Ivor Tossell's August 31 piece in the Globe and Mail summarizes the open social networks vs Facebook debate. Titled Why I Believe Facebook's Days Are Numbered, Tossell sees Facebook's closed network, and the mostly uninteresting applications developed for the Facebook API so far as signs that that the Facebook fad will come to an end. He writes:
Right now, Facebook and its competitors own their users' lists of friends. To access your network, you have to log into Facebook. But what if that list of relationships didn't belong exclusively to Facebook? What if your friend's list lived out on the Internet, and could be used by any authorized website or application?
For instance, that same network of friends might pop up in Microsoft Word, where you could call on people to collaborate on documents. Your contacts would be available on the Web-surfing smartphones we're all about to have foisted upon us. It would power your instant-messaging chat, the list of people who can see your private Flickr album, and on, and on.
An open standard would let users access the same universal social network through whichever service they like. Facebook and its brethren would be left looking like gated suburbs next to thriving neighbourhoods.
The nerd in me wants to see it happen, even though the fact remains that it's easier to make money from a closed system, at least in the near term. But if an open standard liberated networks of friends from the clutches of their chosen social networking site, a plethora of possibilities would emerge.
In fact, there's no reason why Facebook couldn't do just what Tossell is asking for. The calls for an open standard are missing the point that a standard — de jure or de facto — is the requirement. After all, Microsoft, for example, managed to build a very nice platform business from Microsoft Office without open standards. Facebook could do the same by allowing web services interfaces to access the social graph by applications that are hosted outside the Facebook experience. The risk to Facebook is that the web site (not the platform) and thus their revenue source, may become less relevant as a result. The upside is that in opening the platform in this way they may attract many more users.
My bet is that they will create these APIs, and move to support an open identity mechanism at the same time. It's consistent with Mark Zuckerberg's stated desire to become a social utility for the web. Moreover, potential competitors like Plaxo will move in to fill the vacuum if they don't