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Is a Social Graph Without the Social Objects Worth Anything? (Musings on Lock-In)

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 12, 2007

There has been a huge amount of activity on the web having to do with creating Open Social Networks.  A good set of links to give a deep overview of where this stands would be:

I’ve been following it all, and generally really liking what I’ve read.  I like it because I hate the idea that there can only be one or two social networks, be they MySpace or Facebook.  I’ve nothing against either one, by the way, but as soon as the world settles down to the One Monopoly, innovation tends to stop.  Even that can be a good thing if we’re truly done innovating, but I don’t think we’re even close to being done on the Internet.

Moreover, there is something strangely wrong about all these Dark Web Walled Gardens.  The great thing about the web is that is it an integrated community.  It’s cool to have speakeasies where you have to utter a password to the big gorilla behind the viewslot to get in, but we need to make sure there can be as many of these speakeasies as people want to create, because the other cool thing about the web is you shouldn’t have to have an already established monopoly to be able to create a cool web property.

Open Social Graphs mitigate the network effects that can deliver and sustain a monopoly.  Two posts this morning really made me sit up and take notice.  First, Scoble was commenting on how there’s no possible way he can switch blog readers because he has too much information locked up in Google reader to ever start over.  That’s a classic case of lock-in.  Then I read Joshua Porter’s thoughtful post The Social Graph and Objects of Sociality where he makes the point that the graph isn’t worth a whole lot without all the objects that created interaction between the friends on the graph.  Spinning it around the other way, the value of a Social Network has as much to do with the content and other activities being shared as it does with the exact people and who they say their friends are.

In retrospect, this should not be so surprising, so I thought I’d walk through a quick example of how this would all work.  Think of an Open Identity system and Open Social Graphs system as creating a form of proxy.  Suppose I belong to 3 different social networks that are all based on the same open standards (or at least standards that interoperate).  For the sake of example, let’s use names of real services even though they’re not currently architected that way:

  • Facebook:  I have a casual social presence on Facebook
  • LinkedIn:  My professional persona is on LinkedIn, and BTW, I don’t let many people know the relationship between my LinkedIn and other personas.
  • Flickr:  I’ve got a bunch of photos on Flickr.  Some are public, but a lot of them are private photos of family and personal interests

I meet someone on LinkedIn who I want to give access to my Facebook and Flickr personas.  They’re currently not a member of Facebook, and they have no desire to join.  They do belong to Flickr.  I want to orchestrate all of this within LinkedIn, and I want to do so without my new friend having to go through a lot of pain to join a sevice they don’t to join, yada, yada.

So, I add New Friend to my friends list in LinkedIn.  Part of the capability there is that because this functionality is based on the open standard that cuts across sites, I have the ability to grant my New Friend access to more than just LinkedIn.  He’s a member of Flickr, but not Facebook.  But that doesn’t really matter.  What matters is he has an identity that is part of the Open Social Network standard that all three sites respect.  Therefore, he actually is a member of Facebook even though he didn’t go to all the trouble of signing up for it and building a friend graph on it.  Now isn’t that a cool thing?

It’s a classic single sign on Federated Identity Model at work.  Since lock-in around media created is going to be a forgone conclusion, making it easy for folks to gain these proxy styles of access to the media is essential to achieving the goals the Open Social Networking crowd want to get to.  It also makes it a lot better for you to play around in sites that are amenable to the open standard.  You’ll be expending effort like Scoble did that will ultimately lock you in.  Why not make sure that the place you’re locked into is open so there are no regrets later?

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