The Facebook platform debate continues to evolve with Dan Farber’s recent piece on Facebook, social capitalists and open networks and Wired’s very well thought out article Slap in the Facebook. The key question from my perspective is whether we consider the Internet as the platform or does Facebook or some other single entity come to dominate and become a platform. The history, and even the brief history of the internet, has examples of both – a platform owned by a single entity, and the internet itself as the platform with various platform players as parts of the whole:
- EBay: Ebay is a platform and is a pretty closed one. They recently had the chutzpah to even take on Google by banning Google Checkout. The APIs and other interfaces to Ebay allow you to enhance the functionality but does not offer any interoperability – you cannot cross list items on Ebay and some other auction site, etc.
- B2B: B2B Exchanges were an attempt to create a platform (remember Covisint) but eventually lost out to the Internet as the platform. Companies transact billions of dollars of business today on the B2B platform but they rely on protocols like RosettaNet and there is no single hub or platform that dominates.
- Instant Messaging: IM is an interesting case study as it started out as platform islands (Yahoo!, MSN, AOL) but over time and sometimes grudgingly they have learned to play well with each other. IM is still not an open network in the sense that I cannot create a new IM service and seamlessly connect to these proprietary IM networks.
- Email: Email is the ultimate open network. It has mostly worked great except the openness allows for spam and viruses to be spread using this platform. This security issue is a (valid?) excuse many platform players are using to keep their platforms closed.
What model is Facebook following?
So is Social Networking going the way of the EBay model, IM model or the Email model? Facebook today sits somewhere between the Ebaymodel and IM model. Under the Ebay model, Facebook does not enable to send messages back and forth to say MySpace – in fact, the messaging system could have been associated with an email address (@facebook.com) but is not. At the same time, unlike Ebay which blocked out Google Checkout, Facebook is allowing third-party applications to be shared and used in conjunction with its service – somewhat akin to the IM model. You still can’t use your Facebook id to interact with someone that does not have a Facebook account.
The Identity Problem
Its been suggested several times that the lock in and lack of interoperability comes from the fact that the identity systems of Facebook and other services are not open and standards-based. If Facebook and others like Myspace all adopted the OpenID or equivalent identity system, it would be so much easier for users to leverage multiple services without worrying about whether they are built by Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace. Irregular friend Dennis Howlett describes the conversation on Facebook use within the enterprise on his ZDNet blog post.
Dan Farber comments on this lack of interoperability:
Today, people are mostly content, experimenting with the more civilized walled gardens that aggregate information and friends and bank all the personal data and social capital. The revolution won’t happen until social capitalists realize that the capitalists–Facebook, Google, MySpace (News Corp.), etc.– shouldn’t have too much control over their digital lives.
Who will bell the cat?
I feel that the masses will not be the one’s that change the status quo. It will be a game changer – a new Facebook or Google that will challenge the closed networks by offering a good enough service that is as good as MySpace or Facebook but is entirely open. In fact, Google could do this, and it would be much easier than you think. Here is what I would do if I were running Google social networks group (no, they haven’t asked me):
- Google has the email accounts of several million users.
- Google could analyze my email messages to all users – this is where having stored all my emails helps – to determine my top 100 contacts. Repeat this for every user and you have created a social networking graph for all Google users and many non-Google users too.
- Google could then instantiate GoogleBook (I own the copyright!) accounts for every Google user ready to be activated. All a user would have to do is select and unselect the suggested links and the account would be all ready to go. For non-Google users, a ‘claim this’ GoogleBook account would be created which they can claim by requesting an email be sent to their email address.
- Google Groups – like functionality would be available for each user i.e., I can send messages to all my contacts, share calendar, files etc.
- And since you are NOT required to ever create a gmail (Google) account with a new id, the users wouldn’t be forced to create yet another dan.farber@gmail/cnet/yahoo/etc.
Whether Google or some other new player does this anytime soon is anybody’s guess but many of us are getting sick and tired of creating multiple user id’s, checking messages on multiple inboxes and accepting the same 75 friends on 10 different social networks. For now here is my personal solution to the social networking problem – if you have my gmail address and my blog address, that is all that you need to reach me, read about me, see my pictures, date me, send me fan letters and/or harass me.
Update: Dan Farber has posted a response to this post on ZDNet and the conversation continues.
Update: Dan Farber reports that Google is planning a foray into social networking. I expect them to mine my email etc. for helping create my network – as I mention above – let’s see what comes out.