Web2Summit: Opening Up the Social Graph

Brad Fitzpatrick and I just got off the stage at Web 2.0 Summit, where we talked about social networking love and hate. You’ll see coverage elsewhere about what we said, though our slides can be found on SlideShare. Here, I’d like to take you behind the curtain and show how the talk came to be.

But first, what I hope will be the news: Today I announced a new service for developers that is a key piece of infrastructure that will help to open the social graph. Keeping track of friends online is not easy to do. You might let a service import your GMail address book today, but a week from that, the information is out of date. The Six Apart Relationship Update Stream is an endless feed of social relationship data, designed for Web services to be able to send and receive information when changes to social relationships on their service occur. This is a developer platform, not something for regular users. It launches today, streaming real-time public changes from LiveJournal and Ma.gnolia, averaging around hundreds of changes per minute, with updates from Hi5, GetSatisfaction, SmugMug, Plaxo, and Vox coming soon. (Disclosure: LiveJournal and Vox are owned by Six Apart, my employer.) This means that when I add a friend on LiveJournal, the feed I see on FriendFeed could be updated in real-time to start showing events from them as well.

As I’ve written in the past, people are tired of signing up for a new service and having to find, invite, and wait for their friends all over again. Brad tells a great, and very true, story about how when he signed up for Dopplr (a social travel website), he realized he’d had enough. Dopplr is a great example of a service that starts with one great feature; sharing with your friends where you are and what trips you’re taking. It grew virally this year, spreading rapidly through the London and San Francisco geek worlds. Around the time of FooCamp, it had reached a critical mass of technologists all sharing Brad’s frustration of having to find and invite their friends all over again in order for Dopplr to be really useful to them.

There is the argument to be made that sites like Dopplr should be nothing more than a Facebook application. I would strongly disagree, given the announcement of the upcoming MySpace platform. Companies such as RockYou and Slide — the two top producing companies of Facebook applications — will have to either choose a platform or write their applications to run on each. If I were a betting man, I would doubt that MySpace will be the last platform either, considering moves already made in this space by LinkedIn. Wasn’t this a problem Java tried to solve many years ago? Instead, I would agree with what Jeff Huber said yesterday, “A lot that you have heard here is about platforms and who is going to win. That is Paleolithic thinking. The Web has already won. The web is the Platform.”

How can we all make this happen?

In many cases, opening the social graph is not just about standards and data formats. Just as OpenID has helped to allow identity portability between services, OAuth will make it easier for all of our applications and services online to talk to each other. Opening the social graph is also not about all or nothing, rather giving people choice and control over their information, their profiles, their relationships in a manner which has to protect and benefit your users as well.

As Brad and I were working on our presentation, the evolution of names quickly came to mind. If you remember your Gaelic, Brad’s last-name “Fitzpatrick” means “son of Patrick”. “fitz,” in essence, provides a way to disambiguate all the different Brads. Online, we’ve had the same concept since 1972: “brad@danga.com.” Why is this related? Many services today don’t let users add context to their profiles which can cross services. To any Facebook application, I’m nothing more than “24400320,” which doesn’t help connect my profile into the entire social graph. This is quite different than LiveJournal, which gives users privacy settings to choose to share things such as their email address and instant messenger screen-names–all shared using Microformats. Privacy is extremely important — but if I would like to link my profiles on various services, why should I be prohibited from doing so?

As Jimmy Guterman wrote yesterday on Radar, “Either social networks will keep their walls up to force individuals to choose, or they will open up in the hope that they’ll get the customer even if their competitor does, too. History suggests it’ll be the former followed by the latter. For those sick of maintaining multiple profiles, let’s hope the players work through the cycles quickly.” I hope that these walled gardens will join us in placing users back in charge of their data and in opening the social graph.

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