I’ve read a number of stories this week that highlight that interoperability between social networking sites will be a “top ask” in 2008 (as we say at Microsoft). Earlier this week I read the Wired article Should Web Giants Let Startups Use the Information They Have About You? which does a good job of telling both sides of the story when it comes to startups screen scraping importing user data such as social graphs (i.e. friend and contact lists) from more successful sites as a way to bootstrap their social networks. The Wired article is a good read if you want to hear all sides of the story when it comes to the issue of sharing user social data between sites.

Yesterday, I saw Social Network Aggregation, Killer App in 2008? which points out the problem that users often belong to multiple social networks at once and that bridging between them is key. However I disagree with the premise that this points to need for a “Social Network Aggregator” category of applications. I personally believe that the list of 20 or so Social Network Aggregators on Mashable are all companies that would cease to exist if the industry got off it’s behind and worked towards actual interoperability between social networking sites.

Today, I saw saw Facebook disabled Robert Scoble’s account. After reading Robert’s account of the incident, I completely agree with Facebook.

Why Robert Scoble is Wrong and Facebook is Right

Here’s what Robert Scoble wrote about the incident

My account has been “disabled” for breaking Facebook’s Terms of Use. I was running a script that got them to keep me from accessing my account

I am working with a company to move my social graph to other places and that isn’t allowable under Facebook’s terms of service. Here’s the email I received:



Our systems indicate that you’ve been highly active on Facebook lately and viewing pages at a quick enough rate that we suspect you may be running an automated script. This kind of Activity would be a violation of our Terms of Use and potentially of federal and state laws.

As a result, your account has been disabled. Please reply to this email with a description of your recent activity on Facebook. In addition, please confirm with us that in the future you will not scrape or otherwise attempt to obtain in any manner information from our website except as permitted by our Terms of Use, and that you will immediately delete and not use in any manner any such information you may have previously obtained.

The first thing to note is that Facebook allows you to extract your social graph data from their site using the Facebook platform. In fact, right now whenever I get an email from someone on my Facebook friend list in Outlook or I get a phone call from them, I see the picture from their Facebook profile. I did this using OutSync which is an application that utilizes the Facebook platform to merge data from my contacts in Outlook/Exchange with my Facebook contacts.

So if Facebook allows you to extract information about your Facebook friends via their APIs, why would Robert Scoble need to run a screen scraping script? The fact is that the information returned by the Facebook API about a user contains no contact information (no email address, no IM screen names, no telephone numbers, no street address). Thus if you are trying to “grow virally” by spamming the Facebook friend list of one of your new users about the benefits of your brand new Web 2.0 site then you have to screen scrape Facebook.  However there is the additional wrinkle that unlike address books in Web email applications Robert Scoble did not enter any of this contact information about his friends. With this in mind, it is hard for Robert Scoble to argue that the data is “his” to extract from Facebook. In addition, as a Facebook user I consider it a feature that Facebook makes it hard for my personal data to be harvested in this way. Secondly, since Robert’s script was screen scraping it means that it had to hit the site five thousand times (once for each of his contacts) to fetch all of Robert’s friends personally idenitifiable information (PII).  Given that eBay won a court injunction against Bidder’s Edge for running 100,000 queries a day, it isn’t hard to imagine that the kind of screen scraping script that Robert is using would be considered malicious even by a court of law.

I should note that Facebook is being a bit hypocritical here since they do screen scrape other sites to get the email addresses of the contacts of new users. This is why I’ve called them the Social Graph Roach Motel in the recent past. 

O’Reilly Social Graph FOO Camp

This past weekend I got an email from Tim O'Reilly, David Recordon, and Scott Kveton inviting me to a Friends of O’Reilly Camp (aka FOO Camp) dedicated to “social graph” problems. I’m still trying to figure out if I can make it based on my schedule and whether I’m really the best person to be representing Microsoft at such an event given that I’m a technical person and “social graph problems” for the most part are not technical issues.

Regardless of whether I am able to attend or not, there were some topics I wanted to recommend should be added to a list of “red herring” topics that shouldn’t be discussed until the important issues have been hashed out.

  • Google OpenSocial: This was an example of unfortunate branding. Google should really have called this “Google OpenWidgets” or “Google Gadgets for your Domain” since the goal was competing with Facebook’s widget platform not actually opening up social networks. Since widget platforms aren’t a “social graph problem” it doesn’t seem fruitful the spend time discussing this when there are bigger fish to fry.

  • Social Network Portability: When startups talk about “social network portability” it’s usually a euphemism for collecting a person’s username and password for another site, retrieving their contact/friend list and spamming those people about their hot new Web 2.0 startup. As a user of the Web, making it easier to receive spam from startups isn’t something I think should be done let alone a “problem” that needs solving. I understand that lots of people will disagree with this [even at Microsoft] but I’m convinced that this is not the real problem facing the majority of users of social networking sites on the the Web today.  

What I Want When It Comes to Social Network Interoperability

Having I’ve said what I don’t think is important to discuss when it comes to “social graph problems”, it would be rude not to provide an example fof what I think would be fruitful discussion. I wrote the problem I think we should be solving as an industry a while back in a post entitled A Proposal for Social Network Interoperability via OpenID which is excerpted below

I have a Facebook profile while my fiancée wife has a MySpace profile. Since I’m now an active user of Facebook, I’d like her to be able to be part of my activities on the site such as being able to view my photos, read my wall posts and leave wall posts of her own. I could ask her to create a Facebook account, but I already asked her to create a profile on Windows Live Spaces so we could be friends on that service and quite frankly I don’t think she’ll find it reasonable if I keep asking her to jump from social network to social network because I happen to try out a lot of these services as part of my day job. So how can this problem be solved in the general case? 

This is a genuine user problem which the established players have little incentive to fix. The data portability folks want to make it easy for you to jump from service to service. I want to make it easy for users of one service to talk to people on another service. Can you imagine if email interoperability was achieved by making it easy for Gmail users to export their contacts to Yahoo! mail instead of it being that Gmail users can send email to Yahoo! Mail users and vice versa?

Think about that.

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