Google brings Friend Connect to the masses

As expected, Google unveils a preview of Friend Connect, a way to add social features to a Web site without programming. Will it eradicate the social-networking "walled garden"?

Dan Farber
5 min read

Updated 3:15 PST May 12

As expected, Google has unveiled a preview of Friend Connect, a way to add social features to a Web site without programming.

David Glazer, director of engineering at Google, described Friend Connect, whose site is inaccessible Monday morning, as plumbing for the rest of the Web.

"The Web is getting better by getting more social. We've baked social features into the infrastructure of the Web, and it is not tied to any particular site," Glazer said. "Users can interact with any of their friends anywhere they go on Web, and with any app."

I asked Glazer if Friend Connect is a response to Facebook Connect and MySpace.com's Data Availability. "People will speculate a lot in that direction. We didn't create this code in the three days (since Facebook and MySpace made their announcements)."

Unlike Facebook and MySpace, Google lacks a dominant, centralized social-networking hub. Friend Connect works the edges of the Internet, applying an open and distributed approach, and bringing a social dimension to the 99-plus percent of sites that aren't socially enabled.

Guacamole is a sample site created by Google for demonstrating Friend Connect features. Google

"The distributed model has worked well for the Web. That is what the Web does--many points of light loosely coupled and massively distributed, allowing users to connect to pages of information," Glazer told me. "Now it is working to connect people to other people."

Friend Connect-compliant sites will be able to view, invite, and interact with newfound friends, or with existing friends, from established social-networking sites, including Facebook, Google Talk, Hi5, Orkut, and Plaxo via secure authorization application-programming interfaces.

Currently only a few sample sites, including Google's Guacamole site, are available to end users. "We are looking to get feedback from Web site owners about what kinds of sites and apps they want," Glazer said. Ingrid Michaelson, an independent musician, integrates iLike's OpenSocial application with Friend Connect to connect friends without having to leave the site.

David Glazer, director of engineering, Google Stephen Shankland/CNET News.com

John McCrea, vice president of marketing at Plaxo, said Google's Friend Connect is "flipping the model" from walled gardens (such as Facebook) to a more open social Web:

Instead of widgetizing apps and bolting them on to some corporation's proprietary social graph, why not widgetize the social graph and socially enable any Web site or Web page?

That's a big, bold vision that Plaxo is 100 percent aligned with. As to Facebook and MySpace, it is certainly great to read the rhetoric they are now putting forth. The meme of data portability, open social Web, and bill of rights for users of the social Web has certainly caught on!

Alas, the devil is in the details, and we haven't seen any details (yet) from Facebook--just a Friday blog post signaling intent. It might be great, and we hope it is, but it's not clear what the actual substance will be.

With regard to MySpace, the rhetoric is over-the-top goodness, including a declaration of the end of the era of walled gardens. Alas, the details, as they currently exist, for their "Data Availability" effort fall far short of the vision many of us share for users having ownership of their data, control over who can see it, and freedom to take it with them, wherever they go across the social Web.

In the MySpace "Data Availability" model, the user can take their data for a walk anytime they want or to any place they want, but the data remains on a tether. There is no notion of copy, move, or sync. Participating sites must agree to have MySpace serve the data live in their page. That's a half-step wrapped in a beautiful flag of openness.

Friend Connect provides a set of wizards for adding social features to Web sites without programming. Google

"Friend Connect provides wizardlike pages. Webmasters just fill in the information, select social apps, copy code, paste, and save. No coding is required. It passes the 'easy' test, and it does something useful," Glazer said. It provides features such as user registration, invitations, member galleries, message posting, and reviews, as well as OpenSocial applications.

At the core of Friend Connect are three emerging social standards--OpenID, oAuth, and OpenSocial.

"Today is the right time to connect all emerging standards to give users the ability to go anywhere on Web and interact with any set of friends on any application," Glazer said.

Google's Social Graph API is not part of the Friend Connect preview, Glazer said. "The Social Graph API is part of the same conversation, but we didn't need to connect those two dots."

Friend Connect applies existing and emerging standards to provide plumbing for the social Web. Google

Glazer emphasized that Google is focused on keeping users in control of their information. "The Webmaster has no business knowing who my friends are, but I can choose to link my login to my Facebook account and invite friends," he said. "It's up to each site to publish APIs, with appropriate terms of use," Glazer told me. "I would expect as Friend Connect matures in the market, we will see more people connecting to it and more standard interfaces to turn on and register for it. It's not fully standard now.

Friend Connect covers many of the use cases for the social Web, but a single, standard "friend" API is still lacking.

"There are a few good candidates, such as the OpenSocial RESTful APIs, which are at a rough consensus stage but not running code," Glazer said. "We don't know enough to call a winner, but there will be a standard."

Update: During a call with the press, Glazer called Friend Connect a "salt shaker full of social to sprinkle social features on a site in a matter of hours." However, the salt shaker is not getting passed around much. Google is being very cautious about approving sites to use the new code, with concerns about applications or sites that might violate user privacy. "We have to make sure we get it right," Glazer said, "especially when user data is involved." It also sounds like Google rushed this announcement to be in step with recent Facebook and MySpace data portability efforts.

Google is creating a wait list for requests to use Friend Connect, and expects to green light a few dozen sites in the next few days. Unleashing Friend Connect will be staged over the coming months, according to Joe Kraus, Google director of product management. "It's on the order of months, and certainly not six months, probably a couple," he said.

See also: Techmeme