Prying Open the Social Graph

Technology buzzwords come and go…virtualization, green, SaaS…and after sitting through the Google Friend Connect announcement, reading about Facebook’s Connect service and writing about last week’s MySpace Data Availability launch, “open” appears to be just the latest. But open is one of those words whose definition can be spun into a variety of meanings.

While Facebook isn’t yet releasing much detail on its efforts and may completely surprise me, Google’s Friend Connect program today highlights how open standards such as OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial can be used to create a platform that’s pretty closed. The service, which will launch tonight and only expects to have between 12 and 24 sites participating while it’s in preview mode over the next few months, will allow site publishers to put some code on their sites. If a user visits a site with the appropriate code, she can get access, via an IFrame, to applications built in OpenSocial. A user can also share her activities on a participating site with her contacts, as well as through her news feeds on participating social networking sites.

Last week, I pointed out that MySpace’s Data Availability efforts were welcome in that they expand the number of sites on which a user can use her MySpace data, but that MySpace still had a lock on the user data since it hosted and determined who could display that data by approving site partners. If MySpace’s efforts were three steps forward in opening up user profiles, then Google’s Friend Connect represents two steps back.

The use of the IFrame means that site owners have no way to change or work with user data, they can only display it. MySpace doesn’t allow sites to store user data on anyone’s servers other than its own, but it does allow that data to be used directly in the outside site. For more differences among the three services, please check out the chart below.

While none of these services are entirely open yet — and may never be, given security and data abuse problems — the trend toward a more social web is clear. With broadband more prevalent than ever and voice fading as the primary means of communicating with people who aren’t in the room, enabling a truly open social web is the next big step in communication. But in order for that to happen, the user needs to be able to reach across walled gardens and gain granular control as to what he or she shares and with whom.

There’s open source (really open in that anyone with knowledge can participate in how the code evolves), open standards (open only in that anyone can participate using a pre-defined version of the standard), and open APIs (open in that anyone can take the pre-defined standard and build something for a closed platform such as Facebook). Knowing this, the efforts to open up a user’s data on a social network (their social graph, if you will) by these three companies falls somewhere between an open platform and an open standard.

Facebook Connect (not launched yet) Google Friend Connect MySpace Data Availability
Standards Used unknown, but Facebook API is likely OAuth, OpenID, OpenSocial OAuth
Social Data That’s Shared basic profile information, profile picture, friends, photos, events, groups Applications built with OpenSocial, contacts, activities on participating sites published back to a news feed Profiles, friends, photos and videos
Getting Access to the Data unknown Web site owners must apply to Google and be accepted Web site owners must agree to MySpace terms and conditions, but MySpace will allow anyone who doesn’t abuse the user data to participate
Time Frame will launch within a few weeks First 12-24 sites will go live in the next few days and the rest of the web will take a few more months Launched on May 8 and adding more partners within the next few weeks
Launch Partners unannounced Plaxo, Orkut, Hi5 and Facebook Yahoo!, Twitter, eBay and Photobucket
Where Data is stored and displayed unannounced On Google servers and displayed only via an iFrame On MySpace Servers, but can be displayed however the participating site wishes
Privacy A user’s privacy settings will follow him around the web Users opt in to Friend Connect and can limit their profile sharing to existing contacts only; a user can elect on which sites he wants to share his activities, can also instantly change privacy settings across all participating sites Users can control their privacy settings (right now, only which sites get access to their data) on a central page. Partner sites must accept changes in real time and sharing profile data is an opt-in service