The Next Social Network: WordPress

WordPress logoCould open-source blogging platform WordPress serve as your next social networking profile? Chris Messina, co-founder of Citizen Agency, thinks so. He’s started a project called DiSo, for distributed social networking, that aims to “build a social network with its skin inside out.” DiSo will first look to WordPress as its foundation.

This could be the next step towards the unified social graph that some technologists wish for. WordPress suits the purpose because it provides a person-centric way of coming online, offers an extensible architecture, and already has some features — such as an OpenID and a blogroll plugin — that can be pressed into social networking service. And its users represent exactly the sort of audience that might appreciate the permanent, relatively public identity that DiSo aims to offer.

Why blogs and not Facebook or MySpace

In contrast to social networking, blogging offers a person-centric way for individuals to come online. A social network like Facebook gives you your own place online, but it’s not really your own place. As Copyblogger Brian Clark recently said in a blog post, “For me, there’s really no appeal in spending a lot of time creating ‘user-generated’ content via a social networking application. That’s like remodeling the kitchen in a house you rent.”

Clark was responding to an ongoing conversation launched by blogger and cartoonist Hugh MacLeod, who proposed that blogging is far more important to him than social networking. Bloggers including Stowe Boyd and Darren Rowse seconded the idea. This growing disenchantment with social networking and return to blogging suggests that in the future we could see a migration, at least among tech bloggers, towards more distributed social networking — along the lines of what Messina envisions.

WordPress, why and how

WordPress is ideal for experimenting with a distributed social network. It has a plug-in architecture that makes it easy to extend. And people who use it are already comfortable to some extent with coming publicly online as individuals. Though there are, of course, WordPress installations that don’t represent just one person, in many cases they do.

Messina, along with Steve Ivy and Will Norris, is exploring how WordPress can serve as a social networking profile. To that end, a blog needs a way to identify itself to other blogs and share its contact lists, ideally in a privacy-protected manner. The OpenID identity standard can serve as a distributed identifier for both a person’s blog and the blogs of people to which that person is related. Messina and his partners plan to develop a WordPress plugin that exposes the contact list. An OpenID plugin for WordPress already exists; it was developed by Will Norris.

Not everyone wants unified social networking

WordPress-as-social-network, like the unified social graph meme, will most likely appeal to those who want to create one strong identity online. But not everyone does. Blogger danah boyd has written about how some people use social network identities in an ephemeral manner. Those who prefer a more multilayered and multifaceted depiction of themselves online might prefer to create multiple social networking profiles on different sites, representing themselves in different ways as the situation demands.

But those who already use WordPress probably want to build a strong and persistent online presence and identity. Plus they’re the geeky sort, with whom with the idea of a unified, distributed social network might resonate. And at least some of them are refocusing on blogging. The next hot social network might just be built out of blogs.

Full disclosure: Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com is funded by True Ventures, which is also an investor in GigaOM.

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