On open social data and (ab)using standards for personal gain

By May 13, 2008 6 Comments

There has been a flurry of announcements recently on the theme of data portability and making the web more social – Google yesterday announced Friend Connect, and that is on top of Facebook’s Connect and MySpace Data Availability launch, and Yahoo!’s move to a single profile.

These are all steps in the right direction, for me being able to view my friend data wherever I am on the web, and even better have my services access it is a big deal. Flock does this in a small way and as I wrote last October this has the potential to change the game for social networks.

The recent activity from Google, Myspace, Facebook and Yahoo! (and probably others besides) is evidence that everyone in on the same page about the significance of data portability for social media. Where they differ is in the open-ness of their strategies. This quote from a great post by Brad Fitz captures why:

Currently if you’re a new site that needs the social graph (e.g. to provide one fun & useful feature (e.g. where are your friends traveling and when?), then you face a much bigger problem then just implementing your main feature. You also have to have usernames, passwords (or hopefully you use OpenID instead), a way to invite friends, add/remove friends, and the list goes on. So generally you have to ask for email addresses too, requiring you to send out address verification emails, etc. Then lost username/password emails. etc, etc. If I had to declare the problem statement succinctly, it’d be: People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every ite., but also: Developing “Social Applications” is too much work.

Facebook’s answer seems to be that the world should just all be Facebook apps. While Facebook is an amazing platform and has some amazing technology, there’s a lot of hesitation in the developer / “Web 2.0” community about being slaves to Facebook, dependent on their continued goodwill, availability, future owners, not changing the rules, etc. That hesitation I think is well-founded. A centralized “owner” of the social graph is bad for the Internet. I’m not saying
anybody should ban Facebook, though! Far from it. It’s a great product, and I love it, but the graph needs to exist outside of Facebook. MySpace also has a lot of good data, but not all of it. Likewise LiveJournal, Digg, Twitter, Zooomr, Pownce, Friendster, Plaxo, the list goes on. More important is that any one of these sites shouldn’t own it; nobody/everybody should. It should just exist.

Please excuse the long quote – and the summary is that small sites like Dopplr favour open-ness and data portability because they struggle to build enough of a social graph on their own, but big sites like Facebook harbour hopes of owning the entire social graph and are therefore less keen on sharing data. Obviously for everyone other than Facebook it is bad news if they succeed in forcing everyone onto their platform.

Fortunately none of the incumbent large sites is strong enough to come out against data portability altogether, and there is competitive advantage to be had from being seen to be open – so we have a raft of moves in this direction – some of which appear more genuine than others. From GigaOM:

Technology buzzwords come and go…virtualization, green, SaaS…and after sitting through the Google Friend Connect announcement, reading about Facebook’s Connect service and writing about last week’s MySpace Data Availability launch, “open” appears to be just the latest. But open is one of those words whose definition can be spun into a variety of meanings.


Last week, I pointed out that MySpace’s Data Availability efforts were welcome in that they expand the number of sites on which a user can use her MySpace data, but that MySpace still had a lock on the user data since it hosted and determined who could display that data by approving site partners. If MySpace’s efforts were three steps forward in opening up user profiles, then Google’s Friend Connect represents two steps back.

This reminds me of standards wars in the enterprise software world – e.g. Openwave in which we invested whilst I was with Reuters Venture Capital worked the WAP standards process to its advantage, using it’s influence in the standards bodies to make changes that favoured it’s products over those of its competitors.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that big web companies are playing the same games as big companies have always played. Unfortunately it will make it harder for startups to launch cool new products and take them on – which I guess is maybe the point.

Hopefully I’m wrong and the zeitgeist of the web will make it different this time round.