In 2006, a certain old-media tycoon reportedly asked Mark Zuckerberg, the 20-something founder of Facebook, “how can I build a social network like Facebook?”
Zuckerberg replied “You can’t!”
What Zuckerberg meant was that Facebook hadn’t set out to ‘build’ a social network. His billion dollar insight was that Facebook would instead provide online social tools to help existing friends and existing social groups to communicate easily, share photos, stalk, and poke each other.
Then in 2007, Facebook opened its app platform for third party developers to add additional social stuff to keep users on the site. Soon we were all happily throwing sheep at each other and spamming our friends with app invites.
App fatigue arrived in 2008. A redesign of the Facebook site removed some of the weeds, but the metrics spoke loudly, or rather their unit of measurement did; popular apps began to be listed according to ‘monthly active users’ rather than ‘daily active users’.
Slide, RockYou and iLike had been quick enough to make some money, however there was a long tail of apps without enough active users to generate a decent return on investment. The app gold rush was over.
It become apparent that there was less value in creating new social activities inside of a social site such as Facebook, and more value in socializing, or adding social data and context to, the existing sites that people are already using out there in the big wide web.
In other words, social data portability has arrived, and extends Zuckerberg’s earlier “You can’t!” insight; you can’t ‘build’ the platform because the web is the platform.
We are told that data portability is for people who want more control over their data and do not want to be locked in to any particular social network. In 2008, Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect and MySpaceID have emerged as the big solutions from those wanting to port your social data, and profitably.
Facebook makes money from people viewing and clicking on ads on their website. Facebook Connect therefore allows you to export your Facebook profile and friend list to external sites, but really is intended to increase activity back on the Facebook website, by importing social information from those connected external sites back into your Facebook Feed for your friends to see. MySpaceID ditto.
Google however makes money from people clicking on ads anywhere, so Google Friend Connect can afford to remain socially agnostic, allowing users to identify themselves and their friends according to any network they belong to, and feed their external site activity into the social sites of their choice.
Being socially agnostic is more useful to more users in theory, but not yet in practice for Google Friend Connect. Even though it would be technically simple for Google to access your profile and friend lists using the Facebook Platform, what happened when Google submitted its Friend Connect app to Facebook for approval earlier in 2008?
Zuckerberg replied “You can’t!”, then added some fud about privacy.
This week however Google was able to make some progress on the theory of Friend Connect by launching an integration with Twitter. It’s now possible for you to use your Twitter identity and friends list on external sites powered by Friend Connect, which significantly increases the chances of spotting someone you know on those sites.
What’s interesting about this recent development to me is the apparent haste, including Google asking for my Twitter username and password directly, rather than waiting for Twitter to complete its long-awaited OAuth implementation. I’ve also seen more than the usual number of server errors and teething problems in this latest build of Friend Connect.
Maybe this is an indication that OAuth will be coming soon from Twitter, which would be fantastic.
Or maybe this is an indication that Twitter will be coming soon from Google; some visibility into Twitter data would be useful for Google in working out an acquisition price.
Or maybe this haste reveals how social data is such a hugely valuable chunk of information for Google to organize, and monetize, if ways can be found to use external social data to improve ad targetting without abusing the privacy of users and the privacy policies of their social networks.
In any event, there are interesting times ahead for social data portability. Users stand to benefit from a richer, more social, internet experience, as long as their privacy is not abused. And stay tuned on the social data portability battle between Facebook and Google and MySpace: who will work out how to best monetize external social data in 2009?