The Augmented Social Network: Building identity and trust into the next-generation Internet

Ken Jordan, Jan Hauser, Steven Foster


Could the next generation of online communications strengthen civil society by better connecting people to others with whom they share affinities, so they can more effectively exchange information and self-organize? Could such a system help to revitalize democracy in the 21st century? When networked personal computing was first developed, engineers concentrated on extending creativity among individuals and enhancing collaboration between a few. They did not much consider what social interaction among millions of Internet users would actually entail. It was thought that the Netos technical architecture need not address the issues of "personal identity" and "trust," since those matters tended to take care of themselves.

This paper proposes the creation of an Augmented Social Network (ASN) that would build identity and trust into the architecture of the Internet, in the public interest, in order to facilitate introductions between people who share affinities or complementary capabilities across social networks. The ASN has three main objectives: 1) To create an Internet-wide system that enables more efficient and effective knowledge sharing between people across institutional, geographic, and social boundaries; 2) To establish a form of persistent online identity that supports the public commons and the values of civil society; and, 3) To enhance the ability of citizens to form relationships and self-organize around shared interests in communities of practice in order to better engage in the process of democratic governance. In effect, the ASN proposes a form of "online citizenship" for the Information Age.

The ASN is not a piece of software or a Web site. Rather, it is a model for a next-generation online community that could be implemented in a number of ways, using technology that largely exists today. It is a system that would enhance the power of social networks by using interactive digital media to exploit the transitive nature of trust through the principle of six degrees of connection. As a result, people will be able to inform themselves and self-organize more effectively ? in non-hierarchical, rhizomatic social formations ? leading to more opportunities for engaged citizenship. Part 1 of the paper discusses the concepts behind the ASN, why it is important to pursue such a project today, and the dangers civil society faces if it is not pursued. Part 2 describes a technical architecture for the protocols and software that would support a system of recommendations through trusted third parties across the Internet as a whole. Part 3 offers recommendations for first steps toward achieving the ASN.

The ASN weaves together four distinct technical areas into components of an interdependent system. The four main elements of the ASN are: Persistent online identity; interoperability between communities; brokered relationships; and, public interest matching technologies. Each of these is discussed in a separate section in detail.

The issue of persistent online identity is examined first through a contrast between the needs of civil society and current initiatives in the commercial sector, the Liberty Alliance Project and Microsoftos .Net identity system, named Passport. The ASN calls for a public interest approach to online identity that enables individuals to express their interests outside contexts determined by commerce. This approach would include a digital profile that has an "affinity reference" that would facilitate connections to trusted third parties.

The section on interoperability between online communities starts with a discussion of Reedos Law, which shows how the value of social networks grows exponentially through interconnectivity. We then discuss how the ASN would apply Reedos Law to online communities of practice in new ways, through the creation of interoperability protocols that will enable individuals to cross more easily between social networks. The ASN would create strategically placed "doors" between online community infrastructures, which today act like "walled castles." Also discussed are the module software applications necessary to extend the functionality of online community infrastructures so they can support ASN activity.

The section on brokered relationships begins by discussing the importance of brokering introductions between people using the ASN, and describes the "introduction protocols" that would facilitate this process. While many ASN introductions would be automated, others of a more sensitive nature will require specialized brokering services that provide customized introductions, appropriate to narrowly defined circumstances. These are discussed, as well as current brokering systems that are developing relevant technology.

The section on public interest matching technologies explains why it is crucial for the civil society sector to participate in the creation of online ontologies and taxonomies that are now shaping the semantic structure of the Internet. Also discussed are the ways that matching technologies enhance online communities, and how the ASN would develop protocols that enable interoperability between online ontological frameworks. The latter would enrich knowledge sharing between social networks by allowing distinct communities to compare "knowledge maps," and easily access diverse viewpoints.

The ASN could be achieved in an incremental manner, with software and protocols developed among a relatively small group of participants, and gradually adopted by larger online community systems as they see fit. The ASN would be built on open standards, shepherded by a not-for-profit initiative that coordinates efforts in the technical areas described above. Aspects of the implementation could be undertaken by for-profit companies that respect these open standards, just as companies today profit from providing e-mail or Web pages. But to insure that the ASN meets its public interest objectives, participating organizations would have to agree to abide by the ASNos principles of implementation. [Update: Since this paper was first circulated in draft form, in June 2003, an organization has been established to help bring the ASN into existence. For more information about this not-for-profit project, the Initiative for an Augmented Social Network (IFASN), please visit]

Full Text:



A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.