OpenSocial: each new site already knows who your friends are

Last week, Microsoft bought 1.6% of Facebook for US$240 million, a deal that values the whole of Facebook at 15 billion dollars. This week, Google announced OpenSocial, which, as Read/Write Web explains it, is a “set of common APIs for building social applications across the web”. What that means is that a pile of existing social network sites – including MySpace, LinkedIn, Flixster, Friendster, Orkut, Bebo, hi5 and more – are collaborating on a set of tools that developers will be able to use to create new sites that use the social network data from these existing social networks. So instead of you having to re-enter friends at every single site you sign up for, you could have the same group of friends automatically appearing everywhere. could pull in your MySpace friends data to tell you that “hey, your friend bought this, would you like it too?” (Yes, I know Amazon has its own social network, but do you use it? Hardly anybody does.) Or, as Scoble notes, a site like Scrabulous – or any other service – could write its Scrabble-playing application just once for OpenSocial and it would work across all the OpenSocial sites, but not in Facebook.

Such an open social network would have great advantages over closed, proprietory sites such as Facebook, especially with such important participants as MySpace, LinkedIn and more joining. In fact, Robin Harris wonders whether Google basically tricked Microsoft into buying into Facebook at a ridiculous price by pretending to be interested – then a week later, announcing OpenSocial, a competing system that obviously took far more than a week to set up. Perhaps Microsoft not only offered Facebook a lot of money, but also the a promise that they could stay closed.

Despite my general love of open systems, OpenSocial certainly also gives cause for concern. What of privacy? What of the fact that social networks aren’t always a one-size-fits-all proposition? Just two days ago, danah boyd wrote that she is having to limit her “real” Facebook profile to real, f2f friends only, and that she is creating a second Facebook profile for her professional connections. She’s obviously not happy about “un-friending” her professional connections, but writes that she has to do this in order to protect her personal relationships. In a paper danah boyd wrote with Jeffrey Heer (pdf link), they give another example of this jarring of networks that should never have been connected: the teacher whose young students find her friends’ profiles and are horrified at them. Will OpenSocial allow for the distinctions between different kinds of friends? Say Amazon or other shops start using this – would they allow me to say “let my professional connections, my students and my blog friends see these books I bought for research but only show our wedding registry to personal friends”?

Have you read Cory Doctorow’s short story Scroogled yet? It tells the story of a not-so-distant future where Google has been hired to streamline immigration services in the US. Anything you write online will be taken into consideration by the government. OpenSocial would fit right in to that picture.

But the alternative – closed, proprietory systems like Facebook, where the user agreement gives Facebook the right to republish anything you upload or send through the service – really isn’t a lot more comforting. And if there’s going to be “one ring to bind them all”, one “social operating system for the internet”, it’s better for us users that it be an open one – albeit owned by Google – than a locked-in system like Facebook. As Steven Johnson points out, a problem with Facebook is that it not only owns our content, it owns us – we can’t simply ditch it because so much of our social lives are there. With OpenSocial, Steven Johnson writes, “the open nature of the platform also makes it much harder for Facebook to exploit lock-in, since it will now be much easier for consumers to move over to the next, coolest social networking site.”

And look at this graph from HitWise, showing how much more of our internet traffic the OpenSocial participants have in comparison to Facebook:

graph showing OpenSocial's market share vs Facebook's

02. November 2007 by Jill

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