The World Wide Web Consortium has embarked on an effort to marry standardized social-networking technology with the Web.
Facebook might be the king of social networks, but that sort of technology can be used elsewhere -- employees communicating internally, for example, or businesses interacting with customers. To try to make that work easier for those who build services on the Web, W3C announced Monday that it's launched an effort to create a standard way of building social-network operations into the Web. Those operations include actions such as adding friends, commenting, and sharing updates with text, photos, and video. And going beyond the Facebook model, it also includes "federation" technology that could let multiple social networks interlink.
The work builds on a years-old standard that exists outside the web called OpenSocial. In March, the OpenSocial Foundation, IBM, and Telecom Italia submitted social-network technology to the W3C. OpenSocial hasn't made much of a dent in Facebook's success, but it has attracted enthusiasm from business software makers, including IBM Connections, Jive Software, and Tibco Tibbr, and it integrates with services from companies like Box for data storage and sharing and SugarCRM for businesses interacting with customers.
With social integration on the Web, programmers would have an easier time building their own social services and tying them in with others' networks. That could make social networking services more like email -- a unified and neutral service instead of a proprietary one dominated by a tech giant like Facebook or Twitter.
"Without greater interoperability, we won't reach the full potential of social networking, which includes enterprise as well as consumer applications," the W3C said of its work.
Fulfilling that full ambition will be tough, however. As challengers like Google+ and App.net have shown, it's hard to get people to rebuild new social graphs -- the network of links among people -- once they have one set up and well populated at an existing service. And a single service on its own is free to change a feature or expand in new directions without having to convince members of a larger standards group that it's a good idea.
As the W3C sees it, though, the future of social networking isn't a foregone conclusion.
"The biggest need for these standards today is in the enterprise, but the intent is to make them useful for consumer social networks, too," the W3C said.
The W3C set up two groups to deal with the matter. The Social Web Working Group will actually try to hammer out a standard, based in part on the OpenSocial work. Its leaders are Tantek Çelik from Firefox developer Mozilla, Evan Prodromou who works on social Web software at his company E14N, and Arnaud Le Hors from IBM.
Second, an interest group will try to hash out the issue of what can be done and what developers need and what can be done.
With standards on the Web and beyond, developers wouldn't have a hard time writing software to support a new social network; they could just use their existing code, as long as it follows the standard. "The next Pinterest, Instagram, Yo, or Secret that launches can support these APIs and have a working developer community on day one," the W3C said.