The nerdier nether-regions of blogland have been burning through the night with the news of the OpenSocial initiative spearheaded by Google and supported by what Chris so aptly calls the coalition of the willing.
Like Simon, I’ve been trying to get my head around exactly what OpenSocial is all about ever since reading Brady Forrest’s announcement. Here’s what I think is going on:
Facebook has an API that allows third parties to put applications on Facebook profile pages (substitute the word “widget” for “application” for a more accurate picture). Developers have embraced Facebook applications because, well, Facebook is so damn big. But developing an app/widget for Facebook is time-consuming enough that the prospect of rewriting the same app for a dozen other social networking sites is an unappealing prospect. That’s where OpenSocial comes in. It’s a set of conventions. If you develop to these conventions, your app can live on any of the social networking sites that support OpenSocial: LinkedIn, MySpace, Plaxo and many more.
Some of the best explanations of OpenSocial are somewhat biased, coming as they do from the people who are supporting this initiative, but they are still well worth reading:
- Anil Dash from Six Apart writes about OpenSocial, killer apps and regular people (a phrase that rubs Brian up the wrong way),
- Marc Andreessen of Ning describes a new universe of social applications all over the web,
- Ted Rheingold of Dogster lists 10 reasons why OpenSocial will be very beneficial and
- Jeremiah Owyang makes explaining OpenSocial to your executives a whole lot easier by providing some jargon-busting definitions:
- Social Network:
- An existing network or community where people of similar interest share. MySpace, LinkedIn, and Hi5 are examples.
- Mini-application, app, widget:
- These applications, created by third party developers or your company can sit on top of these existing thriving communities of connected people.
- Platform, Container, Social Network:
- Where the mini-applications sit on top of and interact.
- The common code shared among platforms and developers of mini-applications.
That’s all well and good but frankly, I’m not very interested in making widgets, apps or whatever you want to call them. I’m interested in portable social networks.
At first glance, it looks like OpenSocial might provide a way of exporting social network relationships. From the documentation:
The People and Friends data API allows client applications to view and update People Profiles and Friend relationships using AtomPub GData APIs with a Google data schema. Your client application can request a list of a user’s Friends and query the content in an existing Profile.
But it looks like these API calls are intended for applications sitting on the host platform rather than separate sites hoping to extract contact information. As David Emery points out, this is a missed opportunity:
The problem is, however, that OpenSocial is coming at completely the wrong end of the closed-social-network problem. By far and away the biggest problem in social networking is fatigue, that to join yet another site you have to sign-up again, fill in all your likes and dislikes again and—most importantly—find all your friends again. OpenSocial doesn’t solve this, but if it had it could be truly revolutionary; if Google had gone after opening up the social graph (a term I’m not a fan of, but it seems to have stuck) then Facebook would have become much more of an irrelevance—people could go to whatever site they wanted to use, and still preserve all the interactions with their friends (the bit that really matters).
While OpenSocial is, like OAuth, a technology for developers rather than end users, it does foster a healthy atmosphere of openness that encourages social network portability. Tantek has put together a handy little table to explain how all these technologies fit together:
|social application||OAuth, OpenSocial||developers|
|social profile||hCard ||users|
|friends list||XFN ||users|
I was initially excited that OpenSocial might be a magic bullet for portable social networks but after some research, it doesn’t look like that’s the case—it’s all about portable social widgets.
But like I said, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve really got a handle on OpenSocial so I’ll be digging deeper. I was hoping to see Patrick Chanezon talk about it at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin next week but, wouldn’t you know it, I’m scheduled to give a talk at exactly the same time. I hope there’ll be plenty of livebloggers taking copious notes.