Birthing pains in the colonization of the social Web

All the major social-networking players recognize that the walls separating them are crumbling, but they haven't agreed on how to implement global openness.

The social Web is going through some birthing pains (see Techmeme). In the name of data portability, Facebook,, and Google made announcements last week about creating a more open social Web. For the most part, they are press releases and not yet fully released into the wild.

On Thursday, Facebook suspended involvement with Google's Friend Connect, claiming that it redistributes user information from Facebook to developers without users' knowledge, violating the company's terms of service.

Google responded that Friend Connect is designed to keep users fully in control of their information at all times. "Users choose what social networks to link their Friend Connect account to. (They can just as easily unlink it.) We never handle passwords from other sites; we never store social graph data from other sites; and we never pass users' social network IDs to Friend Connected sites or applications," a Google representative said.

Full openness in the colonization of the social Web is counter to the instincts of companies funded by venture capitalists and with quarterly earnings to report. The companies are conflicted. On one hand, they want to maintain walled or semi-permeable gardens and find ways to keep users from defecting and the money from evaporating.

On the other hand, Facebook, Google, and MySpace are part of the Web generation, fueled by young people who value openness and advocate users having control of their data.

At this juncture, all the major social-networking players recognize that the walls separating them are crumbling, but they haven't agreed on how to implement global openness.

Taking a historical perspective, the social-networking community hasn't formed its Continental Congress to unite the colonies with a common vision and approach for openness. It's a political and economic, not a technical, issue. The technical building blocks, such as OpenID, oAuth, and OpenSocial APIs, for an open social Web are taking shape.

The complexities of an open social Web, allowing for granular control by users over their online identities and information, will require a lot of new thinking about user scenarios and experimentation.

The Data Portability Project is developing guidelines and has the endorsement of the big social-networking players. But endorsement doesn't mean they are gathered together to create a common social layer for the Web. It's time for the social networks, like the 13 colonies in 1774 banding together to be free of British authority, to unite and manifest that the Web is by and for the users.

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