Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, November 2, 2007

Open Social: Google's New Social Networking Platform - What Is It And Why It Matters

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While social networking giants such as MySpace and Facebook have been building huge online communities by utilizing proprietary approaches and protocols, a new group of companies led by Google is embracing an open standards approach to social networking that may indeed revolutionize social media as we know it today.

Photo credit: Danny Sullivan

OpenSocial is a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that will allow independent developers to build applications that run on any participating network, using the data stored by that network.

Richard MacManus writes:

"OpenSocial is not a social network itself, rather it is a set of three common APIs that allow developers to access the following core functions and information at social networks:
  • Profile Information (user data)

  • Friends Information (social graph)

  • Activities (things that happen, news feed type stuff)"

The new API will be supported by several players in the social networking space including: Hi5, Plaxo, LinkedIn, Orkut, Ning and Friendster, and blogging platform Six Apart. Enterprise software vendors Salesforce and Oracle complete the list of potential platform supporters, while widget developers RockYou, Slide, iLike and Flixster have signed as "contributing applications" to the new social media platform.

Wired News writes also that "The participation of LinkedIn, Salesforce and Oracle suggests that the fruits of OpenSocial may include a crop of business-oriented social networking applications, far different from the fun-and-games orientation of most Facebook and MySpace apps."

In other words, Open Social takes the Facebook platform concept and transforms it into an open standard that can be adopted by anyone on the web. Open Social is way for everyone else to do what Facebook has already done inside its social networking platform.

Photo credit: Danny Sullivan



Open Social is a new social networking platform which allows developers to create "containers" (such as .....) and "plug-in applications" that can work inside them. It is much like the concept of Facebook and its myriad of plug-in applications which have seen fantastic growth in recent months, with the key fundamental difference, that while Facebook itself forces developers to use a proprietary development language to write these applications, the new Open Social platform works on existing open standards such as HTML and JavaScript leaving any container service or would-be plug-in developer to easily jump on this train.

From a more technical standpoint Open Social is an open web API that can be supported by two kinds of developers:

a) "Containers" -- social networking systems like Ning, Orkut, LinkedIn, Hi5, and Friendster, and...

b) "Applications or Apps" -- these are applications that can be embedded within container systems such as LinkedIn, Flixster, Rockyou, iLike, and Slide.

As mentioned above, this is the exact same concept utilized by Facebook, but with two fundamental differences:

1) With the Facebook platform, only Facebook itself can be a "container" -- "apps" can only run within Facebook itself. In contrast, with Open Social, any social network can be an Open Social container and allow Open Social apps to run within it.

2) Facebook developers need to work with Facebook-proprietary languages and APIs such as FBML (Facebook Markup Language) and FQL (Facebook Query Language). Applications developed with those languages do not work anywhere else. On the other hand application developers working with Open Social can work by using standard HTML and JavaScript, and their applications will be able to run anywhere there is an Open Social container.

The Technical Side

Open Social's API is based entirely on HTML and JavaScript. If you know HTML and JavaScript today, you can start coding for the Open Social platform right now.

According to Marc Andreessen, from a technical standpoint, Open Social is implemented as a "plug-in API", or "Level 2 platform".

"In other words, it's not a web services API -- rather, it's a way for external applications to "plug into" a host environment (or "container"). And then, in addition to literally showing up inside the pages of a container, the external app can make JavaScript calls to retrieve all kinds of useful information from the container and perform all kinds of useful functions within the container, such as "give me a list of all of this user's friends" or "inject this event into this user's activity feed"."

One positive advantage of all this is that since Open Social provides standard API calls, "nothing will prevent containers from implementing additional JavaScript or web services APIs to provide additional functionality to developers".

In this respect Open Social developers can choose whether to go for advanced applications that do special things but which would work only in selected Open Social containers or to maintain full compatibility with all Open Social containers out there.

In essence, Open Social standardizes the concept and use of a plug-in API so that both the social networking host environments (containers) nor the newly developed external applications plugging into them will ever need to invent any dedicated plug-in API, or having to choose among multiple competing existing proprietary plug-in APIs.

Open Social and Open Standards

Photo credit: Danny Sullivan

Key traits:

Open Social standardizes common functionality but doesn't limit or restrict innovation in any way.

"Many standards die an early death because they are too complicated and hard to implement. Open Social is what you want in a standard -- it's expansive enough to do useful things, but limited enough to be very easy to implement, both for containers and for applications."

(Source: Marc Andreessen)

Open Social runs already in a variety of different containers, including Ning, Orkut, Hi5, and LinkedIn, and across a variety of apps like iLike, Flixster, and Slide. There are also live running examples, such as iLike, of the same app running in multiple containers -- Ning, Orkut, and Hi5 -- proving the interoperability that the Open Social specification promises.

The beauty of this is that any developer will be able to use standard web development tools to build Open Social applications without the need of having to learn another proprietary mark-up or query language.

Opportunities for Developers

Today's Facebook app developers just got very good news -- they will be able to take all of the work they did to build their Facebook apps and create Open Social versions of their apps very easily... and by so doing, get access to a huge new pool of users -- as many as 100 million users just via the initial Open Social partners, more than twice as many users as Facebook has today.

As an app developer, there's no real reason to choose between Facebook and Open Social. It's easy to do both. You've already put in most of the effort -- creating a new set of front-end HTML and JavaScript pages is almost trivial, and that's all you need to do to have your app "port" to Open Social and work within Open Social containers like Ning, Orkut, Hi5, and LinkedIn.

If you have a web site today, and you want to turn your web site into an Open Social app, that's perhaps even easier than "porting" a Facebook app. Just take your current HTML and Javascript front-end pages and create a version of those pages that use the Open Social API. QED.

Consequences for Online Publishers

For independent online publishers the key issue connected to Open Social is: "How am I going to maintain multiple sets of front-end pages for my blog on Facebook and Open Social, on top of what I already need to do to make my site visible to standard Web and mobile viewers?"

According to Marc Andreessen, "most any web site going forward that wants maximum distribution across the largest number of users will have a single back-end, and then multiple sets of front-end pages" and more specifically:

  • One set of standard HTML and JavaScript pages for consumption by normal web browser.
  • Another set of HTML and JavaScript pages that use the Open Social API's Javascript calls for consumption with Open Social containers/social networks.
  • A third set of pages in FBML (Facebook Markup Language) that use Facebook's proprietary APIs for consumption within Facebook as a Facebook app.
  • Perhaps a fourth set of pages adapted for the Apple iPhone and/or other mobile devices.
  • The good news about all this, as Marc Andreessen also notes, is that these web pages can all be generated and served "by the same back end code", making the effort to develop individual front ends for each different platform a kid's game.



    Zachary Rodgers writes on Clickz:

    "Some have characterized the move as an attempt to undermine Facebook through an alliance with various second and third tier social nets (update: top social net MySpace is officially in as well) and some application developers (i.e. "ganging up"), a few bloggers have argued it will fail owing to Google's vested interest in the market and the low audience share of OpenSocial's early partners.

    Should the project succeed, marketers will be able to maintain branded applications on various social networking platforms without employing armies of developers."

    This is very, very good for the web. Open Social is the kind of standard that web developers love, and can easily use.

    It builds on HTML and Javascript, many people can support it, and it will be interoperable.

    Richard MacManus writes:

    "For developers there are lots of benefits. They can build an app that easily works across all the Open Social partners. And they can use normal HTML, Javascript and Flash - instead of the proprietary languages Facebook forces developers to use.

    It's not entirely clear yet what the benefits will be to users. I assume there will be some interoperability - e.g. when a user joins up to a Ning social network, there may be hooks into their Friendster profile and data. Will this be the full 'export' functionality that industry people like Marc Canter have been crying out for? It remains to be seen."

    Michael Arrington, CEO of Techcrunch notes: "As more and more of these platforms launch, developers have difficult choices to make. There are costs associated with writing and maintaining applications for these social networks. Most developers will choose one or two platforms and ignore the rest, based on a simple cost/benefit analysis.

    Google wants to create an easy way for developers to create an application that works on all social networks. And if they pull it off, they'll be in the center, controlling the network."

    Marc Andreessen, Netscape inventor and now head of social networking platform Ning (one of the early adopters of the new Open Social platform benefits), stresses these points:

    "No standard can possibly anticipate all of the different use cases and scenarios people will think up.

    Standards that try to anticipate all of the different use cases fail, because they are too complex and generally impossible to implement.

    Standards that standardize behavior that is clearly standard, while leaving open the ability to innovate on top, succeed. The history of this kind of thing is quite clear, and Open Social is on the right side...

    ...Developers will easily write to both Facebook and Open Social, and have every reason to do so -- in fact, 100+ million reasons to do so."

    Finally, if you like me, like to question a bit everything that is too good or shining, here is an insightful comment from Andy Beard that I highly recommend reading: "If Google ultimately have all your online activities inter-connected and indexed, they are going to know absolutely everything about you online, and they are quite capable of making mistakes.

    If you haven't read Cory Doctorow's amazing portrayal of Google, when he asked "What If Google Were Evil" in "Scroogled" I suggest you reserve 20 minutes to do so."

    Google Campfire One video on Open Social - (for developers)

    duration: 57'

    Recommended Readings

    Marc Andreessen - Open Social: Social Applications For The Web Are Now Coming

    Marc Andreessen - Open Social: screencast and screenshots

    Wired - Google Aims to Break Open the Closed World of Social Networking

    Clickz - What's Google's OpenSocial Project Mean for Marketers?

    TechCrunch - Details Revealed: Google OpenSocial To Launch Thursday

    Read/Write Web - Google OpenSocial: The Third Place

    Andy Beard - Google Reputation Management Disaster With Open Social

    Also to check out:

    OpenSocial documentation

    Open Social sandbox for testing apps

    Open Social Web Bill of Rights

    Originally written by for Master New Media and titled "Open Social: Google's New Social Networking Platform - What Is It And Why It Matters"

    Readers' Comments    
    2009-10-11 09:45:22


    “I wanted to share with you SociaLAVA (@socialava) – a great community tool – that lets you stay on your website and to increase your traffic and analyze your user social information”

    sociaLAVA link

    2007-11-19 06:28:10


    I am very thankful to you about this article.but one thing i noticed that you did not told any information about how to make container inside my web page and how it intracts with other social apps.
    Reply me since i am interested in this.

    thanking you

    posted by Robin Good on Friday, November 2 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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