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Prying Open the Social Graph

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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.

While Facebook isn’t yet releasing much detail on its efforts and may completely surprise me, Google’s Friend Connect program today highlights how open standards such as OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial can be used to create a platform that’s pretty closed. The service, which will launch tonight and only expects to have between 12 and 24 sites participating while it’s in preview mode over the next few months, will allow site publishers to put some code on their sites. If a user visits a site with the appropriate code, she can get access, via an IFrame, to applications built in OpenSocial. A user can also share her activities on a participating site with her contacts, as well as through her news feeds on participating social networking sites.

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.

The use of the IFrame means that site owners have no way to change or work with user data, they can only display it. MySpace doesn’t allow sites to store user data on anyone’s servers other than its own, but it does allow that data to be used directly in the outside site. For more differences among the three services, please check out the chart below.

While none of these services are entirely open yet — and may never be, given security and data abuse problems — the trend toward a more social web is clear. With broadband more prevalent than ever and voice fading as the primary means of communicating with people who aren’t in the room, enabling a truly open social web is the next big step in communication. But in order for that to happen, the user needs to be able to reach across walled gardens and gain granular control as to what he or she shares and with whom.

There’s open source (really open in that anyone with knowledge can participate in how the code evolves), open standards (open only in that anyone can participate using a pre-defined version of the standard), and open APIs (open in that anyone can take the pre-defined standard and build something for a closed platform such as Facebook). Knowing this, the efforts to open up a user’s data on a social network (their social graph, if you will) by these three companies falls somewhere between an open platform and an open standard.

Facebook Connect (not launched yet) Google Friend Connect MySpace Data Availability
Standards Used unknown, but Facebook API is likely OAuth, OpenID, OpenSocial OAuth
Social Data That’s Shared basic profile information, profile picture, friends, photos, events, groups Applications built with OpenSocial, contacts, activities on participating sites published back to a news feed Profiles, friends, photos and videos
Getting Access to the Data unknown Web site owners must apply to Google and be accepted Web site owners must agree to MySpace terms and conditions, but MySpace will allow anyone who doesn’t abuse the user data to participate
Time Frame will launch within a few weeks First 12-24 sites will go live in the next few days and the rest of the web will take a few more months Launched on May 8 and adding more partners within the next few weeks
Launch Partners unannounced Plaxo, Orkut, Hi5 and Facebook Yahoo!, Twitter, eBay and Photobucket
Where Data is stored and displayed unannounced On Google servers and displayed only via an iFrame On MySpace Servers, but can be displayed however the participating site wishes
Privacy A user’s privacy settings will follow him around the web Users opt in to Friend Connect and can limit their profile sharing to existing contacts only; a user can elect on which sites he wants to share his activities, can also instantly change privacy settings across all participating sites Users can control their privacy settings (right now, only which sites get access to their data) on a central page. Partner sites must accept changes in real time and sharing profile data is an opt-in service

31 Responses to “Prying Open the Social Graph”

  1. Look at this in the context of Google promoting OpenSocial instead of in the context of Google opening up and providing data portability. OpenSocial is now 4 things.
    1) An API for building widgets
    2) An API for building a container for widgets for big web sites
    3) A REST API for accessing the underlying data and mashing it up
    4) A Javascript wrapper to a hosted container on Google for dropping onto small websites

    Look at it like that and Friends Connect looks like an entry level container that widens the market for widgets by vastly increasing the number of places your widgets will run. They’ve managed to hide all the complexity of building a container or installing and integrating ShinDig into one line of javascript. Isn’t that an amazingly clever thing that will have at least as much effect as wrapping Google Maps into a snippet of javascript that anyone can use?

  2. Stacy, excellent post. In addition to Michael Chin’s comment about the publisher’s perspective, I’d like your view on the user’s perspective. The terms around data ownership, access, data types, etc are likely very limiting – GOOG and others wouldn’t want another site to acquire the gold that makes up these social graphs: email addresses. It would level the playing field, and increase the opportunity for start-ups to create a rival service. The downside, of course, is felt by the user. What if something 1000x cooler than Facebook comes out? How do I get my social graph in there? It’s not possible, and again, the user takes a backseat to protecting data silos.

  3. Stacey Higginbotham

    Thanks for the kind words, guys. Michael, good point about the publisher keeping control of his data. Brent, it may be that I’m like a Depression era farmer hoping to keep my data under my mattress to protect it from Big Google, and will succumb to the lure of Google having all of my data in time. We’ll see.

  4. Great post. The key to me is about what all this means to the web publisher. Any serious publisher needs to ‘own’ & ‘control’ its relationship with its audience. The social web gives any website new and very meaningful ways of deepening those CORE relationships. These initiatives ARE NOT a substitute for those core relationships–they are however great value adds where appropriate and can be great ways to tap into a big audience.

  5. Interesting point of view. But my opinion is that this new concept is far from new or innovative. Or at least Google has just several features. If you take a simple look, Google Friend Connect is like MyBlogLog but only with several additional features.

    I really don’t see the boom in this service and honestly I think that Google needs some ideas because they are behind. Not to mention that in the search area Microsoft has made some efforts and has integrated great features in its search engine.

  6. I am with Shan Stacey… Been reading about this disruptive Google concept, and only you hit the nail on the head, where nobody else treads: “two steps back” – so very well put! 2 steps back into Google’s big and powerful pockets. Let’s hope the other big players aren’t so anxious to use open standards to completely undermine the concept of openness, but I suppose they are looking at revenue with the pretense of openness, rather than revenues due to value added open standards. Again “Open Standards”, as you indicate, is almost an oxy-moron/catch 22 (?). Thanks for this Stacey, you got our minds on overdrive this morning! Quality coverage. Look forward to seeing more educated responses than my own.

  7. Stacey,

    Your articles are a fantastic concise and clear presentation of the topic at hand. A total asset for Giga Omni media.


  8. Interesting that you are calling GOOG’s efforts two steps back. Today I put in a request to GOOG to *increase* their use of iframes. Ironic, eh? My reasoning: a more seamless, customizable browsing experience. To me, GOOG *is* my web browser of choice. I have tired of the limitations of FF extension bloat (I luv FF but you know what I mean) and I want what GOOG can deliver. Sure its a little creepy to trust them that much, but so also your bank, the government,etc. GOOG pwns the internet.