I had lunch earlier this week with Stuart Henshall in San Francisco, and we had a delightful wide-ranging discussion on topics of common interest. We’ve known each other for a good few years through scenario planning, and have a similar vision for the future of personal online networks. Stuart focuses on—among many other very interesting issues including consumer rights—trust in building networks. His vision is of a world in which everyone has their profile online, and shares both their profile and their personal connections selectively with trusted contacts. Sixdegrees.com was the first major online player in this space. I intended to write about it in Living Networks, but it went the way of all things in January 2001. The current top players in this space are Ryze.com and ecademy. However effective trust systems are essential for these public online networks to work. In the first instance we need to be able to create layers around how much of the information about our personal contacts we want to share. Intermediating software can help, for example by identifying in a secure system the contacts we share. For example, Stuart and I estimated we would share 20-30 people in our email address books, but we don’t know who all of those people are. On the next level, if we can create software that enables people to draw on their personal contacts’ perception of others’ trustworthiness, this will enable us to more readily expand our own personal networks in useful ways. These kinds of systems can be implemented either in a global context, or inside or across organisations.
One of the key issues which comes up for me is how we are going to get there. Creating a highly functional system that enables us to see and expand our global personal networks is a fabulous vision, which I dearly hope will come to fruition, but it is likely to take a long time and there is a risk it will never happen. In the first instance, as I write in Living Networks, people need to build evolutionary business models, that can make money in creating the first steps of this vision, and easily morph into new models as the context moves on. The other key issue is standards. As in many domains, whoever “controls” this extraordinarly valuable space of personal connections can create—and extract—enormous value, and thus there will be plenty of competition to be the winner. If there are standard information definitions and interfaces between competing systems, this fragmentation can be avoided. Ultimately, if the vision is realized, it will most likely be driven by an open source initiative, which means there is usually less commercial value to be extracted. There’s a long way to go yet in creating a system that will allow everyone to see exactly how they are connected in the global networks. I’ll try keep you posted along the way.