WordPress: The Social Network

Last month’s news, but still interesting: My comments at the end of the article.

WordPress: The Social Network
By Erick Schonfeld

Can WordPress become the basis of a social network? Automattic founder and WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg hinted today on his blog that WordPress might go in a more social direction. He announced a new hire, Andy Peatling, the developer behind BuddyPress, a social network built on top of WordPress. BuddyPress will now become an official WordPress project.

Peatling describes an earlier version of BuddyPress, ChickSpeak (a social network for college women). He built ChickSpeak (and BuddyPress) on top of a multi-user version of WordPress. He moved all the blog posts off to the side and made most of the real estate a profile page with messaging functionality. Finally, he took advantage of all the open-source plugins available for WordPress:

WordPress also has an excellent plugin API, as well as a whole host of quality pre-built plugins ready to download and activate. The key here is that I didn’t have to hack the core – I could just achieve the additional functionality needed by building dedicated plugins.

Plugins were built and used for private messaging, advanced profile management, online polls, photo management, multi-blog search and user credential management.

It is easy to dismiss this as completely unnecessary given the abundance of social networks already out there, as well as application development platforms like OpenSocial. But an open-source social network does present some intriguing possibilities. New apps and features could be added simply by creating new plugins. And there would be no lock-in to any proprietary code or development environment. Mullenweg writes:

Someday, perhaps, the world will have a truly Free and Open Source alternative to the walled gardens and open-only-in-API platforms that currently dominate our social landscape.

I asked Mullenweg if the world really needs another social network. His response:

The world doesn’t need another social network, it needs a thousand networks that let you own your data and interconnect using open standards. We invest countless hours giving our data to networks like MySpace, essentially sharecropping on their land for the privilege of being able to connect to our friends. It’s our friends, our time, our connections, our data — it should be our software.

I think only an Open Source solution can do that.

Automattic already hosts nearly 2.6 million blogs on WordPress.com that generate more than 100,000 posts a day. That is a vibrant and big community. Could that be used to seed a social network? Even if BuddyPress remains a completely separate project, it will be interesting to see if it can out-innovate Facebook or MySpace or Bebo as a social networking platform. Does anyone think it has a chance?

Update: Strangely the GNU Public Licensed BuddyPress has had its page taken down by Automattic and replaced with default “coming soon” message with links to the code removed (cache of the original page here). Same with the project page on Google Code, the main page having only just been pulled as the original page is still available to be viewed via Google cache. A subsidiary page with access to the plugin hasn’t been deleted by Automattic yet and is available here. Update 2: The code is back up now. It was taken down temporarily in anticipation of a move to a new URL buddypress.org (not live yet).

My comments:

That is cool. I think they have a chance.

Why? Because, MySpace, Facebook, and the other corporate types are not going to cannibalize their own businesses to provide this. They seem to act with the same shortsightedness as the record industry, or worse. Just look at Facebook’s Project Beacon debacle and the current privacy issues, such as “you can signup, but you never leave,” at least not without finding some secret tunnel to your own private Facebook Redemption.

Facebook may have a young CEO, but by selling a big chunk (compared to other sales) to the Microsoft, they have sealed the deal. They are now “the man.” And “the man” likes the status quo. But, open source upsets the status quo, (or “disrupts” it, as they like to say in technospeak). We have crossed the event horizon, entering the open-source black hole’s gravitational field. There is no escape.

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