Bear with me for a moment as we do a quick thought experiment. What if email had never been standardized? Email-like services have existed as early as the 1960s and it was first suggested that such a type of service should be standardized in 1973. But what might the landscape of email be like in this modern era of Internet if no standard protocol had ever come to pass? I can think of a few things:

  • Not too surprisingly there would be a few email services with massive user market shares and a lot of smaller players. However, unlike the email we know today, few of these services would cooperate with each other. Gmail users would email other Gmail users, Hotmail users would email other Hotmail users and so on. As a result, many users would probably have email accounts across more service providers in order to fulfill their email communication needs with all their contacts. They would need even more accounts on each service if they represent a company or brand as well as themselves.
  • We'd probably be seeing more email service start-ups emerging all the time with new and fancy 'killer features'. For example, one service might offer strong video integration while another allows Javascript integration for a more interactive message. One service might guarantee read receipt functionality while another lets you post date your emails to not be open-able until a specific date and time. That's just a few off the top of my head but I'm sure Silicon Valley would have plenty of wild ideas for what email would do.
  • Some of these email services, in order to play nicely, might offer some sort of high-level integration with a select few other email providers such as being able to send a plain-text email body only.
  • Each email service would be able to have strong control over 3rd party client applications, if the service so pleased. Some might even disallow 3rd party clients completely and expect you to visit their website or mobile app only.
  • It would be incredibly hard to move users between services. Email migration would either be complicated or, in many cases, impossible due to the format just being too different. Also, convincing users to try new services out would be a new challenge considering the need to already have friends and colleagues on board.
  • As a result of the previous point, the value of a user on your email service would increase. Some email start-ups, despite a lack of revenue, might have high valuations due to their 'killer features' successfully drawing in new users at impressive rates. We'd probably see some of these start-ups getting bought out by bigger players either out of fear or interest in drawing in a market segment they have been failing to appeal to.

Doesn't this sound kind of familiar?

I'm sure you can't help but get that nagging feeling you've seen this all happen despite email having adopted a protocol. Why? Because that's the state of social networking as we know it today, which begs the question: Why hasn't social networking got **a protocol of its own?**

_Full disclosure: As one component of my project, Postcard, _I'm working on an open social networking protocol, which is just one of the many reasons I have such a passion for the topic. However, this will be my only mention of Postcard in this blog entry. You can learn more by reading this entry.

How we could all benefit from a social networking protocol

Now maybe you aren't quite convinced there would be any benefit or reason to standardize social networking. Well consider these possibilities:

  • Exporting and importing data would be a breeze.
  • The ability to amalgamate data from multiple networks would be a non-issue. Making integrated personal albums or timelines of our experiences across various services would be simple.
  • The door would be wide open to 3rd party applications.
  • Distributing a message across many networks would be streamlined. Much like the way email functions, social networks would behave like your contact list and "To:" field when authoring a message.
  • Migrating data from one network to another wouldn't be such a crazy concept.
  • Further to this, content ownership would be much simpler. Adding social widgets to our own websites, for example, would be simplified. Our personal websites could even respond to the social networking protocol directly.
  • New features of social networking would be widely communicated ahead of time and implemented across most, if not all networks. The need to join a new network for one 'killer feature' would be significantly diminished.

This doesn't mean they have to be all the same

Now I know this might sound like the death of creativity in social media. After all, if a protocol had existed a couple years ago, this might have impacted newer networks like the recently introduced Vine which has clearly resonated with many social media lovers (myself included). Well, not all social networks have to behave alike just because they all conform to the same protocol. If that had to be the case, then how would something like the concept of Inbox Zero have taken off in the word of email recently? It works because Inbox Zero is about behaviour, not protocol. An app like Vine would be communicating on a media attachment part of the protocol. How it chooses to produce and present that media within its own client context is entirely of its own accord. Furthermore, the protocol does not need to be stagnant, rather it should be a living document updated regularly in an extensible fashion, much like the W3C manages a changing standard for HTML.

Closing thoughts

I've got to be honest, I'm a bit sick and tired of joining new social networks. New features are great and all, but I'd really love to see the social web step forward as a community rather than be at the whim of so many separate and conflicted interest groups. There's so much to be gained from acknowledging that social networking is here to stay and should be adopted as a standardized part of the web.