Bridging Provider-Centric and User-Centric Social Networks

Bridging Provider-Centric and User-Centric Social Networks

José C. Delgado (Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-168-9.ch004

Abstract

Current social networks are centralized and driven by the providers’ formats, policies, and rules. Subscribing to several networks usually implies duplicating profile information and the effort of replicating changes when needed. Recently, there have been several proposals to support decentralized social networks, but these maintain the client-server paradigm. This chapter recognizes that the user is no longer a mere consumer, but rather a producer, and calls for a paradigm shift, with the user at the center of the social network scenarios, taking the role of an active service, in equal terms with social network providers. This leads to a unified user model: both individual and institutional entities are both users and providers and share the same protocols, although with different emphasis. We call this the user-centric approach and show a migration path from current social network models. To support this approach, we present a new Web access device, the browserver, which includes a browser and a server working in close cooperation, with the goal of replacing the classical browser but being backwards compatible with it to ease the migration path.
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Introduction

More than the technological developments they entail, social networks (SNs) represent an impact on society potentially greater than the Web itself. It’s also happening faster and in a large scale. People no longer go to the Web to obtain information, but rather to change it.

SNs have undoubtedly become indispensable tools, both at the personal and professional levels. For simple leisure, as an information source for taking better decisions at the company or as an aid in finding the best employer or employee, SNs fulfill their role in bringing people together in less time, less effort and in a larger scale that would be possible in the physical world, attracting more and more users every day.

However, one of their biggest problems today is their success. There are too many of them, each trying to grab as much market share (number of users) as possible and their interoperability is guided more by convenience and commercial interests, expressed in bilateral agreements, than true openness concerns. There are no standards at this level and each SN has its information format, services and policies.

Users interested in membership of several SNs need to reintroduce their profile data for each of them, in the SN’s own format (each different and none really adequate to each and every user), and maintain them whenever changes are needed. On the other extreme of the scale, users seeking information can be provided with incompatible information coming from different SNs, most likely inconsistent, outdated or in formats that are not easily comparable.

On top of this, each user has his own interests, which are not easy to categorize in a structured hierarchy. There are thematic SNs, but then a user whose interests do not fit exactly with the scope of the SN has to deal with several SNs.

SNs are not always easy to use and transparent, either. The privacy policies of Facebook, for example, are so complex that are really hard to fully grasp and to make things hard many features are open by default, requiring explicit disabling by the users (which many simply don’t do). But these policies pertain mostly to privacy between users. Who guarantees privacy regarding the SN provider itself? No one can, since the information is stored at the SN provider’s server, raising security and privacy concerns that hamper many users from sharing information that could be invaluable to others (including their own network of contacts, which they have built over the years).

The fact that some SNs become more popular than others, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, does not mean that these answer the users’ needs better than the others, but rather that users tend to flock around the SNs with more members to get more value of the network (Reed‘s law) and to reach the widest possible audience while having to deal with the lowest possible number of SNs.

The main objectives of this chapter are:

  • To present a SN classification scheme that encompasses the several types of SN models, from those centralized and server based to those decentralized and focused on the user as an active member of the Web community;

  • To introduce the idea that a paradigm shift is needed to contemplate the new user semantics and role, from client-server to unified service. The user is no longer simply a consumer, but an active producer, and needs to be treated as an active service provider, in equal terms to other entities such as SNs;

  • To describe the browserver, a package comprising a browser and a server, and justify its need as the new Web access device for human users.

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Background

SNs do not really entail new technology, but rather a new use of existing technology. Their added value lies in the functionalities they offer and in the human interaction they support. Today, any site with registered users sharing some interest and able to add information (blogs, namely) can be called “social network”, but here we distinguish three main types of SNs, according to their primary use:

Key Terms in this Chapter

Unified Social Network User: Concept used in the user-centric paradigm, in which all actors of the social network are seen as users of the system, both as consumers and providers of information or services. Organizational users tend to focus on providing services (their main line of business), whereas individual users tend to focus on providing information and consuming services, but they all obey to a common set of rules.

Browserver: A new web access device that extends the browser by adding a local server in close cooperation. The main idea is that the individual user can now become a first class web citizen, capable of not only placing requests but also to satisfy requests from other actors, either server applications either other browservers. This frees the user from many of the limitations of the browser, while maintaining the sandboxing principle. It provides a better support for decentralized social networks than the simple browser, in particular P2P social networks.

Decentralized Social Network: Social networks that are not based on a single provider (although that provider can have a distributed server infrastructure) and are not subject to a common set of rules and profile formats. Interoperability becomes a main issue.

Social Network: A set of people and/or organizations interlinked and sharing some common interests. In the context of this chapter, the communication platform is some form of web based system, most commonly today supported by servers belonging to a single organization (the social network provider). This term is also used to designate the platform itself or even the provider, but the social network is really the complete set of all the actors involved.

Provider-Centric: The paradigm used initially by social networks. Each social network is an island (a “walled garden”) of information and the user has to replicate his information and create a separate account in each of them. Today some providers allow a limited form of interoperability, namely sharing of authentication credentials, but in an ad hoc form and more in the commercial interest of the providers than in a genuine concern on the user and his privacy and points of view.

Business Social Network: A social network with emphasis on professional and business issues. Some of these networks are domain specific, whereas others are more general and are mainly used as self-promotion and recruiting tools.

Enterprise Social Network: Potential successors of Intranets, are used primarily by the employees of a given enterprise and coalesce many of the characteristics of the other social networks in the context of that enterprise. There is a clear professional interest, but they also cherish other interests, culture and leisure oriented, in an attempt to foster additional human links that promote and ease knowledge generation and sharing.

Privacy: The ability of a social network user in keeping control over who accesses which part of his information, including the social network’s provider, if any. Typically, the provider gives the user means to prevent other users from accessing his information. However, the user has no guarantees against abuse by the provider itself, which has access to every piece of information the user supplies. Privacy policies usually exist, but the user has no way to enforce compliance by the provider.

Continuous Presence: Capability of a user to maintain a minimum set of services and/or information available to other users when that user is not connected to the network. This involves some server and works in close cooperation with the browserver, which upon reconnecting synchronizes with it and takes over in a completely transparent way.

User-Centric: Social network paradigm in which the user is the main social player, not the provider. The user stores his profile information at his own computer and it is up to the providers to fetch that information periodically. The user has thus one single profile to maintain and providers are responsible to update their copies. The user has a better control of the privacy of his information by being able to control which provider or other user has access to which parts of his profile or other information.

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