Posted in: Technology

Deconstructing the LEGO Internet

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Earlier this week Jesse Stay, the man behind the Twitter service SocialToo, wrote a rather interesting post suggesting that in order to move the web forward to that mystical 3.0 version we need to start looking at as a bunch of building blocks. His feeling is that in order to move beyond the current web as a platform idea we should be getting the foundation of the building block web stabilized.

For Jesse it is a matter of taking the foundations being but together by services like Twitter, Facebook, and Google off in new directions by adding new blocks that build off of those foundation blocks.

When I think building blocks I think Lego bricks. Each one has its own unique size and shape, and when you take the basic lego bricks you can add your own, making something unique and powerful. The web, as a whole, is evolving towards this state. We see Twitter, with its open platform enabling others to share in ways they were never able to share before in their own applications. We see Facebook and Facebook Connect enabling businesses to incorporate Facebook activity, relationships, and more right in the bounds of their own brand (Jeremiah Owyang suggested we might call this “farming”). Recently, we saw Google Wave producing ways for users to collaborate in ways they were never able to before, and embed these in new ways into external environments.

Shortly after Jesse’s post another smart blogger picked up on the thought with a post of his own. In The Lego Internet Dan Morrill at TechWag says that the idea might make a lot of sense except that potential ramifications of building out the new web based on what is hoped to be stable services provided by the foundation.

The idea makes a lot of sense when it comes right down to it, but with all the problems with back end data providers lately and how this is taking a toll on the public perception of cloud computing (no matter what the issue is, the popular press keeps on pinging cloud computing for this) and the worry that all that hard worked data is going to suddenly get vaporized is going to slow down the adoption of any building block internet.

Dan goes on to point out the underlying problem that we experience even today that could slow, or kill off any chance of a building block web.

Which brings us to the one thing that will kill the Lego building block internet; it will be all about service and how service is perceived by the end user. Would anyone have trusted Facebook Connect four years ago and would anyone trust a MySpace connect now? If a service provider (and if you are providing a widget or an API, you are a service provider) fails, then it becomes a problem for the entire ecosystem that is build around that service. If the service becomes unreliable, then people will flee the ecosystem. Even a hint that a service provider is not reliable will cause adoption issues.

The biggest problem behind this idea of a building block web can be evidenced even today with the widespread outage experienced by Twitter. It was an outage that lasted for most of the morning during which time any services that relied on Twitter were basically toast. You can’t build a longterm stable business on top of that kind of thing but it is only the most recent of many examples of cloud based systems taking a crap all over the place (Microsoft/Danger/Sidekick anyone?).

When even a company like Amazon can experience an outage as they did when their S3 cloud went down in February or Google’s Gmail can cause havoc every time it goes down for even an hour for whatever reason how can we say we have a solid foundation to build on.

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Even beyond those big service providers what happens when even individual bloggers decide at some point that they want to try some new service on their blog only to have it come back and bite them on the ass. A good example of this is the idea of 3rd party comment platform providers like Disqus, Intense Debate, and JS-Kit that are all the rage.

Here we have the idea of a building block web in a microcosm in that we the bloggers provide the foundation for them to build their service on in return for being able to keep the conversation happening around the post regardless of where comments might be made in the wild. We install these platforms thinking that they are the answer for a possible problem we have been led to think exists.

What happens though when we decide that either we want to use one of the other systems or return to the built-in commenting systems of our blogging platform. Sure we’re told that we can export and then import all those stored comments that have been made on these other platforms but can we really?

Well if the experience that my good friend Mark Hopkins is going through we might want to think twice

Something that’s been particularly irritating – the fact that all the third party comment systems (from JS-Kit to Disqus (especially Disqus) to Intense Debate) make it all but impossible to transfer comments from one system to the other.

I know myself I have had problems with comment platforms on my one blog when moving from Disqus to JS-Kit. Whatever comments I had before even though they were suppose to be there were gone. This doesn’t bode well for me when it comes to thinking about going back to stock comments at Shooting at Bubbles.

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My point here is that if we can’t rely on the commonality in the most basic thing like blog comments how can we expect blocks built on top of other services to be stable enough to invest our time in – especially consider that most of them are only looking for exit strategies… then what?

Even among the foundation companies and yes at this point Twitter can be included one has to wonder if they are stable enough both in service and vision. Twitter has bragged about their vision but their service has yet to be proven in my opinion. When it comes to a company like Google there is no question about the stability of their service but what about their vision?

Jesse makes the following point about Google in his post as evidence of their vision for a building block web build around sociality

Now look at Google. Google understands this well. They are providing Friend Connect, OpenSocial, Android, Wave (on 3 different levels!), and letting Developers decide what to do with them. Google is adding to this new platform giving developers new building blocks to play with and create cool things with.

Unfortunately I disagree with Jesse and point to exactly the same things as a reason why Google doesn’t have a solid enough vision of what a social web is in order to create building blocks off of. How can one possibly plan to build anything let alone intricate social applications if you don’t know where your foundation is going never mind knowing where it is in the first place.

As nice as the idea of a LEGO style idea of the web might be I don’t believe we are anywhere close enough to building one that we can trust to be there the next day or until the next great idea comes along.

image credits: google lego / human lego figure / corner lego art

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