By Martin Bosworth
The big news in the tech world this past week was Google’s unveiling of OpenSocial, a set of programming tools that will enable members of multiple social networks to share files and information across the different platforms, and for developers to create programs that work equally well on LinkedIn as they do on Friendster. Noticeably absent from the alliance supporting OpenSocial were the two 800-pound gorillas of the social networking world, MySpace and Facebook…well, at least for a day or so. It was barely 24 hours later that MySpace announced it would join the OpenSocial coalition, leaving the tech press breathlessly wondering what Facebook’s next move would be, and whether this represents another step in Google’s plan to dominate all of the space/time continuum.
In reading through all of this, and hearing comments from Sam about it, I wanted to cut through the hype and address what this really means for people on social networks and the companies that power them. Let’s go point by point:
- I’m on [insert social network here]. Will this change anything about what I use it for? That depends. Shocking as it may seem to technology evangelists and marketers, not everyone joins social networks to furiously flaunt themselves and meet up with people that can help them do business. Indeed, the first and most primary reason I’ve encountered to use a site like LiveJournal, MySpace, and the like is to reestablish connections you’ve already made–to follow up on what your friends are doing, as Tim Lee astutely notes. This is a prime example of what trendwatchers call “opinion movers” or early adopters in action. A few people jump onto a new thing. Then they tell their friends about it and they follow. Then the thing gains wide acceptance and brings in people that the original group may or may not want to interact with. Eventually, the thing becomes so common that it loses its cachet, and they move on to the next thing. Social networks are no different. I joined LiveJournal in 2001 (when it was still invite-only!), and six years later, virtually my entire group of close friends use it. I joined LinkedIn in 2005, and two years later, half of my friends and colleagues use it. If I have a need to join another network or service, I might do so, and if I did, I suspect many would follow me on.
- Will this make it easier for me to network? Possibly. Sam said something to me about how a single cross-platform system would “maximize networking efficiency” and not force you to remember different passwords and usernames for each one. Personally, I think that’s a bit silly–if you can remember baseball players’ stats or your grocery list, you can remember passwords for sites. But on the whole, I support any move towards tearing down walled gardens and building a truly integrated and open Web sphere, one where you can create and control your online identity and share as much as you want, with whom you want. (I’ll get back to this in a bit.)
- Why isn’t Facebook joining the OpenSocial group? Remember that Microsoft just bought a huge stake in Facebook, partially just to trump Google and partially to utilize Facebook’s system of individual-targeted advertising, rather than Google’s content-targeted ads. Google’s OpenSocial platform is a counter to that, and a deep expression of the companies’ differing philosophies, as articulated by eWeek’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols:Indeed, if you think about it, this face-off over Facebook, says a lot about both companies. Google wants to open up its advertising. Microsoftâ€”and this is so Microsoft of themâ€”wants to keep the advertising all to themselves…If you buy into it, you have to buy into an expensive complete server to desktop package. It’s not quite the same thing as selling your business’ soul to Redmond, but it’s close. Google, on the other hand, says you can just use its open services and applications, like Google Apps Premier and Standard editions to do pretty much everything Microsoft can do for you, with one big difference. With Google, it’s either free of charge or the company charges you a pittance.
- So, can I trust Google with my personal information? Ah, now that’s the $75,000 question (adjusted for inflation), isn’t it? Remember that because Google is all about advertising, the company is constantly looking for ways to target its ads more effectively and efficiently, through hyperlocalized and targeted marketing. Brian’s also excellently explored how Google’s egregious Terms of Service for some of its applications gives them license to bogart your works for any purpose, and you’re powerless to challenge it. By no means is this endemic to Google alone, however–Rupert Murdoch didn’t buy MySpace because he loved those crappy HTML layouts. No, he bought it because he saw the goldmine of advertising wealth that could be gleaned from the millions of teenagers and young adults who signed up to join their friends. All of these companies are enthralled by the idea of turning the Internet into a massive yet micro-targeted marketplace, where any Web site you sign up for could hit you with ads that get more and more detailed and persuasive as you share more and more information.
- Summation. A few months ago, Gavin and I had a discussion about the growing trend towards interoperability for Web 2.0 and its consequences, which is frighteningly prescient in retrospect. But my core argument hasn’t changed–users should expect some loss of privacy in exchange for the convenience of open networking, but control must be key. If an open network is a door, that door should be able to be closed. I should have the right to not share entries or information with people I don’t want reading it. I should have the right to block or bypass targeted ads with a subscription. I should have the right to opt-out as a default from any networking service third party that wants my current network to share my personal data. I should have the right to ensure my written and image content will not be misused or abused by the company without explanation or the right of refusal. Most of all, I should have the right to enjoy a social network for its stated purpose–as a way to keep up with my friends, share photos, or do business–without worrying if Google or another company is going to use the time I spend there as leverage to increase its dominance of the known galaxy at my expense.