marks responds:

To solve the social conundrum we need the equivalent – agreed standards in widespread use so that we can generalize across sites. Fortunately, we have these. We have OpenID and OAuth for delegated login; we have XFN, other microformats and Portable Contacts for public and private people connections; we have Feeds and Activity Streams for translating social actions between sites.

This enabling social infrastructure means that we’ll be able to have a new generation of sites that enhance our web experience through social filtering without our connections being centralised in a single company’s database.

Amazing that everybody thinks decentralization is the right approach, and Kevin is certainly right that the continuing adoption of these standards helps de-fragment our fragmented social media universes.

When I disagree is in that I think these standards are necessary, but not at all sufficient. Example in point: OpenID. Just because two sites both implement OpenID, it does not mean that if I log into the first, I’m automatically logged into the second. It does not mean that the GUI looks the same for OpenID at both sites. It certainly does not mean that both sites even know I’m the same person, even if I used the same identity provider. Similar issues arise around all of the other “social connectivity” standards, and even more so when put together.

What Mike Arrington wants, and very reasonably so from the perspective of the user, is massive simplification. We’ve made huge strides in the past 5 or so years in building up a technology stack that begins to address some of these issues, but we are far, far, from being done to get to that simplification Mike asks for. The biggest problem is that nobody can quite articulate how it would look like, other than “simple” in some fashion. Kind of hard to build technology for that kind of specification …