The social networking space is reminiscent of a gold rush right now. Facebook, MySpace and Google all want to stake their claim in the ground. They claim they are “open” and they allow you to port your data, but they are still clutching at our identities. So, we have to ask:
Is it enough? Is it truly open?
First, MySpace announced data availability for which it would open up its API to developers, which would allow any other website to query profile data available on MySpace. Then Facebook followed up with Facebook connect, which would allow you to take some of your data to authorised sites. Google was last out the gate with its announcement of Friend Connect, which aims to be the middle man and lets you add social features to your site by connecting to Facebook’s API, among others. Facebook then retaliated by blocking Google due to “privacy” issues. This is turning messy, fast.
Having been involved with mobile number portability in South Africa, I joined several data portability working groups a few months back and I have been watching the developments with keen interest. This scuffle between Google and Facebook has led to many heated debates within the blogosphere.
The outcry is understandable because it is no longer an issue about data. It’s about what rights we have to the data that we so religiously enter into these social networks. The mere fact that they are opening up APIs is a step in the right direction, but it is not true openness and nearly not enough.
What is best for us would be a standard for the portability of our data between social networks, but we also need to rethink the concept of data portability. In addition to portability, we need social networks to inter-network with each other. We need a shared and common strategy, not disparate propriety APIs from the big guys. The strategy should also include the smaller niche social networks.
This would allow us to choose whichever social network we would like to support, regardless of which network our friends belong to. It would allow us to contact and socialise with people irrespective of which social network they belong to. Currently, if I would like to sign up at a locally based social network, I would need two accounts as most of my friends are on Facebook and because of that I would hardly ever use the local site.
Think about it this way: Do you think email would be as popular today if you could only email people who signed up at the same email service provider as you? What about phone calls? When you come to the realisation that social networking is just another form of communication and interaction, you see that, as with other methods of communication, closed platforms and systems are actually a hindrance to communication. We may be playing in the Web 2.0 sandbox right now, but our social networks are still very much version 1.0.