The Real "Open Like": New Link-sharing Protocol Gets Big Names on Board

Facebook has set out a clear path to make the web social, and is extremely well-positioned to make that happen. But it’s not all bad news for competitors, even small startups — because the prospect of competing with Facebook is driving alliances to create open alternatives.

Content-sharing toolmaker Clearspring today introduced OExchange, a way for services to inspire link-sharing without establishing formal relationships to get their logos next to Facebook’s widespread “like” buttons. OExchange is an open protocol that helps content sites dynamically discover relevant sharing services, send them content in a format they can accept and interpret user sharing preferences as explicitly stated.

On board for OExchange are Clearspring, Digg, Echo, Google (s GOOG), Instapaper, LinkedIn, Microsoft (s MSFT), Posterous, PrintFriendly, Springpad, StumbleUpon, and yfrog. Google Buzz and Posterous already have parts of the protocol live on their sites. As for the remaining big players, Clearspring CEO Hooman Radfar said his company is in talks to bring on Twitter and Yahoo (s YHOO), and has also approached Facebook, though the latter seems much less likely to join in.

OExchange does not dynamically personalize user sharing preferences based on where they’re logged in like XAuth, the similar initiative from Meebo (see disclosure below) that also gathered a us-vs.-them non-Facebook posse. Nor does it carry a user message along with the link (in the vein of Facebook’s “like” and “recommend”), but that is in the works.

OExchange seems like a further-along version of OpenLike, the grassroots effort that was set up in direct opposition to Facebook’s launch of its web-wide “like” buttons at f8. However, OpenLike is a bit simpler with much less adoption so far; rather than a full protocol, it’s an open-source alternative to Facebook’s tool. Radfar insisted that unlike OpenLike, OExchange had been in the works far before f8 and isn’t a reactionary play.

“The timing lined up that Facebook was making this move to colonize the web, but we couldn’t have pulled this coalition together if it was reactionary,” said Radfar. “The beauty is there’s no central arbiter like Facebook; this is a completely distributed system.”

“Facebook is setting user experience expectations today, but it will be interesting to see how third-party standards break apart the monolith,” added Clearspring community manager Justin Thorp, comparing Facebook to AOL’s (s aol) centralized system before the web overtook it. Thorp argued that Facebook’s long-term dominance is far from inevitable. “IE still has 60 percent market share, right? Imagine if Microsoft put identity in the browser,” he said.

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Disclosure: Meebo is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True. Please also see the disclosure in Liz’s bio with regard to Facebook.