Why Google Turned Into a Social Butterfly
FACEBOOK is an island. A most convivial island, with one’s classmates, friends, workmates and family members close at hand. An island that since May has been enlivened with entertaining fauna and flora in the form of minisoftware applications. But it’s still an island.
Suppose, however, that you could leave the island compound of a social networking site and take your network of friends, and friends of friends, anywhere on the Web? This is what makes Google’s announcement last week of a new alliance of companies so enticing — the possibility that social networking will become ubiquitous.
Google’s vision — “Social Will Be Everywhere” — is more compelling than anything Facebook could possibly devise. Who wouldn’t prefer the unlimited freedom to take one’s own trusted circle anywhere on the Web, as opposed to the cramped confines of island life?
And when has an island economy, even a well-provisioned one, ever matched the offerings of the entire Web? (Just ask AOL.)
A long, long time ago — last Monday, that is — Facebook seemed a much larger land mass than it ever actually was. That was when it was celebrating its ability to command a generous $15 billion valuation while pocketing a $240 million investment from Microsoft. Speculation abounded that when Facebook unveiled its new advertising platform this Tuesday, the company would soon have the ability to print money, offering up to advertisers audiences with any desired characteristics, based on the personal information that Facebook residents disclose on their profiles.
At that point, Facebook and other social networking sites appeared to be the only companies in a position to instill fear in Google. The sites tend to be the place where many members head first when they go online, and many end up staying right there. The sites also hamper Google’s ability to meet its grand charter of organizing the world’s information and making it available to all; the Google search crawler is not allowed to land on most social networking islands and gather data about what island residents are saying and doing.
Google has a social networking site of its own, Orkut, named after Orkut Buyukkokten, a Google engineer; it was introduced in January 2004. Measured in worldwide page views, it is in sixth place, with about 25 million unique visitors in September, according to comScore. But it remains unknown to most Americans: more than half of its members live in Brazil. Google has no idea how to use the popularity of a Portuguese-language site in one hemisphere to create a success closer to home in Mountain View, Calif. (Neither do I.)
In a bravura switch of strategy, Google left its own island to embrace open standards that belong to no one company. Its initiative, which it calls OpenSocial, is an appeal to software developers and Web sites to cooperate in adopting a single set of software standards for the little software widgets that can add a social-networking layer to all Web sites. Agreement on a standard would save users from the aggravation of joining multiple networks and save developers from the aggravation of writing code that works only with specific sites. Unlike Facebook’s programming requirements, Google’s use nonproprietary programming languages.
The decision by MySpace, the No. 1 social networking site in the world, with more than 100 million unique visitors in September, to join OpenSocial gives Google an impressive assembly of social networking partners. The group includes Bebo, the No. 1 networking site in Britain, as well as SixApart, Hi5, Friendster, LinkedIn and Ning — and Orkut, of course. Google also signed up some other participants, like Salesforce.com, that are not social networking sites but which welcome social widgets. If Facebook chooses to remain a holdout, it will not be as the head of a countercoalition but as a cranky recluse.
Google’s self-interest is plain enough: it does not want Web users to disappear from its radar when they head off to proprietary social networking islands. Incidentally, if software based on OpenSocial specifications spreads throughout the Web, and if users are permitted to assume more control over how their personal information is used and sold, it is possible to imagine a day when all sites on the Web are equipped to utilize one’s social network, regardless of where it originated. These are not small if’s, of course, but it is also possible to imagine members receiving feeds about what friends are doing and updating others about their own activities while roving far from the island. Why spend time on a social networking site if its functionality can be made portable?
Usually, coalitions are collections of also-rans, trying to challenge the industry leader. Why would MySpace, owned by the News Corporation, elect to throw its considerable influence behind OpenSocial? In the future, its primary competitor might not be Facebook, now No. 2, nor any other island-state, but rather the entire Web, endowed with social-network awareness based on open standards. So far, every time the Web has matched up against a proprietary alternative, the Web has prevailed.
I spoke early last week with Joe Kraus, Google’s director of product management, who oversees OpenSocial. The long-term vision, he said, was to enable social networks to be portable: “You want your friends to go with you — you don’t want them to be locked up.”
What would be possible if social networking were freed from social network sites? Mr. Kraus offered an illustration: “Imagine how much better Craigslist would be if your friends were with you, and friends of friends,” permitting one to hone in on listings posted by those in one’s most trusted group. He said the ability to add a layer of social relationships to a site like Craigslist “takes an impersonal site and makes it personal.”
Indeed, it is an intriguing example of what’s possible, but the fact that he used a hypothetical one — Craigslist has not joined OpenSocial — suggests how early it is in Google’s effort to spread “social” everywhere.
The more that one’s personal information is used around the Web, of course, the more opportunity for misuse. When I asked Mr. Kraus why Google had not prepared its own Web sites to show off the capabilities of OpenSocial, he said that the company was moving with deliberate care to make sure that privacy protections were securely in place. “Trust builds up over a very long time,” he said, “and can be lost very quickly.”