A lot of what I’ve been working on the past two years has been built on the assumption that the model that social networks use today will fundamentally change. Social networks have largely been built on the premise of being walled gardens in such a way that users can’t communicate or share content or friends across networks; put simply this is what keeps a Facebook user from being able to send a message to a MySpace user. This is the same model that destroyed AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy’s ISP businesses when normal people chose the Internet itself versus their thoughtfully curated walled gardens.
Over the past year we’ve seen an uptick in the infrastructure, development tools and projects designed to build the social web (n.b. I define the social web as something that is inherently decentralized, just like the web itself). On top of that, MySpace has gone from being off of most developer’s radars to the most open social network in existence. With MySpace I’m able to use my account to sign into other sites via OpenID, share my activity using Activity Streams, build applications using OpenSocial, interact with their APIs using OAuth and access APIs that not only allow the creation of new content within MySpace’s garden but also extract data from it.
While Facebook has made significant contributions to open source projects, ranging from some of their own to memcached, they’ve largely been absent from much of this progress around building the social web (remember, I define it as being inherently decentralized). Instead, like Microsoft they have willfully ignored many industry efforts in favor of their own proprietary development platforms. To their credit, they’ve been one of the most innovative social networks over the past two years, pushing the boundaries of what’s been thought of as possible with features like social tagging in photos, Newsfeed, Platform, Beacon, integrated chat and Connect.
Two weeks ago this changed. Facebook joined the board of the OpenID Foundation, released two-way APIs around status, notes, pictures and videos, hosted a user experience summit focused on OpenID and released a blog commenting widget powered by Connect. Since then they’ve also talked about how they wish to support the Activity Streams project and have reiterated their commitment to the sort openness that we’ve been promoting as key pieces of the social web.
I know what you’re thinking: “talk is cheap.” True, Digg said they’d support OpenID three years ago and we’ve seen…or wait, no we haven’t! I wish I had something concrete to point at to show that my next argument isn’t crazy, but I don’t. All that I can point to is the change I’m seeing when interacting with Facebook and their interactions with developers this year compared to the past.
My prediction is that by the end of the year Facebook will become the most open social network on the social web. I believe that not only have they now found business value in doing so, but also truly believe that the next phase of their mission, “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” requires that they do so. This means that anyone building a business based on the notion that Facebook will remain a walled garden and won’t adapt – as was true with traditional media when blogging came about – will have their world turned upside down this year.
Disagree if you like, but my second argument is that if Facebook does not seriously embrace these ideas this year that their current position of dominance will be usurped. I’m not saying that Facebook will go away, that all of my friends will leave, that it will become irrelevant or that tens of thousands of developers will move on overnight. This year, there is an amazing opportunity to find and define a proper balance between traditional walled-garden social networks and completely decentralized efforts like the DiSo Project.