No clear alternative today to Facebook as a platform for friends

As I was playing with a new Facebook app on Friday that uses my friends list to filter blog posts (of which more later) I began thinking again about the power of Facebook as a platform for friends.  As I wrote in the post I just linked to it is crazy that we have to maintain different lists of friends in all the social applications we use.

If I’m right in thinking that we will evolve to a situation where we keep a single list of friends and simply allow the social apps we use to link to it then the next question is: where will we keep that list?

Right now Facebook is miles out in front.  They have the big installed base and the open API which together have got them off to a good running start.

Myspace and LinkedIn will have to overcome two hurdles if they are to compete on this front (which is by no means the only play for them) – firstly they will need to open up to third party applications and secondly they will need to find a way for people to specify who their real friends are.

This second part will be the more difficult and, ironically, it is a problem born in their early success.  The initial growth of LinkedIn and Myspace was to a large extent driven by people playing the “who has the most friends?” game.  This game led to everyone inviting everyone else to be their friends and hence rapid growth, but resulted in a low quality network.  Now that the game is changing to using the network to derive value (i.e. learn from what my friends are doing) that low quality is becoming a problem.

A couple of caveats to this last paragraph:

  1. I understand that LinkedIn is overcoming this problem
  2. There is an argument that a large network of casual acquaintances is just as useful as a small one in generating recommendations – in this view of the world instead of looking at all the recommendations from a chosen few you keep an eye on the ‘flow’ of recommendations from lots of people and look for the things that show up frequently.  I need to think more about this, but my instinct is that I would rather identify a few experts amongst my group of friends with the same taste as me and look at their recommendations than try and draw insight from the flow.

If the competition to Facebook as a platform for friends doesn’t come from the other social networks the only other place is from some kind of open standards utility.  Somewhat similarly to OpenID for single sign on you would have a place where you maintain your list of friends and only use social apps which could plug into that list.

I suspect this is where it will go over the long term, and that we will use the same app to store other profile information (probably including all our passwords for single sign on) but we are a long way from that point today.  Right now we are only just starting to see the value to be gained from using your network as your filter – only once that is widely understood will the market open up for a dedicated “friends management service”.  And there is also the small matter of needing to agree standards for access.

If it does become open standards based then there will be space for many companies to be successful in this market.  That contrasts with Facebook’s position at the moment which seems to be heading towards some kind of natural monopoly.

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and all the other big guys are already chasing this play hard.