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.

Now playing: DJ Drama - The Art Of Storytellin' Part 4 (Feat. Outkast And Marsha Ambrosius)


Thursday, January 3, 2008 5:35:48 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"[...] This is a genuine user problem which the established players have little incentive to fix [...]"

the only reasonable thing is REAL interoprability, through a sort of "federation" model. I keep my account with the site that I prefer but I CAN interact with anyone else.
That is why EMAIL has been working well for some decades... I can keep my mailbox where I prefer and interact with anybody else.
The only real effort I have seen in this regard is the federation betweek MSN/Live and Yahoo in regard to Instant messaging....
Thursday, January 3, 2008 8:46:50 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
How come its legal for social networking sites like Facebook to allow importers and take my friends data but not the other way around?

Your argument makes sense but if Facebook is allowed to get my friend's data from my email address book why is the reverse not possible.
Thursday, January 3, 2008 9:56:31 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
It's not that it is legal for Facebook to do anything or that Robert necessarily did anything illegal. These are gray areas.

Facebook doesn't force you to use an importer -- and if you have a list of contacts you import, hey, those are your contacts.

Got a list of contacts on Facebook. Hey, those are your contacts as well. Yes, those people do "belong" to Robert. He didn't spam to get them -- they overtly chose to friend him and give him access to their details.

Facebook, of course, has terms -- and Facebook's terms don't have to be legal (unless someone goes to court) to shut Robert down.

As for the scraping, Bidder's Edge is one lone case. It could very well be that Robert might take Facebook to court, argue that using a Plaxo tool to do indexing of his own contacts wasn't a trespass at all. Who knows. But I suspect a court would rule that regardless, Facebook has the right to kick any user off for not following its terms. So his contacts -- but only to the degree that Facebook lets him have access to them.

In the end, Robert was wrong in knowingly violating the terms, and you halfway feel like he wanted to be booted for the attention he gained. But Facebook is likely wrong for making it difficult for the ordinary person to pull key information people have knowingly shared with other contacts -- wrong in the public perception, at least.

Personally, I'd find it hard to be irritated that Robert added me to his Outlook contacts, for example, when I already know I gave him access to my email through Facebook. Heck, if it means he doesn't send me annoying Facebook email, all the better. But the "oh, I was liberating my social graph" running for cover -- again, agreed, there are real issues there, but I'd feel better if he'd first tried acceptable methods or if he did get banned, perhaps wait to see what happened after he explained to Facebook the situation. But that wouldn't make for as good as story.
Friday, January 4, 2008 12:02:07 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I disagree with the point that "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".

True, it's not his data (he doesn't own it), but he certainly has a right to access it. After all, friending requires an opt-in by both parties. Since by scraping, all he was doing was extracting data he could see anyway (name, email address, birthday), then yes, it's data that he's entitled to grabbing. His friends do have the expectation that he can see and use their names, email addresses, and birthdays.

If Facebook is using a technical, "stress on our servers" argument, that's valid. But the non-technical argument doesn't hold. All Scoble was doing was using a tool that helped him grab the data that his friends were already making available to him.
Friday, January 4, 2008 2:26:19 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Think of social networks as applications on your computer

There are other applications as well.



If these were desktop apps, they would all have access to the SAME date on your HDD.

Now they are all web-based, we need a web-based HDD.

And for bonus, we want to define a set of file types/locations for storing some of personal info - just like Windows stores our name and regional settings. We just happen to also want to store our friends list/contact list in a central place.

It's really not any more complicated than that.
Friday, January 4, 2008 8:25:27 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"My FB Contacts is a free and easy way to export and backup the contact details of your friends on Facebook. Once exported you can then import your contacts in to your Gmail, Hotmail or Outlook account."

Eric Blair
Friday, January 4, 2008 6:53:27 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"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."

I agree and in the limit we all should be our own service provider. This is our view when we designed EnThinnai, which allows a user to share data with designated friends in a distributed manner.
Saturday, January 5, 2008 1:13:47 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)

sometimes i think you are part of the borg, sometimes you come out with nice insights such as this:

"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. "

now please use your influence in MS (which we all love ;-) to put this into practice

John John
Saturday, January 5, 2008 1:17:25 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
ps Scoble is a self-promoter not worth the oxygen
John John
Comments are closed.