We’ve got social networks with lots of users, like MySpace, Beebo, Facebook, etc, and we’ve got open social networks like Marc Canter’s People Aggregator and Marc Andreessen’s Ning. But we really don’t yet have an open social network with a lot of users.
He makes an important point about Facebook applications – they are all directed inward – Netvibes and Twitter can be shown inside Facebook not the other way around. This is what it means to be closed. It also means that Facebook is offering something that overcomes the closed platform. People who are open platform evangelists, e.g. JP, to name but one, are following its evolution with interest.
Scott Gilbertson of Wired is also having a go, quite rightly, at Facebook and MySpace:
Social networks like Facebook and MySpace are taking the web by storm because they make it easy to manage your personal data and keep in touch with people you know. But to get value out, you have to put something in — photos, contacts, appointments, lists of your interests and your blog musings.
Therein lies the rub. When entering data into Facebook, you’re sending it on a one-way trip. Want to show somebody a video or a picture you posted to your profile? Unless they also have an account, they can’t see it. Your pictures, videos and everything else is stranded in a walled garden, cut off from the rest of the web.
We would like to place an open call to the web-programming community to solve this problem. We need a new framework based on open standards. Think of it as a structure that links individual sites and makes explicit social relationships, a way of defining micro social networks within the larger network of the web.
We do have an open social network – it’s called the blogosphere, and the internet But Fred Wilson is right:
I wish it were so, but most of Facebook’s traditional users (like my two daughters) don’t care that their data is locked up in Facebook. I’ll show them my Facebook running in Netvibes when they wake up this morning and they’ll say “that’s nice dad but why would you want to do that?”.
My explanation is that all these people are learning something. The old style bloggers had to learn it the hard way, i.e. discover how to create their own identity, reach out to their peers and audiences, share the sublime and the ridiculous (grant you, there is more of the latter than the former but so what?). Similarly, many more people are learning to blur the line between public and private through online social networks. They are also learning that technology is easy, modular and ultimately works for them and not the other way around. This is valuable and will be the seed of disruption in the years to come. At least that’s my theory and I am sticking to it.
Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebooks and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.
I remember – a pregnant pause laden with gravitas – when there was just blogs, no RSS and no Technorati. We had nothing but Google search, but boy, were we connected and networked! It helped that there were only a few hundred (political) blogs then and keeping track of them amounted to clicking through your updated blogroll plus frequent exchange of emails with other bloggers in your neighbourhood. Wait, just like people nowadays exchange messages and write on their friends’ walls on Facebook…
It is about ability to manage one’s own data and network. Even social networks built on closed platforms cannot diminish the first giddy experience of creating a profile that consists of more than a user/screename and data serving the platform owner more than the user. It is the control, the flexibility, the fun and play, the ease of communication and technology that makes the whole experience dynamic and mildly addictive. At the moment, not much else matters to the users – that is why privacy and security is a nice to have, rather a must have. I believe that will change as people get accustomed to more control over their online environment. So I whole-heartedly agree with Dave Winer when he says:
Closed systems are fine in the early stages of a new technology. They’re the training wheels for a new layer of users and uses. But, as we always see, the training wheels eventually come off, explosively, creating new systems that throw out the assumptions of the old. Eventually, soon I think, we’ll see an explosive unbundling of the services that make up social networks. What was centralized in the form of Facebook, Linked-in, even YouTube, is going to blow up and reconstitute itself. How exactly it will happen is something the historians can argue about 25 years from now. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will, unless the rules of technology evolution have been repealed (and they haven’t, trust me).
Amen. Let’s enjoy the driving lessons but let’s take them for what they are.