American Culture

Will OpenSocial help Google reorganize into the first Galactic Empire?

googlegalactic.jpgBy 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. Microsoft—and this is so Microsoft of them—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.

6 replies »

  1. Very prescient, I thought. Especially since I was totally against the walled garden and very sure that the future lies with some form of interoperability.

    However, these be the choices:
    i) Free, but you sacrifice your privacy as Google mines your activity to sell you stuff
    ii) Paid, but you keep your privacy

    And, er, I suppose the “third way” would be something in between?

    As you say, everything depends on how private you want to keep your life. And whether your life has sufficient meaning to be worth keeping private 😉

  2. Don’t break something patting yourself on the back there, Gavin–especially because many people are voicing the same concerns I did and do. 🙂

    Advertising bothers me less than direct spying on my activities, i.e. the NSA wiretaps. I can always choose to ignore or block an ad, but I recognize that not everyone is as resistant to these things as I am. Most people do not say or do anything that would give them cause to be afraid of a wiretap, but does that mean the wiretap is all right? No, of course not. And advertising is the same way.

    A business has every right to want to profit from a service it provides. I’m generally more comfortable paying a flat fee for a service than being subjected to the ever-more-insidious forms of advertising designed to generate revenue.

  3. Ah – so Google, those great promoters of “openness,” are at it again. That they’re attempting to make it sound like philanthropy worries me all the more. I especially love this line, taken from a Wired report allegedly written by actual writers, but which is undoubtedly lifted straight from a Google release: “It is the first step toward putting you back in control of your online relationships.”

    Ummm, yeah, that’s what Google is known for – putting YOU in control.

    I guess at a glance OpenSocial seems like it might be a good idea. If your social net is like mine you have all kinds of relationships strewn across a number of platforms (in my case, Facebook, Ning, MySpace, LinkedIn, LiveJournal and LastFM), and that kind of fragmentation doesn’t make for maximum networking efficiency (nor is it terribly convenient moving back and forth from one to another).

    But convenience comes at a price, and you really need to ask yourself how much you trust Google. If you think this is really about “putting you back in control of your online relationships,” you probably haven’t read your terms of service lately, huh?