The world of social networking is getting, well, more social. But I question whether it is also getting more open, at least with my understanding of what the word open means. And whether it is becoming more useful, at least for business purposes.Last week Facebook and Bebo (another network that is primarily UK-based) announced that the copious applications that were created on Facebook will now be able to run on Bebo, and soon other social network sites.
Also in the news, LinkedIn announced a beta version of its home page, which I almost missed because it is so much like its existing home page I am not sure what the fuss is about. They also have finally revived their Groups application and have made it easier for users to add a few applications too.So are we seeing more openness with these social sites, or just more vacuous PR-ware announcements that have little importance? A little of both.First, let's talk about what I think openness should be.
Ideally, I should be able to write an application to a published series of program interfaces, and be able to move data in and out of the social network site in a way that makes the most sense to me, the ultimate user. None of the sites come close to doing this right now.Let's just compare Facebook and LinkedIn and see where the stack up on the openness scale. Facebook has a published guidelines for how to build applications. As a result, there are thousands if not millions of apps that have been written, from the frivilous to the semi-useful. People try out apps when they see what their friends have done, because the proces of selecting an app is one of the notifications you can see on your news feed home page. As a result, these apps can get very viral and quickly gain traction. Or they can languish if you don't have the right A list friends to spread the word. Facebook apps are kind of like a trendy new nightclub: if you invite the right friends to come on the opening night, you are going to have a crowd lining up outside your door. These are the apps that are now going to be shared with other social networking sites like Bebo.
Ironically, Facebook is trying to prove to the world that they are more open than Google, who announced their own application interfaces under the "Open Social" name a few weeks ago. You could say that Facebook is trying to be like the Microsoft of the social networking sites, if Microsoft would ever open up some of its Windows programming interfaces. Or maybe they are just trying to not be evil. (Too bad they muffed that part with the various privacy issues, but that's for another column.)Open applications isn't the only metric of usefulness here.
Also important is how you populate your network on these sites. With Facebook, you can import your contacts to populate your list of "friends" from a variety of Web-based email services, including Gmail, Yahoo, and so forth. You can import contacts from a text file if you prepare it properly. However, once you contacts are imported and linked to your account, you can't export them or even figure out what someone's email address is if they have changed it, unless they tell you explicitly on their profile. LinkedIn doesn't have a set of apps guidelines yet, although they keep talking about it. They have similar contact import features to Facebook, although they will terminate your privileges if you send out emails to too many people that you reject your approaches,claiming they don't know you. The service does allow you to export your contacts anytime you wish, and in several nice formats too.Let's move to talk about groups of your contacts. Neither of them is as useful as they could be. Ideally, I would like a publishing system that I can alert all the people in that group with a single posting. Maybe it is because I have been publishing this Web Informant email newsletter for so long that I continually hope there will be something better than an email listserve to send it out. Facebook allows anyone to create a group on any topic. Many of them reflect the collegiate (or inane) demographics of their audience, and most of the people that I link to there are in a constant state of joining and unjoining various groups. It is easy to do both, and as a result group membership isn't really worth much, other that to keep track of which groups are popular among your friends, since the act of joining is what shows up on the home page "news feed" as individual events and again can be very viral. But since each individual has to take the action of joining a group, you can't set up a pre-populated group with all of your friends. You can send out notifications to all of your friends, but that isn't quite what I am talking about here.Facebook has this groups capability already built-in, there is no need to add an additional application and several business people have begun using Facebook as their primary communications mechanism in a one-to-many fashion. (Jeff Pulver, the VOIP impressario, is one of the more notable and public ones.)
As I said earlier, LinkedIn's Groups has been enabled in the past several weeks. You first have to get approval from the LinkedIn Police to create your group. This took me just a few hours. Then you have to invite people to join, but you can't just send out a notice to your existing LinkedIn network of people that you have identified. No, that would be too easy. There is a multiple-step, multiple-opt-in procedure before you can join my "Strominator" group, as an example. Go ahead, I dare you to try, you will see how tough it is.
I understand why LinkedIn is doing what they are doing, but it isn't going to work, and unless you have tremendous patience and are very detail-oriented, it is much easier to use something else to group your contacts, like an email listserve.
So here we are. A little more openness for social sites. Google is trying to get its own beachhead established, and while Facebook stumbles about with its privacy issues, they have the beginnings of something that can be used for ad hoc groups. LinkedIn is still too heavy-handed for my taste, which is too bad because we all have internalized the LinkedIn dance: Update your profile, ask for recommendations, then start looking for a new job. And in the meantime, we have newer social networking sites like Spock to deal with too. And do-it-yourself sites like Ning.com that allow you to pretty much build your own network from scratch with very little programming skill.
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- David Strom
- David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.