My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) focuses on the lack of interoperability between social networking sites. While not quite spam, the steady stream of requests for Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, Dopplr travellers, or Plaxo contact updates, highlights the lack of interoperability between social network sites and significantly undermines their usefulness.
The interoperability issue is likely to become more prominent in the months ahead as hundreds of specialty social networking sites covering virtually every area of interest from dogs to cooking, jostle for new users. In fact, services such as Ning now enable anyone to create their own social network site. The result is that Internet users are repeatedly required to re-enter their personal information for each new network they join and find that each network is effectively a "walled garden", where the benefits of the network are artificially limited by the inability to link a friend in Facebook with one in MySpace.
These limitations are particularly striking when viewed from a global perspective. While Facebook is a leader in Canada (as well as in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Norway), nearly a dozen other sites hold leadership positions in other countries. These include:
- MySpace (United States, Australia, Mexico, and Italy)
- Bebo (Ireland and New Zealand)
- Cyworld (South Korea)
- Friendster (Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore)
- Fotolog (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay)
- Hi5 (Colombia, Ecuador, and Thailand)
- Mixi (Japan)
- Orkut (Brazil, India, and Paraguay)
- Skyblog (France, Belgium, Senegal)
- Studiverzeichnis (Germany, Austria)
- Vkontakte (Russia)
The result is that social networking sites are far more "local" that is often appreciated. Unlike the global Internet, which enables virtually the entire world to connect, social networks have created very large, localized communities with far more limited international interaction.
The obvious solution is to facilitate greater interoperability between social networking sites, thereby enabling users to better control their personal information and reduce the need for duplication, while simultaneously enhancing the value of all social networks by removing the current barriers. This suggestion is not new – experts began commenting on the desirability of open social networks years ago – yet there are reasons to believe that the opportunity for greater interoperability may have finally arrived.
First, the focus on the benefits of interoperability cut across a wide range of technological issues including recent calls for interoperable wireless networks and the music industry's recognition of the need to offer downloads that operates with all music players. Moreover, the frustrations associated with the initial lack of instant messaging interoperability serves as an important reminder of how the issue resonates with consumers.
Second, there are signs that the social networking industry recognizes the value of openness. Facebook moved toward an open platform for software developers this spring, enabling third party developer to bring thousands of new Facebook applications to market. Similarly, Plaxo recently launched a service called Pulse, a social networking aggregator that works with many popular sites.
Third, there is mounting interest in developing open standards for social networks that would facilitate greater interoperability. For example, the Liberty Alliance and Project Higgins are two privacy-focused identity management initiatives that claim to provide users with the ability to manage their personal information across social networks in a secure and trusted manner.
The irony of the current generation of online social networks is that although their premise is leveraging the Internet to connect people, their own lack of interconnectedness is stifling their potential.