Opening the Social Networks

Things are really hotting up in the world of Business/ Social Networks. There are quite a few of them (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites) and most peoples’ “social graphs” are spread across several of these sites, not to mention their offline address books. Few people like signing up to more networks and adding more profiles because every site is different. Also, you take time entering your information but in most cases you can’t get it out. Then there’s the annoying issue of usernames and passwords – again, each site is necessarily different. IMHO the most annoying aspect of the sites is that most have a closed approach to messaging. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to use these facilities as plain old email works just fine thank you.

It’s interesting to speculate as to which SN site(s) are here to stay and which are accidents waiting to happen. The major sites such as Facebook, Myspace and LinkedIn look like good bets because of the large populations represented there. However, they are clearly out to eat each other’s lunch so their longevity is not assured. Recently we heard speculation that LinkedIn is adding Facebook-like features and Facebook is expanding its feature set to better address LinkedIn’s market.

This competition is good, at least in the sense that they will have to compete on quality of service, but it does point to uncertainty about the future of any one network. Perhaps a key feature that could differentiate these and other players in the medium term is their attitute to openness. Openness could be very valuable to users of these services in that one’s investment in content (especially contact details, profile and social graph) is a good deal safer if it can be exported. More important still is the ability for one’s information to be available for use in mashups.

We’ll be watching this space: Let’s hope the big players see the light and knock down the walls between their gardens. We want to see standards-compliant access to social network content. The probable standards will include microformats, protocols like OpenID and XFN or some alternative to support open social graphs. Even if the SNs have proprietary APIs there’s a possible outcome where SN content aggregators can act as bridges to an open world.

At a recent Mashup*Event we met an outfit called Meecard http://www.meecard.com that seems to have the right philosopy.