Here’s news that’s pleasing and intriguing: Google is about to announce a Web standard called OpenSocial designed to let every social network support that wants to enable the sort of Web-based social applications that have helped made Facebook the talk of the Net in recent months. As far as I can tell, Google isn’t saying anything until tomorrow, but Marc Andreessen, whose Ning will be one of the first social networks to support OpenSocial has a long and interesting blog post about what he thinks it all means.
Facebook and Myspace aren’t involved in OpenSocial, but otherwise, the initial companies who are climbing aboard include an impressive bunch of social networks and social application providers, including Ning, LinkedIn, Hi5, Friendster, Plaxo, Google’s Orkut, iLike, and Slide.
That’s a major shift from the world of Facebook apps, which involves writing apps using special Facebook programming techniques that’ll only run within Facebook. That walled-garden, proprietary approach has been compared to the early AOL. And there’s an ugly scenario in which other social networks might decide to respond by building their own proprietary platforms. Shades of the era of AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy.
But if OpenSocial catches on, we’d fast-forward directly to a world in which everybody wrote their stuff to work with everything else. Assuming it’s feature-rich enough to enable powerful applications, I can’t imagine how anyone could argue that that isn’t the best scenario for everybody on the planet who uses social networks. And given how quickly and thoroughly the open standards of the Web crushed the AOLs and CompuServes of the world, it seems inevitable that an open approach to social platforms will prevail over the proprietary stuff.
What OpenSocial doesn’t seem to be is a way to put all your friends into one social network that spans across every site you use. If I’m understanding it correctly, you’d still have one bunch of friends at LinkedIn and another at Plaxo–it’s just that you’d be able to use the same social applications at both sites.
The fact that OpenSocial doesn’t involve anybody having control over all your social network data should alleviate any concerns over Google’s involvement here. Unlike Google Base or Google Print or even Gmail, OpenSocial doesn’t involve Google building a gigantic repository of data which only it controls. Actually, it’s a step in the opposite direction–something which, if it’s widely adopted, could let us all use the Web applications we want wherever we want them.
On the other hand, OpenSocial also doesn’t do anything to give users any greater control over their list of buddies–that information remains proprietary to whatever network or networks you use. On that standpoint, it seems to be neutral. Dave Winer, for one, thinks that that control over data is what OpenSocial should have been about.
I persist in thinking that not only has the defining social-network application not been written yet, but most of the ones that do exist are kind of stupid. But I’m upbeat about the basic notion of every Web site being a platform that helps people intermingle. And if OpenSocial catches on, it’ll help that happen a lot more quickly…