SXSW Report: Federating the Social Web Panel

Panelists at the Federating the Social Web panel at SxSW 2011

Last weekend at SxSW, I attended the panel entitled Federating the Social Web, moderated by Evan Prodromou (StatusNet) and featuring Monica Wilkinson (SocialCast), Kevin Marks (, and Dan Peterson (Open Social, Google). They held a robust discussion about the standards and practices that are enabling interoperability between disparate social websites.

The fundamental definition of a “federated" social web is that there is no single source of anyone’s social data, rather sites and services interoperate through standard protocols. This removes development barriers and allows for easy syndication of social data.

It’s About Creating a Fluid Experience

Why work to enable interoperability across the social web? Wilkinson says it’s about creating a fluid experience, a continuum that allows you to bring your social network with you as you move throughout the web and from app to app. The Facebook platform already does this well, as we’ve seen Facebook capabilities become embeddable into other sites (i.e. the Like button, Facebook Comments, etc.). In the enterprise, allows business app developers to shatter the clunky iFrame and create meaningful workflows between apps.

Peterson stated up front that he does not “work on social for social’s sake," instead his desire is to enable work with the technologies, and within that lies the real staying power. Looking back, email was developed within the academic, military, and enterprise communities and then crossed over into everyday life. The social web is taking the exact opposite approach; first the social web established itself among consumers, and now social technologies are transitioning to the workplace.

Kevin Marks sees social as an “integration point between a lot of different systems." That is to say, the common denominator between business apps is people and the tasks they perform. Open social is about making previously incompatible islands interoperable. It covers both technology interoperability and policy interoperability. Software developers, he asserts, are better at the former than the latter. The real opportunity lies in permitting Company A to exchange social and work data with Company B, and enabling granular permissions to be determined on a per-transaction basis.

Federating: Top-Down or Bottom-up?

Some groups tackling this topic are attempting all-in-one solutions, while others favor more incremental and organic approaches. Top-down approaches that dictate standards to others have been known to experience slower adoption.

Microformats add context to data that can be intelligently read by other services, providing a more incremental approach. For example, an hcard denotes a person or place, and a rel="me" attribute indicates that the target URL is another page about the same person, and so forth.

PubSubHubbub further enables bottom-up federation by making it easier to subscribe to RSS and Atom feeds, still a standard for syndicating data across the web. PubSubHubbub is an open protocol that uses web hooks and semantics around the exchange of the subscription to lower the requirements for pulling a lot of content from different places. Instead of writing code that polls all of the various feeds to which you are subscribed, it allows your site to become a passive listener, lowering the effort to develop a federated social platform. “If you are using Pubstubhubub enabled activity streams," Prodromou said, “you are at a good base level to participate in the social web as it is evolving."

How to Start: Focus on Your Core Business

As you take steps to integrate enterprise or social activity, the overwhelming takeaway from the panel was to focus on your experience over the various technologies. It is imperative to know why you want to federate. What behaviors do you want to enable? “Federating" your social activity is not simply enabling one massive protocol; there is no single stack to implement and then you are done. For this reason, build your experience and your workflows first, and look for protocols that enable the outcomes you are looking to achieve.

For more information on federated social websites, check out the following posts and resources:

If you are looking to build a website or enterprise application that is socially-enabled, call KeyLimeTie at 630.598.9000, and make sure to follow KeyLimeTie on Twitter.