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Google's Open Social: An Opportunity for Personal Data Portability
Jon Lebkowsky, 6 Nov 07
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"The web is better when it's social." - Google

The latest Big Thing from Google is the company's collaboration with social network platforms to create Open Social, which

provides a common set of APIs for social applications across multiple websites. With standard JavaScript and HTML, developers can create apps that access a social network's friends and update feeds.

It was a big deal when Facebook, the second largest social network platform after Myspace, launched a robust API that allowed any programmer or company with a cool idea for an application to run within Facebook to build and launch it. Hundreds of new applications followed, giving Facebook users even more to do online with their social network. This was sticky for Facebook, good exposure for the developers, and a boon to all the Facebook users – many new toys to play with.

Google's insight was that you could create a standard API that many social sites could adopt, so that developers could build applications to work across platforms. This would presumably stimulate innovations and make them more broadly available – great for users and second tier social networking sites, less great for Facebook (though in my opinion, anything that boosts social networking is good for anyone in that business).

This is consistent with the evolution of the Internet, which has blown away proprietary gated systems like AOL and Prodigy and instead operated as a generally open network with sites and applications that are customarily accessible and often public. One of the biggest surges in 'net-based activity occurred when social media like blogs took conversations out of gated online communities into the public Internet; another surge occured when syndication technologies followed, making all that user-generated content even more accessible and shareable.

Still, Google leverages the open Internet to feed its coffers, and Open Social is clearly about business. It creates an ad overlay that leverages "network effects," a long-tail ad distribution and placement mechanism through which anyone who controls a piece of web real estate, however large or small, can display Google ads and take a share of the profits. Much of what Google does, including Open Social, is strategic, focused on maximizing the number of eyeballs Google can reach. To the extent Facebook captures eyeballs and mindshare, it's controlling valuable real estate where it will serve its own ads, cutting Google out of the picture. This is the competitive piece: Google has an interest in drawing attention away from Facebook's proprietary platform and into the open Internet, where Google's ads are widely displayed and attracting clicks.

Business necessity invites innovation, it's good to have a business case for the open Internet and innovative development, so that even the greediest bastards out there will do good and helpful things. But commerce is ultimately constraining. Thus, Open Social may not go far enough, especially given the importance of "social." The social network platform is fundamental; the Internet inherently supports it. Both technical and social networks are scale-free; they have similar structures. They support – and depend on – communication.

The history of the Internet has been an evolution of better, more innovative ways to connect people in communities and markets. It's important to acknowledge the latter; business is always a consideration. "Markets are conversations," as the Cluetrain's conductor says.

I'm not sure of the business case, though, for the Internet I'd like to see, which would work toward standards in the Identity 2.0/FOAF ("Friend of a Friend") space. The data about your identity and your connections is yours; you should own and control it, and it should be portable. Open Social has the opportunity to go there, since it's about getting broad agreement about standards from the operators of social systems – but so far the conversation seems to be limited to portability of applications, not data.

Open Social might result in something like the kind of portability I'm talking about. The API will give developers access to three kinds of data:

  • user profile (the data about you)
  • social graph (the data about your connections)
  • activities (the data about stuff you and others are doing)
Developers may build ways to aggregate and control that data. It'll be interesting to see just what emerges from the Open Social stew.

The size and scope of Google, and especially the degree to which it's capturing and indexing data about each and every one of us who uses it, scares the pants off some. They're convinced that the now-monolithic enterprise must be evil. But because it's so big, so wealthy and so pervasive, Google can pretty much make anything happen. It's an amazing innovation engine, and a major force driving the evolution of the web -- as Open Social has the potential to demonstrate.

(If you want a more technical analysis of Open Social, Dare Obasanjo has written a very good one here, with an abbreviated summar here.

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