A few weeks ago, one of our execs at work asked me to think about "open" social networks. Since my day job is working on the social networking platform that underlies Windows Live Spaces and other Windows Live properties, it makes sense that if anyone at Microsoft is thinking about making our social networks "open" it should be me. However I quickly hit a snag. After some quick reading around, I realized that there isn't really a common definition of what it means for a social networking service to be "open". Instead, it seems we have a collection of pet peeves that various aggrieved parties like to blame on lack of openness. For example, read the Wired article Slap in the Facebook: It's Time for Social Networks to Open Up and compare it to this post on Read/Write Web entitled PeopleAggregator and Open Social Network Systems. Both articles are about "open" social networks yet they focus on completely different things. Below are my opinions on the various definitions of "open" in the context of social networking sites

  1. Content Hosted on the Site Not Viewable By the General Public and not Indexed by Search Engines:  As a user of Facebook, I consider this a feature not a bug. I've mentioned in previous blog postings that I don't think it is a great idea that all the stuff being published by teenagers and college students on the Web today will be held against them for the rest of their lives. Especially since using search engines to do quick background searches on potential hires and dates is now commonplace. Personally, I've had several negative experiences posting personal content to the public Web including

    1. fresh of out of college, I posted a blog post about almost hooking up with some girl at a nightclub and a heated email discussion I had with someone at work. It was extremely awkward to have both topics come up in conversations with fellow coworkers over the next few days because they'd read my blog.
    2. a few months ago I posted some pictures from a recent trip to Nigeria and this ignited a firestorm of over a hundred angry comments filled with abuse and threats to myself and my family because some Nigerians were upset that the president of Nigeria has servants domestic staff. I eventually made the pictures non-public on Flickr after conferring with my family members in Nigeria.
    3. around the same time I posted some pictures of my fiancée and I on my Windows Live Space and each picture now has a derogatory comment attached to it.

    At this point I've given up on posting personal pictures or diary like postings on the public Web. Facebook is now where I share pictures.

    When we first launched Windows Live Spaces, there was a lot of concern across the division when people realized that a significant portion of our user base was teenage girls who used the site to post personal details about themselves including pictures of themselves and friends. At the end we decided, like Facebook, that the default accessibility for content created by our teenage users (i.e. if they declare their age in their profile) would be for it to only be visible to people in their social network (i.e. Windows Live Messenger buddies and people in their Windows Live Spaces friends list). I think it is actually pretty slick that on Facebook, you can also create access control lists with entries like "anyone who's proved they work at Microsoft". 

  2. Inability to Export My Content from the Social Network: This is something that geeks complain about especially since they tend to join new social networking sites on a new basis but for the most part there isn't a lot of end user demand for this kind of functionality based on my experience working closely with the folks behind Windows Live Spaces and keeping an eye on feedback about other social networking sites. There are two main reasons for this, the first is that there is little value of having the content that is unique to the social network site outside of the service. For example, my friends list on Facebook is only useful in the context of that site. The only use for it outside the service would be for a way to bootstrap a new friends list by spamming all my friends on Facebook to tell them to join the new site.  Secondly, danah boyd has pointed out in her research that many young users of social networking sites consider their profiles to be ephemeral, to them not being able to just port your profile from MySpace to Facebook isn't a big deal because you're starting over anyway. For working professionals, things are a little different since they may have created content that has value outside the service (e.g. work-related blog postings related to their field of endeavor) so allowing data export in that context actually does serve a legitimate user need. 
  3. Full APIs for Extracting and Creating Content on the Social Network: With the growth in popularity and valuations of social networking sites, some companies have come to the conclusion that the there is an opportunity for making money by becoming meta-social network sites which aggregate a user's profiles and content from multiple social networking sites. There are literally dozens of Social Network Profile aggregators today and it is hard to imagine social networking sites viewing them as anything other than leeches trying to steal their page views by treating them as dumb storage systems. This is another reason why most social network services primarily focus on building widget platforms or APIs that enable you to create content or applications hosted within the site but don't give many ways to programmatically get content out.  

    Counter examples to this kind of thinking are Flickr and YouTube which both provide lots of ways to get content in and out of their service yet became two of the fastest growing and most admired websites in their respective categories. It is clear that a well-thought out API strategy that drives people to your site while not restricting your users combined with a great user experience on your website is a winning combination. Unfortunately, it's easier said than done.

  4. Being able to Interact with People from Different Social Networks from Your Preferred Social Network: I'm on Facebook and my fiancée is on MySpace. Wouldn't it be great if we could friend each other and send private messages without both being on the same service?

    It is likely that there is a lot of unvoiced demand for this functionality but it likely won't happen anytime soon for business reasons not technical ones. I suspect that the concept of "social network interop" will eventually mirror the current situation in the instant messaging world today.

    • We'll have two or three dominant social networking services with varying popularity in different global markets with a few local markets being dominated by local products.
    • There'll be little incentive for a dominant player to want to interoperate with smaller players. If interop happens it will be between players that are roughly the same size or have around the same market strength.
    • A small percentage of power users will use services that aggregate their profiles across social networks to get the benefits of social network interoperability. The dominant social networking sites will likely ignore these services unless they start getting too popular.
    • Corporate customers may be able to cut special deals so that their usage of public social networking services does interoperate with  whatever technology they use internally.

    Since I've assumed that some level of interoperability across social networking sites is inevitable, the question then is what is this functionality and what would the API/protocols look like? Good question.


Monday, August 6, 2007 5:22:50 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Excellent, as always Dare.

I have just two wishes of Facebook

1) Provide an RSS feed for the news feed.
2) Let me export my friends contact information

The latter is because Facebook is now my address book. I dont use email to contact friends. Just Facebook messaging. So I would like a way (that is permitted by the T&C) to scrape my contacts details into the various apps I use offline (Address Book/Outlook/mobile phone sync), for extension of their use and for backup. There is a way of doing this using various 3rd party tools, but it is against the T&C.

MySpace attempted to get around this somewhat by introducing a messaging system as well as an IM client. I would prefer Facebook to be a little more open by providing contact/message export.

Everything else is just geeks playing the usual build them up, knock them down card.
Master William
Monday, August 6, 2007 6:14:04 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
> I've mentioned in previous blog postings that I don't think it is a great idea that all the stuff being published by teenagers and college students on the Web today will be held against them for the rest of their lives

If what you're doing as a teenager and college student can only be characterized as "stuff that will be held against them" (seriously, WTF?), I really question how young people are leading their lives. I'm not saying every night needs to be spent in the library or volunteering, but at the very least, shouldn't young people learn how to provide a reasonably positive impression of themselves to friends, family, and even the public?

> I posted a blog post about almost hooking up with some girl at a nightclub and a heated email discussion I had with someone at work

Doesn't this fall under the general category of "don't do questionable things in public"? I don't mean to single you out-- we've all done it at one time or another. But is the answer really to do everything in private? Isn't it more effective to learn what's appropriate for public consumption, even if it involves a few *public* mistakes? And God knows those are the world's most effective teaching tools. Nothing smarts quite like public rebuke.

> a few months ago I posted some pictures from a recent trip to Nigeria and this ignited a firestorm of over a hundred angry comments filled with abuse and threats to myself and my family

But that, in itself, was interesting and newsworthy. Why is this so contentious? We'd never know or understand if those pictures were private by default. However, I can totally respect your desire to make them private after the fact. Selectively switching things to private is reasonable; it's the "default to private" model that is harmful.

> I posted some pictures of my fiancée and I on my Windows Live Space and each picture now has a derogatory comment attached to it.

That's one isolated a**hole, not an angry mob. Can't you just delete his idiotic comments? There's always one bad apple in the bunch. Why let it spoil the whole barrel?

I guess I disagree pretty vehemently with your first point. Not *everything* needs to be in public, but that's where 99% of the value is. Running off and hiding away in walled gardens is a cop-out. People need to learn how to live rationally in public. It's a central part of democracy and internet citizenship.
Monday, August 6, 2007 6:31:31 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Dare, you're as sharp as a ball.
total recall
Monday, August 6, 2007 6:33:50 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
You should present this at Marc's thing in September.
Monday, August 6, 2007 6:47:17 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Jeff wrote
>Running off and hiding away in walled gardens is a cop-out. People need to learn how to live rationally in public. It's a central part of democracy and internet citizenship.

Sounds like "mom and apple pie" to me. People like sharing stuff with their friends that isn't suitable for general consumption or could be taken out of context if you don't know them. Social networking sites fill this need.

This may clash with the libertarian, information wants to be free ethos that fills a lot of the old school net culture but that's why it's old school in the first place. Things change, deal with it. Consider this another casualty of the September that never ended. :)
Monday, August 6, 2007 7:00:05 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Jeff, your argument does not really hold up. There are lots of examples in my life of things that I want to discuss and share with friends and family, but wouldn't want on the internet at large. Im sure you yourself can come up with a few of your own. Facebook provides me with a tool in which I can do this.
Master William
Monday, August 6, 2007 9:42:09 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Nice post Dare... great series of posts actually!

I think that you've come at point #3 from a very limited viewpoint:

3) Full APIs for Extracting and Creating Content on the Social Network

In that section you talk about these API's as though they would be open for third parties to exploit. Forget that, I think that the issue here is for the ability to get access to our own data - maybe to do things such as export our contacts from one site to the next. So imagine that you wanted to export your contacts list from LinkedIn into Facebook. Why not provide simple OPML export/import functionality of this information.

At least this way you would be starting to build in a level of interoperability. The way things are today with each provider lording over their own users' data, the type of interop that you write about later in your post might never become a reality!
Monday, August 6, 2007 9:52:47 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I think what Jeff meant (or at least this is how I took it, and agreed) was that if you feel the need to share parts of your life with people, does it always have to be on the internet, whether public or private? I know there are things I won't post on the internet, whether it's an "open" or "closed" network -- who really knows how secure the "closed" networks are anyway? Sometimes it's better to just STFU and not share with others at all.

On the flip side -- I'm sorry someone decided to post nasty comments on your photos. Delete them and move on, secure in the knowledge that you and your fiancee are lovely people, and the guy who posted those nasty remarks...well, I'm sure being in his shoes is most unpleasant. Pitiful creature.
Monday, August 6, 2007 10:07:41 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
kudos dare -- this is the first reasoned analysis of what APIs and other services to build for competitive SNS & other platforms.

the rest of these "open" standards lovers are pretty much full of shit, as i've detailed here:

nice job. good points for discussion.

- dave mcclure
Monday, August 6, 2007 10:15:06 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I see your scenario as #2 not #3. Being able to export your list of business contacts from Facebook or any other social networking site is a legitimate end user need that doesn't require APIs to fulfill.

Every single person I grew up with lives hundreds to thousands of miles away from me in Atlanta, England and Nigeria. So you're telling me that if I don't want to communicate with them in full view of the public on the Internet then my only alternative is to wait until I see them in person? That seems quite unrealistic.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007 12:40:04 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Yeah, real good stuff. I plan on elaborating on this as well a bit (when I have time to actually sit down and type ;)).

Also, Others are having issues in this area as well...


Tuesday, August 7, 2007 8:15:50 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Great post but since it was brought up again, some clarification is in order:

Carol sounds like you didn't even see the picture in question. Dare says the issue was of having staff. That was not the issue since servant!=slave though I have to admit that if your english is poor you might form association with the similar words (reason for some of said nasty comments probably).

The issue was that the photo looked like it was shot without asking permission and without going into more detail it looked like something that I doubt you would not want spread around of yourself (Unless you were looking for free psychotherapy).

wikipedia: In Knuller v DPP, Lord Reid said that indecency includes "anything which an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting, or revolting."

Given the response on the blog the picture posted was indecent by this definition.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007 9:25:45 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Awesome post. I can't believe bullet #1 proved to be the most contentious. I totally agree with it. As anyone who's ever *sent an e-mail* knows, internet != public. It may not be totally private either, but there's an obvious and unquestionable expectation/demand that people can communicate over the internet in a non-public fashion to a controlled set of people.

It's also the issue that makes coming up with an API so hard. When you combine a concern for privacy with a lack of cross-site identity, you end up unable to create an API that solves any real problems.

For example, I'd love to, when I sign up for a new social network, say "these are all of my friends - don't annoy them with an e-mail, but do send friend requests to them if they're members". That might kinda work if you treat e-mail addresses as identities, which doesn't work real well in my friend circle.

Another thing that would be ideal is to be able to update aspects of your life, new favorite band, change of relationship status, etc. in one place. However, as per point #1, there's going to be some concern over who sees what, and without a consistent identity scheme you won't be able to reliably control it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007 11:00:43 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Dare -- good points, some thoughts on the last one: http://journals.aol.com/panzerjohn/abstractioneer/entries/2007/08/07/some-thoughts-on-some-thoughts-on-open-social-networks/1533

IM is certainly a cautionary tale, but there are some key differences between IM silos and social networking sites. One is that social networking sites are of the Web in a way that IM is not -- specifically they thrive in a cross-dependent ecosystem of widgets, apps, snippets, feeds, and links. It's possible that "cooptition" will be more prevalent than pure competition. And it's quite possible for a social network to do violently antisocial things and drive people away as Friendster did, or simply have a hot competitor steal people away as Facebook is doing. Facebook's very success argues against the idea that there will be a stable detente among competing social network systems.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007 11:21:05 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
sharing info across social networks=retarded. wtf would they want to cross pollinate with competitors?
Wednesday, August 8, 2007 3:50:27 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
sharing info across social networks....

pretty much like it has been done for IM, where at least Live Messenger adn Yahoo Messenger have now been able to talk to each other for a while, by Federating the two platforms...

I would say that is the way to go.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007 11:06:36 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I am so depressed after reading this post. I would have hoped that Microsoft would learn from past mistakes and start to "get it" Obviously not.

(let me preface my comments by saying I'm not anti-microsoft, I'm not a linux user and have no problem with companies trying to monetise their webspaces)

"Open" can mean many things eg code, login acess, privacy or data retrieval to name a few. Before you dismiss all "open" websites you need to clarify exactly what you mean.

"web 2.0" is still in its infancy for the world at large, (part of the reason a closed site like facebook can convince people who at this stage don't know better to sign up) In a year or two that will change when they see the benefit of more open technology/interfaces. To dismiss the early adopters as geeks is simply lazy.

In relation to your points:

Point 1 - Open does not mean public. Forward thinking websites give you the *choice* as to what you make public. See Flickr - a masterclass in web 2.0.

Point 2 - Inability to export data. Using spamming as an example of the use of exported data is simply untrue. I had a lot of facebook spam inviting me to join simply to see their data. Facebook has first mover advantage here and is unlikely to be repeated. When people get used to web 2.0 stuff like rss & mashups they will want to use their data elsewhere.

Point 3 - Api's. A well thought out API does not mean users will not return to your website. In the case of Flickr - they offer so many compelling features that people want to return to the flickr website. I guess this is my main point. Success of a website will not be determined by how strongly you lock someone in a walled garden, but by offering them compelling features that drives a user to return. (just like how yahoo & google mail are far superior to hotmail) (hotmail is only in the top 3 due to Microsoft's strong arm tactics to force unthinking users into using it)

Point 4 - Forcing interaction. I can see the benefit of making a website sticky for its users, but I think Facebook has prime mover advantage for the (unless you can convince/force Mum & Dad to sign up). Again, if you basing your business model on locking people in rather than giving them compelling features then ultimately your website wil be second rate (just like the rest of microsoft's web offerings)

Again I personally don't hate Microsoft, but I can see how their brandopularity is way below google's or yahoo's. I just wish they would break out of their 1990s thinking. They have the skills and talent to really add to the web. I just wish they would.

Coleman Hines
Wednesday, August 8, 2007 11:13:53 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
one more thing, given Microsoft's low brand equity and the stickiness of facebook (and too some extent myspace), I highly doubt you will convince existing users to switch. Though I have to say popfly looks promising.
Coleman Hines
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