Can Tent protocol succeed where other challengers of Facebook and Twitter have fallen short?
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Fed up with closed social networks, four developers have taken it upon themselves to propose a protocol for open, decentralized social networking called Tent, which they've backed with a manifesto asserting the necessity of free speech.
Tent aspires to become as commonplace and widely accepted as HTTP or email (POP, IMAP, and MAPI), protocols that govern the interchange of information across networks. Using Tent, developers will be able to write server and application software that functions in a non-proprietary social network that has no central point of control.
If that sounds a bit like Diaspora, the Kickerstarter project that launched in April 2010 as a challenge to Facebook, the similarity is intentional. Daniel Siders, co-architect of Tent, said in a phone interview that he had backed Diaspora and that he sees Tent as part of the continuum of "liberation technologies," projects like identi.ca, rstat.us, and OStatus.
"Diaspora is a social networking application," explained Siders in an email. "Not a protocol or an API. Anyone can write an application that supports a protocol, just like there are many servers and clients for the World Wide Web. Tent is a new protocol for which many different, interoperable social applications, be they networking applications like Diaspora or remixing applications like Instagram, will be built."
One practical way to understand the distinction is that in the case of application frameworks like Diaspora or Facebook, some functionality cannot be easily changed. "With Tent, you could switch to a better news feed viewer application without changing friends or moving your data," said Siders.
Like Diaspora but unlike Facebook, Tent proposes to give users control over their data and files, without arbitrary limitations designed to prevent easy migration to another service.
"Everything out there now that works on the social networks, all of the functionality is very easily reproducible for Tent," said Siders. "There's also going to be a whole class of things you might not normally think about doing."
For example, because Tent is intended to serve the activist community, it can run as a hidden service on Tor, a secure, anonymous networking system. Activists could thus enjoy the benefits of a social network with less fear of being monitored.
Siders expects that someone will create a server that supports Tent alongside other social networking schemes like Diaspora and OStatus. And the fact that someone could create such a hybrid shows why Tent has a chance: Commercial social networking services tend to limit how developers can create software that interacts with their service, even if that software might offer a better user experience. Siders observes that it's presently a violations of Twitter's Terms of Service to create a client app that can publish to both Twitter and another network.
For Siders and his co-revolutionaries, the next step is getting the Tent protocol into shape as a formal open source project, submitting it to a standards body, and releasing sample applications. The first app is likely to be a Twitter clone, a goal shared by the crowd-funded commercial project App.net.
Developers interested in creating their own Tent server or apps can begin using the Tent documentation.
Siders and the other protocol designers--Jonathan Rudenberg, Jesse Stuart, and Lucas Wojciechowski--are developing a hosted Tent service, for those disinclined to dive into Tent coding.
Siders says he and his colleagues thought about whether doing so might be seen as a conflict with Tent's open aspirations but decided the ecosystem needs a hosted solution, at least initially. He said the plan is to make the service "pay what you want," adding that they might turn the hosting service over to other stakeholders once it gets established.
Tent will cross that bridge if it ever gets there. Diaspora had fewer than 200,000 users toward the end of 2011, a year after it opened for alpha testing. Google+, which launched six months later, had 250 million users after its first year.
So far, social network users seem to agree with manifesto item three--"every user has the right to choose and change social services providers"--and they're choosing the name brands. Declarations about users' right to control their data, to choose their own social networking name, and to communicate freely appear to have more limited appeal.
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