Never mind the Facebook – Open Social and the future of social networks

The thing about Facebook, for all its yummy and addictive gloriousness, is that it’s been around a while. This is worrying. Friendster, MySpace have both experienced a huge and short-lived boom period, followed by customers migrating to the next, best and shiny thing. Given that Bebo has been the #1 social network in the UK for some time now, and with the recent news that they, along with several others, are joining the Google-led “Open Social” platform, the time has come for Facebookers to get worried.
What am I talking about? The problem is Facebook’s infamous “walled garden” approach to storing its customers’ data. It’s very easy to get your information into Facebook, but it’s pretty tricky to get it out. Some people have built screen-scrapers that are exposing a chink in Facebook’s armour, but using these violates the Terms & Conditions of Facebook, so you can be banned – it’s explicit that Facebook doesn’t want you to leave. When you do want to, you have to start again from scratch, building your network and your identity within it:

The Company may terminate your membership […] for any reason, or no reason, at any time…

This cycle shouldn’t continue every time taste changes or new fad pops up. The Open Social approach helps application developers by letting them build once and run their application in any social network that supports the Open Social interface, but this doesn’t help the people locked into the social networks. What we need is a way for people to log-in once and be able to get involved with any social network.

Is this what people want? The Economist ran an article recently about Facebook and the phenomenon of the “social graph”, postulating that social networks don’t benefit from the same “network effects” as a telephone network, which becomes more useful as more phones are connected. The suggestion was that social networks fragment into small, independent groups. There has been research done that shows that the natural upper limit for social groups is around 150, which for a network like Facebook, where the participants are individuals, rather than the example of bands on MySpace that might have thousands of friends, this is quite an insight. When a social network uses its millions of members as a selling point, it is really pulling the wool over our eyes.

With this in mind, I set to thinking about whether a decentralized social network makes sense. By decentralized, I mean independent of any one company or particular implementation in software – email is a very successful decentralized system. In essence, I think social networking boils down to people, a flow of information and a group identity. Two small groups can happily exist independently of one another without there needing to be this great, overarching flow between them. I don’t need a million people in my social network for it to be really, really good. All I need is to be able to get involved with the activities of other people, and it shouldn’t matter what their choice of social networking software is.

Thinking about it, the only people who benefit from having millions of people inside a walled garden are the companies who own it:
* Advertising – in our social network, we don’t want it
* Company Growth – in our social network, we don’t care about it
* Monitoring Usage – in our social network, we don’t like it

Open Social is going to let developers build applications that we can use inside any social network; next we need something analogous for flows of information between them. With both of these, maybe even a group’s social identity can be decoupled from the personal software choice its members make.


One Comment

  1. Posted November 5, 2007 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking about the whole ‘walled garden’ issue and it occurred to me that as soon as facebook does open up it’s data it may spell it’s own end.

    With the data available for other platforms, the next and better facebook type ‘social networking’ (not keen on that term in this context) site will be able to allow it’s users to port all their data over from facebook. People will be far more willing to use something else (the next best thing) if they can keep all of their previous data.

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