Getting Social Networks to Socialize

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:

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.


  1. michael webster says:
    What is the value of spreading your personal information far and wide on insecure platforms?

  2. I’m not sure that I see the advantage to the social networking industry in smashing the walls to the garden. Surely they would prefer a world in which theirs was the only garden.

  3. I agree with Bart. I think social networking sites are driven by corporations who exploit their users need for connectivity to gather personal information and track their daily activities. I doubt if any of them are interested in the utopian ideal of global networking. In fact, I’m sure they try to make their sites as proprietary as possible to prevent this. If people really want to be connected globally it’s easy enough to do on their own terms, using independent personal websites, blogs and good old email. It just take a little bit of effort. For people who want to connect and participate passively, there is facebook etc.; in exchange for their passivity and laziness they get to be exploited.

    [ link ]

  4. Blaise Alleyne says:

    Also, some social networks are very different from each other. Facebook is the only social network (though they prefer to call it a social utility) that I use, and it’s not just because it’s the most popular in Canada. I don’t like MySpace, and I don’t trust it. It’s really not safe from a technical perspective since users can embed all sorts of scripts on their profiles (Sammy Worm anyone?), and it has no relevance to me because it’s not connected to real-life networks. Facebook is NOT an online community; it’s an online component to real life communities. I have strict privacy controls so that I can easily share information with people I want to, and easily limit that information from people I don’t know. Compared to Facebook, privacy features on Myspace are practically non-existent.

    Point is, I would’t want my Facebook account connected to the Myspace network in ANY way. I choose Facebook largely because it WASN’T Myspace; I don’t want to have anything to do with Myspace. Nevermind other sites that I have no real knowledge about. I trust Facebook, and the level of trust I have affects the level that I use the site, the amount of information I put onto it. I don’t want that information available on sites that I don’t trust.

  5. This is not only an issue with social networks but also with virtual worlds that are being touted as the “next level” of web interaction. The consensus thinking is that – eventually – these virtual worlds will link up and allow users to move from one simulated environment ot another. At first blush, especially for those who have yet to engage in a virtual community, the response is: “So?” Like them or not virtual worlds are social networks and an innovative user interface. The weird thing is that you’re going to see the worlds of Second Life and World Of Warcraft merge … as if each of them wasn’t already frickin’ weird enough on their own already. But it will happen. And when the “conventional” social networks (ie. MySpace, FaceBook, et al) also go virtual … which, again, will be an additional layer of weirdness … just imagine the possibilities of all those bizarrely tricked out teeny profile pages find themselves rendered as 3D avatars in a multi-merged world where hairy muscled fetish demon beasts mingle with simulated online corporate representatives.


    I have to lie down now and rest.

  6. Timothy C S-Z says:

    Naive and impatient, I clicked yes and yes again. “Register me in Facebook already.” How little I appreciated that to consent was to leave me out in the open.

    I didn’t know that my google contact-book was taken in and integrated into the face-book system. There I was, pinned like a butterfly onto a social network. It is not paranoia to recognize the computational scale of database systems, and the legal force to gather data without knowledge or consent, or legal right for ‘Facebook’ or ‘Google’ to voice objections. (Not that either would risk economic legitimacy for constitutional integrity… much less for my freedom of mind.)

    But it doesn’t matter to me if they correlate it to all my phonecalls. So long as they archive their own, it is inevitable that the more open eyed the intrusion, the sooner the clock strikes midnight on the unwatched bee-watch.

  7. Aharon
    Both Huminity [ link ]
    and FOAF [ link ]
    tried to build on interoperability – Huminity on interoperability of applications (IM, blogs, forums, etc), while FOAF on profiles… but it didn\’t work. IMHO people simply don\’t want interoperability. They want to have one profile/identity here, and a different one there and there.

  8. Ow, my head hurts too…
    While constructing interoperable networking sites may seem like a great idea, especially to facilitate increased global communication, there are a number of reasons why I believe this won’t happen for a long time, if ever, due to monetary, privacy and user interface issues.

    For example, in order to create interoperable networking sites, you need to be able to share personal data from one system to the other or have all user data exist in one location which is then accessed by each site.

    Currently, each system is a gated community where the data for each user is stored securely by the operating company. Data is either accessed by a user with a password, and may be accessed by the operating company for marketing purposes.

    If the data is to be shared globally, then who owns the data to begin with and where does it live?

    Microsoft tried to solve this problem with Passport which failed miserably due to security and trust issues.

    If we could set up a trusted global user data system then this might have a hope in working but who would fund it and how would we go about making it trustworthy?

    Currently all the networking sites are funded by corporations who use the user data for marketing information. They tend to hoard their information for competition purposes and they are not likely to fund any features beyond what their business model can support.

    Certain networking sites are considered more trustworthy than others and some people like the lesser security and some people like the higher security.

    Another issue is user interface complexity. While sites such as
    Facebook and virtual worlds such as SecondLife seem to be the wave of the future, do not underestimate the learning curve and maintenance time needed to devote to such sites in order to make their networking benefits pay off. How much networking benefits are people actually getting in exchange for the countless hours online?

    How much of SecondLife and Facebook is just a cool factor and how much is actually useful? Many people in SecondLife are there anonymously in order to live out certain virtual fantasies and not there for productive networking purposes.

    Let me put it this way, if I’m into furry sex in Second Life, I sure don’t want my Facebook university alumni knowing about it! (Um, not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you…)

  9. hendrik boom says:

    With an isolated social-network site, the possibility of spam on the site can be much reduced, since the site can police itself.

    This was the same with email before the email systems on different computers were connected.

    when social-networking sites become connected and interoperable, sites will have to trust each others’ integrity. With the necessity for trust will come deceit, and spam.

    And they may well have differing policies for “integrity”, because of different user communities, and the different legal frameworks they operate under.

  10. Hey, where is Rotatrix?
    Few info:

    RFN: The Rotatrix Friends Network is a ‘Social Networking Community’ that has been created by Gav Graham and Mike King dedicated to providing a safe, friendly, family environment for Marketers, non-Marketers and Charitable and/or non-profit making Organizations to come together in a Social setting to build relationships, gain exposure, make friends, reach a targetted audience and in general to have fun in a ‘Social Environment’.

    [ link ]