Final Report of the W3C Social Web Incubator Group

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"This document is the final report of the W3C Social Web Incubator Group. This report presents systems and technologies that are working towards enabling a Social Web, and is followed by a strategy for standardizing this work in order to ensure the Social Web is open, decentralized, and royalty-free. This report focuses on work that permits the description and identification of people, groups, organizations, as well as user-generated content in extensible and privacy-respecting ways. This report describes a common framework for the concepts behind the Social Web and the state of the art in 2010, including current technologies and standards. We conclude with an analysis of where future research and standardization will benefit users and the entire Social Web ecosystem's growth. We also suggest a strategy for the role of the W3C in the Social Web." (


"Over the course of the SWXG’s activity the, approximately thirty, participants on the conference calls discussed a wide variety of topics and heard from over thirty invited guests from within and outside the W3C. We conclude that while the Social Web is a space of innovation, it is still not a "first-class" citizen of the Web: Social applications currently largely evolved as silos and thus implementations and integration are inconsistent, with little guarantees of privacy and enforcement of terms-of-service.

Further, the members of the XG conclude:

1. The Social Web does not suffer from a lack of potential standards. A large number of diverse groups have evolved data models, communication protocols, and data formats at tangents to one another, addressing a large number of communities, each of which has its own terminology and viewpoint.

2. While there has been a large amount of work done in this area, in terms of both current potential and standards, these tend to address basic issues around identity and portability, but do not address more complex and vital issues such as privacy, policy enforcement, and provenance. All of these issues are present scope for further research and the development of future standards.

3. The creation of a decentralized and federated Social Web, as part of Web architecture, is a revolutionary opportunity to provide both increased social data portability and enhanced end-user privacy.

4. One key to make ordinary users take advantage of a decentralized Social Web is to build identity and portability into the browser and other devices.

We respectfully recommend to the W3C areas of future work in which the W3C should play a pivotal role:

1. Investigating the benefits of existing identity solutions for the Web that would allow for a high-level of security, multiple identities, and that are decentralized in nature. This work should be coordinated with existing identity work.

2. Defining mappings between existing data-formats for social profiles on a semantic level, making sure that a common core is available in a consistent manner across various syntactic serializations (such as RDFa, JSON, and XML).

3. Making sure that future work on the Semantic Web can help standardize methods of tracking provenance, as well as defining best practices for finding suitable vocabularies needed to power the Social Web.

4. Beginning an activity investigating distributed privacy/policy languages that are capable of phrasing common "terms of service" rules, and licensing information for the Social Web.

5. Create a more "light-weight" and open process so that groups working on the Social Web feel welcome and are able to work with the W3C. This will allow for the W3C to tightly liaison with groups and other standards bodies working in the area of the Social Web.

This work could form the basis of new Working Groups, improved liaising with non-W3C efforts and standardization bodies, and increased co-ordination and focus on the Social Web among existing W3C working groups." (



"2010 has been a tumultuous year for the Social Web. However, the Social Web is not a new phenomenon that has no precedent, but the result of a popularization of existing technologies. Many social features were available over the Internet before the Web, ranging from the blog-like features of Engelbart's "Journal" system in NLS (oN-Line System, the second node of the Internet), messaging via e-mail and IRC, the Well (1984), and the "Member Profiles" of AOL. The "list of friends", that is ubiquitous on the Social Web, existed in the hand-authored links on the earliest webpages. The Web has always been social. As shown by this diagram below by Berners-Lee in his original 1989 proposal to create the World Wide Web, the Web from its inception was meant to include connections between not only hypertext documents, but the relationships between people.

What was missing was an easy-to-use interface to make finding people you know and sharing data with them easily accessible. A number of websites, ranging from (1995) to SixDegrees (1997), pioneered these features for ordinary users of the Web. Since the early days of the Web people that maintained their own homepages have been posting activity updates to their sites, and this has been pushed into the mainstream with the the development of user friendly blogging software (from "web logs") such as LiveJournal and Blogger in 1999. Innovations in this space allowed the general public to become more and more apt at blogging, and independent news sites such as Indymedia (1999) pioneered the notion of user-generated content management. However, these services remained fairly experimental up until after the collapse of the initial "dot-com" bubble. After this a rash of social networking sites like Friendster (2002), LinkedIn (2003), MySpace (2003), Orkut (2004), and Facebook (2004) took off, and eventually became the most popular sites on the Web. Starting with Flickr (2004) and Youtube (2005), user-generated content took over this newly re-invigorated Social Web. The launch of Twitter (2007), a micro-blogging site, which propagated updates to users' social networks, via desktop and mobile devices, showed another dominant trend in the Social Web. It was around this time that the concept of the Social Web became associated both with the aforementioned companies and with the wider "Web 2.0" paradigm. Today, the Social Web is becoming part of corporate communication portfolios and Web 2.0 companies start commercializing data from and about their users.

While the world remained incredibly geographically disparate over a number of these sites, as illustrated by this map, with many countries developing their own most popular social networking sites such as Hi5 in Japan and QQ in China, there has been an overall tendency towards users moving their profiles between services, such as users moving their profiles from Friendster to Myspace for example. This, in turn, led to a dismissive attitude by some that the most "popular" social networking sites would simply turn over every year or two. In a similar manner to how competition amongst search engines eventually led to the dominance of Google, Facebook rapidly rose to become a global leader in social networking. A number of major vendors began either purchasing social networking sites (such as the purchase of Blogger (2003) and Orkut (2007) by Google) and other companies like Yahoo! trying to roll their-own social networking sites like Yahoo! 360 (2005). Social Web features, such as comments and user-generated content, became intertwined with such phenomenon as Flickr for sharing photos and YouTube for sharing video. Today, it is a de-facto requirement for Web sites to have social features and for individuals and organizations to have a presence on popular social Web platforms. Yet the ways for web-sites to do so are currently fractured and have yet to be standardized.

While empowered by the compelling user experience of these social networking sites, the real victim of these data-silos has been the end-users. Social networking sites encourage users to put their data into the given proprietary platform, and have tended to make the portability of the user's own data to another site or even their home computer difficult if not impossible. Architects of new Social Web services and user-advocacy groups began to ask for the ability of users to move their data from platform to platform. The first technology created specifically for a portable social graph was the Friend-of-a-Friend vocabulary for the Semantic Web (FOAF) in 2001, and in 2005, a biannual gathering of developers started the Internet Identity Workshop from which standards like OpenID emerged. Momentum took off after Brad Fitzpatrick (formerly of Livejournal)'s post on "Thoughts on the Social Graph", together with David Recordon, in 2007. There was quickly following a number of initiatives like the DataPortability initiative, the Data Liberation Front at Google, and lately, the Federated Social Web initiative. This momentum continued to attract interest, however, at the same time an open and decentralized Social Web still seems distant and few users have actually left these data-silos. (@@QUESTION: Did OpenID really come out of the IIW).

Many social networking sites considered privacy and portability to be contradictory, insofar as Facebook used to deny users the ability to let data be portable outside its system due to concerns over user privacy, as their terms of service in 2006 stated that "We understand you may not want everyone in the world to have the information you share on Facebook; that is why we give you control of your information." In one particularly infamous incident, in 2008 blogger Robert Scoble wanted to make their information portable by copying his contacts from Facebook, but had his account disabled by Facebook. However, in 2009 there seemed to be little concern about issues of privacy and portability except amongst those deeply immersed in designing social networking platforms, with only 20 percent of users listing privacy as a primary concern motivating their choice in Social networking sites. Whilst the market for online social networking remains competitive, privacy has yet to emerge as a competitive advantage. Today, privacy is a secondary argument to stimulate new sign-ups. Widespread usability problems impede users to exercise effective control over their personal information on social networking sites, where permissive defaults are another threat to privacy. While Scott McNealy of SUN infamously remarked that "You have zero privacy anyway," recent studies show that youth have "an aspiration for increased privacy" and are equally concerned about privacy as adults [PEW REPORT!!].

As more people are adopting Web-enabled smartphones, with mobile users spending more minutes per day on social networking sites than the average PC user, in 2010 30% of smartphone users accessed social networks via mobile browsers, the mobile Social Web must not be ignored. Users seem attracted to mobile device access because they can consult with friends and quickly make decisions while remaining mobile, allowing users to use applications in a context such as the live-tracking of buses. Many popular social networks at the time of writing this report tend to offer both a Web-based version, and a dedicated application which can be downloaded for the given smartphone platform. These dedicated applications tend to be able to make much greater use of built in sensors, and applications found on these smartphones. As several mobile social networking sites allow users to both upload their location and see the location of their friends, a number of small groups have joined together to form the OSLO alliance (Open Sharing of Location-based Objects). OSLO includes many players in mobile social networking and location-based social software which have signed an agreement to enable their approximately 30 million users to share location information between mobile social networks, in essence supporting the portability of location information between services. However, this activity seems to have stalled and the W3C Device API WG is quickly filling the gap by standardizing a set of APIs to be implemented by mobile browsers to cater for access to device functionality, such as a user's address book, calendar, location, within a Web Application running inside a standard mobile browser. As more and more of Web usage goes mobile and data access speeds increase, one can expect the difference in capabilities between the Web and the mobile Web to diminish.

2010 was the year in which the issues of privacy on the Social Web grew beyond a niche concern and entered the popular consciousness. In December 2009, Facebook changed its privacy settings by defaulting certain privacy settings which in turn made part of a user's profile information public. Users were encouraged to use "privacy controls" to provide access control to their data, but many users found these controls to be confusing and the default settings led to revealing lists of friends. This sparked widespread outrage, even amongst the governments. The development of Facebook Connect and other more distributed services led Facebook's Terms of Service to become even more open with users data, such as "When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information [which includes] your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content ... the default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to everyone." Google long supported the general notion of portability, and its OpenSocial API (and Open Social Alliance) and Google FriendConnect starting to lay the ground for a distributed portable social platform. However, Google's attempt to transform their popular GMail into a social networking platform via Google Buzz in 2010 also led to massive privacy concerns amongst users: Buzz users saw their most frequent communication partners exposed publicly and needed to opt-out to have them concealed. Overall, at this moment in 2010, privacy is returning as a major concern. Furthermore, none of the concerns about the portability of social data have been addressed in a manner that is widely implemented across social Web platforms, leading to a fragmentation of identity and a generalized lack of portability and privacy on the Social Web. (@@QUESTION: was it really facebook connect or was it the OpenGraphProtocol which made this change to the T&C's)

In 2009 the World Wide Web Consortium held a workshop on the "Future of Social Networking" in Barcelona, and, shortly thereafter, launched the Social Web Incubator Group to investigate future work in the area of the Social Web. Tim Berners-Lee proposed Socially Aware Cloud Computing, where he illustrated how the technologies required to have a decentralized socially aware Web were available and how it is but a matter of engineering to realize this forward. Overall interest still remains high as witnessed by the launch in 2010 of products like Vodafone's OneSocialWeb and the open-source Diaspora Project, and the first attempt at developing a common test-suite across differing standards-based social networking sites at the Federated Social Web Summit. At this point in history, the Social Web has became the dominant platform for communication, rapidly beginning to even eclipse the use of e-mail among youth. The next steps the companies and communities around the Social Web take will have real consequences on the future of the Web and communication itself." (