Social Web's Big Question: Federate or Aggregate?

Inventor and tech philosopher Dave Winer Twittered tonight that federation is the hot thing, pointing to a New York Times article about Facebook Connect. And just like that, he touched upon the third rail of our increasingly social web. The big question facing the social web depends on the direction it needs to take. A sharp increase in the number of web services and social networks has many of us yearning for a single sign-on, which has led to the idea of “federation.” On the flip side, we also want one place to manage our diverse web services in one place — in other words, aggregation. These two diametrically opposed views of how we are going to come to grips with our social web are going to face an intense debate until consumers vote with their clicks.

United Federation of the Social Web

Federation, as explained on Wikipedia, “describes the technologies, standards and use-cases which serve to enable the portability of identity information across otherwise autonomous security domains. The ultimate goal of identity federation is to enable users of one domain to securely access data or systems of another domain seamlessly, and without the need for completely redundant user administration.”

Facebook Connect, which was announced in May and is being rolled out this week, allows you to use your Facebook login to access Facebook’s partner web sites, then broadcast what you are doing on those sites to everyone on Facebook. It’s like Facebook Beacon — minus the marketing sleaziness. Partners include the Discovery Channel, the (irrelevant) genealogy network Geni, and (hot) video site Hulu.

“Everyone is looking for ways to make their Web sites more social,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer told The New York Times. “They can build their own social capabilities, but what will be more useful for them is building on top of a social system that people are already wedded to.” Of course, as I pointed out earlier, this is desperately important for the company to figure out how to make money. As a competitive matrix, here are some of other projects Facebook Connect is teeing off against: Google-sponsored Friend Connect, Open ID and MySpace’s Data Availability initiative.

HyperAggregate

On the flip side of federation is aggregation. There’s a small army of startups, such as FriendFeed and Ping.fm, that want to act as a dashboard for your entire social-web infrastructure. The latest startup to join the ranks is Power.com, a Rio de Janiero, Brazil-based startup that has until now operated in stealth and has raised $8 million in venture funding from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Esther Dyson. The company was started by Steve Vachani.

Vachani’s big idea is that you can come to the Power.com web site, log in and interact with all your social networks, as well as other web services. It is not the first startup of its kind. Several others — MyLifeBrand, Spokeo, Loopster and ProfileLinker — have walked down this road. What Power.com has done is use virality and focus on Orkut to get a big enough user base. Vachani describes his service as “Facebook Connect for everything — an ultimate mashup platform” that connects to data from any service and allows Power.com users to interact with that information.

It works like this: You register all your web services and social networks on Power.com. Once you log on, you are automatically logged on everywhere that matters and you can easily go from Power.com to any one of your social networks with a single click. Your start page on Power.com (a stripped-down cross between Facebook’s start page and Netvibes) will show you all of your friends, messages and content — from all their social networks, soon from instant messengers and email accounts — in one place. All your friends, messages, updates, birthdays and photos from diverse social networks will be aggregated nicely together.

A Power “communicator” will allow you to send information to all your friends across networks with the ease of sending an email. “This is just like Meebo,” Vachani insisted, where they log in to and constantly interact with the service. It doesn’t use any APIs, and all the magic happens using this technology developed by the company. Vachani called it “intelligent proxy.” I have asked for more details to understand how exactly it works.

Power.com claims that all your information is going to be arranged by people, not by discrete web destinations. Soon you will be able to use its dashboard to do everything on the web — or so it boldly hints in the press materials. The company claims it has 5 million registered users in Latin America and India and says it will hit 30 million by 2009. How it is claiming all these numbers and growth is a tad fuzzy.

Theoretically (and only theoretically) the idea of aggregating your web content and activites makes a lot of sense. Back in March 2007, in a column for Business 2.0, I wrote: “This is one of the hot opportunities in new new media: hyperaggregation. If aggregation is what we’ve seen so far on YouTube and Flickr, hyperaggregation is aggregating the aggregators….It’s impossible to keep up with dozens of social networks, millions of videos and thousands of blogs. Hyperaggregation is simply a way to do in the new-media world what old media has done for centuries: neatly package information.”

The demo of the service was quite impressive, but there was something about the service that makes me uneasy. Don’t get me wrong — I think they have built an interesting service, but many questions remain before it wins me over.

A Privacy Problem?

First of all, how is this going to turn into a big business? My guess is that our profiles would be used for some kind of marketing. In its terms of service, Power.com says:

You agree that Power may use your image for advertisement purposes. These advertisements will only be displayed to the same user whose image is being used.

Given my distaste for Facebook’s Beacon and other ad-supported efforts, this line makes me pretty queasy. Down in its TOS, Power.com notes that by saying yes to its service agreement, you are authorizing “Power.com to add the URL WEBSITE to my profile, linked to the site My.Power – Power profile of the user.” In other words, they can become your presence on the web, and the company can build a global social directory.

All these issues I would still be able to put aside, but I am not sure I want to aggregate and trust all my private information, including my personal communications (IM messages, emails and what not), to a tiny startup. What assurance is there when it comes to fidelity of my data? I am waiting for Vachani to outline how his company will be able to do that.

Instead, I very much like Loic Le Meur’s concept of “centralized me. “I really like all my services gathered in one place, I would rather that these would be centralized on my blog instead of a third-party service,” he wrote. I couldn’t agree more.

Image courtesy of Luic Le Meur

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