So now that the Facebook orgy has settled down a bit (no, it’s not the next Microsoft or the next Internet), people are starting to take a good, hard look at Facebook’s implications as the de facto place where your identity, and the links to your identity from others, lives. Dave Winer and the kids at Mashable are starting to raise the issue of lock-in. In a nutshell: while Facebook opened up its platform for others to build within their walls, the nucleus of all that building – your identity and the links that propagate out of it – is Facebook’s.
In other words, if the paths that define social networking were the radio spectrum, Facebook is effectively the FCC. And so, the conversation around “open social networks” is starting to happen. Fred Wilson rightly points out that the masses that are using Facebook really don’t care if its open or closed. In fact, most don’t really know what that means.
So why do we need an “open social network”? But wait, what exactly is an open social network (“OSN”). Well, I’m guessing a key requirement is one where you can take and move your core data – i.e. everything that a service has collected about you including your profile, your friends, your links, everything – and allow you to take it and move it elsewhere or not move it at all. Similar to the laws that came down regarding the transferability of cell phone numbers, we ultimately must be able to take our stuff (and it really is our stuff no?) and leave any time we please.
You can’t do that with Facebook today. You can “deactivate” your account, but that just sort of puts it in Sleep Mode. Your data is still there. Facebook reserves the right to keep “archived copies” of your content even after you explicitly remove it.
In the end, it’s about being able to say “thanks for your service, please give me my things, I’m leaving now.” What that requires is a standardized, agreed-upon way to represent your personal assets. This way, if you choose to move elsewhere, you can. And above all else, your links – the connections you have with others – go with you.
So this got me thinkin’…
A person’s links (and here we’re talking about people links, not web links) is really just an OPML file. An OPML file is just a list of links usually used to store RSS feeds. It’s a subscription list. Except here what we really want to link to is other people’s OPML’s. A “contact subscription list” if you will. In other words, a person equals one OPML. Each OPML contains important information about the person (e.g. photo link, profile info, etc.) as well as the list of OPML’s (i.e. other people) that that person has some sort of relationship with.
Your OPML should be able to live anywhere. If mine happens to be on basement.org and it’s properly compliant, I should be able to join and blend into any social network. Note the power shift here. Services like Faecebook can offer OPML management services, but the decision as to who manages and maintains that OPML is up to the owner of it: me. It is an XML representation of you and your social network.
Google Reader is a great web-based RSS reader. I’ve invested a lot of time compiling about 150 feeds that I track through Google Reader. They’re tagged and organized to my liking. And most importantly, I can take them with me any time. Just about every RSS reader allows you to export your reading list of feeds to OPML. That ownership and portability that exists for online news sources and blogs can exist for other people as well.
Ultimately, any social network that’s worth its weight shouldn’t view such an approach as threatening or antagonistic. If what Fred Wilson asserts holds true – that people don’t realy care – then why not open things up anyway? The end result will be a more vibrant and transparent ecosystem for other actors to play in. Something that everyone can benefit from.