OpenSocial: It's the data, stupid

While I’m a huge fan of the idea of an open social networking platform, I’m bemused by all the enthusiasm over Google OpenSocial. As I sit with what I learn, the mild skepticism I expressed the other day has turned into full blown disappointment. This is nothing like the social network operating system that I got so excited about when I first heard Brad Fitzpatrick and David Recordon’s thought’s on the subject.

My disappointment with OpenSocial was crystallized by an exchange between Patrick Chanezon, Google’s developer advocate for the program, and an audience member at the OpenSocial session at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin. The audience member asked something about building applications that can remix data from the participating social networking platforms. Patrick’s answer was along the lines of: “No, you only have access to the data of the individual platform or application.”

This is SO wrong. And it shows a fundamental failure to understand two key principles of Web 2.0:

  • It’s the data, stupid. (Formerly “Data is the Intel Inside”)

  • Small pieces loosely joined.

Let’s start with the first one. If all OpenSocial does is allow developers to port their applications more easily from one social network to another, that’s a big win for the developer, as they get to shop their application to users of every participating social network. But it provides little incremental value to the user, the real target. We don’t want to have the same application on multiple social networks. We want applications that can use data from multiple social networks.

And data mobility is a key to that. Syndication and mashups have been key elements of Web 2.0 — the ability to take data from one place, and re-use it in another. Heck, even Google’s core business depends on that ability — they take data from every site on the web (except those that ask them not to via robots.txt) and give it new utility by aggregating, indexing, and ranking it.

Imagine what would have happened to Google maps if instead of supporting mashups, they had built a framework that allowed developers to create mapping applications across Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google as a way of competing with MapQuest. Boring! That’s the equivalent of what they’ve announced here.

Would OpenSocial let developers build a personal CRM system, a console where I could manage my social network, exporting friends lists to various social networks? No. Would OpenSocial let developers build a social search application like the one that Mark Cuban was looking for? No.

Set the data free! Allow social data mashups. That’s what will be the trump card in building the winning social networking platform.