Is the trend to openness accelerating? Social networks as an inflection point

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The openness in social networks debate continues to flourish. Some of the more interesting and prominent commentary in the last couple of days, since my post on Openness, network effects, and competition in social networks, are:

Scott Gilbertson (in Wired): Slap in the Facebook – It’s Time for Social Networks to Open Up. Scott takes the pulpit, and calls on the web programming community to develop a framework based on open standards, and offering tips on how to create your own profile using open tools.

Dan Farber: Facebook, social capitalists and open networks. Dan thinks that revolution isn’t yet ripe, as users are still content to play within walled gardens.

Anshu Sharma: Identity crisis in the land of social networks and platforms. Anshu draws the distinction between the Internet as the platform and the application as the platform, suggesting that if Google, for example, were to offer an entirely open social networking platform, this would dominate.

Marc Canter. The Chess game of social networking. Marc has been at the heart of open thinking on social networks for at least 6 years (we had a good conversation on this in 2002) – he reflects on where this has come from, data sharing today, and suggests that this is about creating a playing space rather than winners or losers.

Pete Cashmore. Mashable supports the Open Friends Format (OFF?). Pete supports the move to open standards for social networks.

Dare Obansanjo. Some thoughts on open social networks. Dare provides distinctions for four different kinds of openness in social networks.

In my 2002 book Living Networks I wrote:

“Because the trend to open, accepted standards is clear, it is far better to go with it rather than fight it. Long-term success must be based on aligning yourself with these shifts.”

Of course, what that statement hides is that over the last years, in the short to medium-term there have often been profitable ways of exploiting lock-in and not being fully open.

However I see the trend towards openness accelerating, which makes playing the lock-in game ever more difficult. I think that the current debate reflects that today there is far greater visibility for lack of openness in offerings, and less tolerance for that. What is currently playing out in the social network space is a fantastic case study that is relevant across all business segments. After MySpace dominating the social networking space, Facebook has shifted to the front very quickly, through openness in its APIs. It is at risk of having its leadership short-lived, if others quickly leap on to people’s preference for open systems, especially when it concerns their personal relationships. However the more likely path is that Facebook sees the trends, and swiftly opens out its systems. Any incumbent is loath to shift to greater openness, but given the players and the landscape today, I don’t think that Facebook is going to hold on too tightly for too long.

Looking back in a year or two from now, we may see that now was an inflection point in openness in social networks. We may also find that this shift has impacted many other facets of the information and businesses worlds. The jury is still out, but I think the evidence points to the current landscape being a manifestation of the acceleration of openness.

  • Ross,
    I agree with you that Facebook may internalize some of this and make changes but I think it is much more likely that they would have to be disrupted into doing this – even if its by an upstart rather than a behemoth.
    Keep writing!
    -Anshu

  • Couldn’t agree more. Look how LinkedIn followed after Facebook published an API. Now if one of them, in turn, publishes an open API, Facebook will face competitive pressure to do the same. And so on, and so on.

    It could still take a while, however. After all, we don’t yet have universal interoperability for IM.

    Nonetheless, the endgame is clear. In the future, the phrase “social networks” will mean what it meant before Friendster — the connections you make with people you know. The tools that allow you to do this will not be the network; they’ll be interoperable conduits, like those that are provided by telcos today.

  • Absolutely. We are, at the moment, within a significant shift in the way people use the internet…it feels like this discussion is the prelude to the prelude of what might one day be called web 3.0.

    Ross, you’re right when you say that what is happening in social networking is a fantastic case study relevant to all business segments. The reason for this is that it is about online relationships becoming more like offline relationships – in the same way that Cluetrain was about making business human!

    If you have time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Open Messaging (something that we’re talking/writing about and developing all at the same time) at http://www.nakedyak.com/?cat=15.
    Take it easy
    ~biff~