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Waiting for the OpenSocial hammer to drop

Veteran developer Marc Canter warns industry politics could stymie push to give social-network users more control over data.

When Google announced OpenSocial a few months ago, it was welcomed as an effort to standardize the world around the notion of open social networking. But the announcement also was viewed as an attack on Facebook's closed platform and data silo approach--one which limited users' ability to export their data.

As MySpace.com, Friendster, Bebo, LinkedIn, Oracle, Salesforce.com, Plaxo, and many others lined up to support OpenSocial, we all became almost giddy in our excitement. The anticipation was for a world where users could move their data anywhere they wished and vendors allowed this all to happen.

But oops, it only took one week for backroom politics to emerge.

Turns out that Google's altruistic motives were supplemented by a desire to occlude Facebook's ad announcements. OpenSocial got announced too soon, and many of the technical details and logistics (issues like security) had yet been worked out. And worst of all, many--if not all--of the OpenSocial participants did not intend to open up their networks at all. They simply wished to bring in as many OpenSocial "gadgets" as possible in an attempt to counterstrike Facebook's successful platform of applications.

For all its promises, OpenSocial really only appears to be "OpenGadgets."

In December, I moderated a panel at LeWeb3 in Paris called "Bringing social to software." Google's Patrick Chanezon, who participated in the panel, volunteered that Google would help to provide a "testing lab" for OpenSocial gadget interoperability testing. He also acknowledged it would take until February 2008 for the development work on OpenSocial's APIs to freeze.

But another of Patrick's comments previewed what the battlefield in the upcoming war over open social networking might look like. He suggested it will be up to each social-network software vendor to decide whether to allow access and control over their members' profile data. It didn't take too long for us to get an idea of MySpace's intentions.

The very next day, the guy representing MySpace at the conference refused to say whether his company would provide access to any member's profile data. What this tells me is the company won't. Despite its stated support for OpenSocial, it's clear that MySpace sees OpenSocial as simply an OpenGadgets standard. What's more, it will continue to prevent any MySpace member from exporting profile data or connecting to any other social network.

Now the question is how Bebo, Friendster, and Hi5 will approach this touchy subject. LinkedIn has shown a willingness to let users export their social graphs--though they don't necessarily automatically connect to any other service. Plaxo has been leading the way in this area, but is this only a bid to dress up the company in preparation for a future sale?

As cynical or optimistic as you want to be, politics has to be considered in light of efforts by a group called DataPortability.org, as well as those carried out by some hackers, like Chris Messina's Diso. Then there's the private FooCamp, which takes place Super Bowl weekend up in O'Reilly-land (Sebastapol, Calif.) by invitation only. How ironic that a conference on open social networking would be held behind closed doors, preventing some (including your humble author) from attending.

The idea is that independent groups of people can exert influence on the big platforms to do the right thing. Much noise was made recently when Facebook, Google, and others joined the DataPortability effort. Still, it's just not clear what will become of any mail list consisting of hyperbole and wiki postings.

Why all this sudden interest and concern over open social networking? Has its day come? Is it time that users will be able to freely move their data between social networks? We all hope that MySpace, Bebo, and others will open up and go beyond the original scope of OpenSocial to lay the groundwork for a truly open world of social networking.

But I wouldn't hold my breath.