Where's my single social stream?

Years ago, everybody wanted their social activity unified into a single stream. Is the dream still alive?

background social network 135810412
Credit: Thinkstock

Social media moguls like Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg talk about uniting mankind through the power of social networking. Back in 2012, Zuckerberg wrote in a letter that accompanied Facebook's IPO paperwork that "Facebook... was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected."

That's a worthy mission, and it's hard to find any who who opposes it. We all want a more open and connected world, don't we?

On a practical level, there are two ways to make the world more open and connected. One way is for a single company, like Facebook, to get all the users. And Facebook is trying to do that -- through organic growth, and through the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. Despite lofty rhetoric, it's clear that Facebook sees monopoly as the best way to achieve a more open and connected world. If everybody's on Facebook, then everybody's connected.

But if everybody is not on Facebook, the alternative way to make the world maximally open and connected is for everyone to use all or many different social networks. In fact, there's no way Facebook will ever become the only social network or provider of social services. There will always be social startups, new apps, innovative messaging platforms and other alternatives to Facebook's social apps and services.

The better and more likely way to achieve Facebook's vision of a more open and connected world is the second option -- for everyone to use multiple social networks.

The trouble is, using several social services is really hard -- all that switching from one mobile app to the next, and from one website to the next. Each has its own design, menu structure, settings and configuration options, and processes for handling photos, likes and mentions. It's also impossible for someone with a lot of friends to remember which people are on what network. Most people who try to use several social networks end up forgetting about some and spending most of their time on one, or maybe two.

So much for an open and connected world.

The reality is that we've all gone off to our separate closed and disconnected worlds, and choice of network is actually one of the strongest determinants of whom you maintain personal relationships with.

But what if there was a way to see all the items posted by all our friends, relatives and colleagues all together in one stream? And what if we could interact on that stream and post from a single location, sending out those posts to the various social networks?

In fact, there used to be such a service. It was called Friendfeed. Facebook, the company with the social mission to "make the world more open and connected" acquired it, starved it of oxygen and, just last year, killed it. (Ironically, one of Friendfeed's founders, Bret Taylor, was appointed to the Twitter board last week.)

Friendfeed was more than a way to bring disparate social networks together. You could also plug in social bookmarking sites like Reddit, blogs and RSS feeds.

Friendfeed wasn't great by today's standards, but at least it was designed for the general public and was free and easy to use.

In the wake of Friendfeed's demise, fans of the service built at least three Friendfeed alternatives, including Frenf.it, FreeFeed.net and Mokum. But these are small, unfunded and thoroughly incomplete efforts that don't work very well.

Solid social aggregation services do exist, but mainly for professional marketers who want to manage brands on social media. The leader in this category is Hootsuite, but Hootsuite has competitors like Spredfast and Sprout Social.

A WordPress plug-in called WordPress Social Stream looks like a great option for aggregating social feeds and putting them all into a Pinterest-like interface. But because it requires WordPress and costs $19, WordPress Social Stream is not ready for mainstream prime time.

Social aggregation services are supposed to bring other people's posts on many social networks into a single place. A product called Digi-Me does the opposite -- it brings only your posts into a single location.

digi me Mike Elgan

Digi-Me brings all your social posts into a single, searchable view. It will take a third-party to transform Digi-Me into the social stream we really need.

Digi-Me began as a social network backup program called SocialSafe and has since pivoted to a product that protects your privacy and gives you control over your personal information.

Digi-Me is super easy to use. Just point the Digi-Me desktop application or mobile app at all your social accounts, and it synchronizes everything so you can see your own data in one place.

You can use a hobbled version of Digi-Me for free and try the full premium version for 30 days for free. If you decide to pay, the cost is an annual fee based on the number of social accounts: $6.99 per year for up to four accounts, $16.99 for five to 10 accounts, and $27.99 for 11 to 20 accounts.

One way Digi-Me protects you is that it's not a cloud service, but an old-fashioned application or smartphone app. You download and install the software, then add your social networks. Digi-Me then slurps up everything you've ever posted, plus the comments on those posts, and stores them locally. (The company recently added the ability to store your data on Dropbox, and support for additional cloud storage is promised for later.)

I talked to Digi-Me founder and executive chairman Julian Ranger last week, and he told me his company is working on the ability to add additional information beyond social posts, including medical information harvested from quantified-self wearables, financial data and more. He also said the company is working on a system that will enable you to share your personal data with companies that request it in a way that's controlled by you.

I also asked Ranger if Digi-Me had any plans to become a social aggregator, a modern take on the FriendFeed idea. After all, Digi-Me is already synchronizing many social networks (and RSS feeds). Why not bring in other people's posts along with my own? Plus, Digi-Me could offer an encrypted and more secure way to do social networking.

Doing that would probably be contrary to his company's mission, Ranger said, but he added that another company could and probably would create such a service on top of the Digi-Me platform.

"The power of personal data is so huge that if we were trying to take some of that value chain to ourselves, we would inhibit further innovation rather than encourage it," he said. Ranger specifically cited Twitter as an example of a company that stifled innovation by taking over for itself some of the services that other companies built on top of its platform.

So there you go, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: Digi-Me is a platform upon which you can build a service that achieves Facebook's mission to make the world more open and connected -- without a Facebook monopoly. The downside is that because Digi-Me costs money, it's never going to be a mainstream platform.

Do we still want a connected world? I know I do.

Facebook's stated desire "to make the world more open and connected" is the right vision. But Facebook's monopoly solution is the wrong approach. Google doesn't allow third-party companies to access Google+ with an API. And Twitter has demonstrated over time that it can't be trusted to allow third-party services using its API to continue existing.

Despite proclamations by social media companies, making the world "more open and connected" is always going to be secondary to making money.

Still, I want a single stream where all the social activity I care about shows up in a single place, and from which I can engage with everyone I know on many social networks.

We need someone to build it. Then we need users to demand access to their own social streams.

Who's with me on this?

This story, "Where's my single social stream?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Download the CIO October 2016 Digital Magazine
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies