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The Sound & Fury of Open Social

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While Google’s Open Social initiative has caused a surge of commentary, it hasn’t raised much more than a ripple in the PR/communications corner of the blogosphere.

OpenSocial I’ve read a few posts about it by PR bloggers, but otherwise Open Social seems to have produced a giant yawn.

Several explanations could account for the seeming lack of interest. Open Social is definitely not ready for prime time; it’s not a tool you can put to use right now. Open Social’s primary advantage involves widget-like applications; not many companies have embraced widgets for PR/communication purposes. Not that many have created widgets for marketing or advertising. In fact, not too many companies have developed a communication strategy for social networks, or even integrated social networks into other communication strategies. There could be other reasons for the seeming apathy among communicators.

Open Social, though, is worth paying attention to, particularly for communicators working to help their companies benefit from the current communication ecosystem.

In case you haven’t heard of it—or you have but don’t quite understand what it is—Open Social is an initiative from Google to introduce new open APIs designed to work in social networks. APIs are Application Programming Interfaces, which Wikipedia defines as “a source code interface that an operating system or library provides to support requests for services to be made of it by computer programs.” Google is well known for opening its APIs to anyone who wants to use them; the Google Maps API is the best-known example.

Reading about the initiative, it seems there’s a lot that might eventually be done with it. For example, at some point you may be able to access your friends from across multiple social networks from within any one network. For now, though, the benefit (or, at least, all the discussion) is about third-party applications. If you have a Facebook account and you’ve used something like iLike or you’ve “poked” or been poked by a friend, you’ve interacted with such an application. They’re not unlike the widgets you can add to your blog or website, but they are limited to use within a social network.

These applications didn’t exist four months ago, when Facebook introduced a proprietary platform for such applications. The Open Social APIs, on the other hand, allow application developers to use a non-proprietary common code to create such apps that will work the same way on all the social networks that accommodate the platform.

So far 26 networks have signed on to the initiative, including market-leader MySpace, Beebo, and Orkut (the Google-owned network dominated by Brazilian users). Google has a clear interest in doing something to change the direction social networking is headed, which is all Facebook’s way these days. Facebook is a “walled garden,” with its 50 million user profiles, its groups, and its networks hidden away from Google’s search engines; no personalized Google ads on Facebook, where more and more people are spending more and more of their online time. Facebook evidently was never invited to Google’s Open Social party, and some have speculated that Open Social is a death knell for Facebook.

I think that’s absurd for a number of reasons, mainly that people won’t choose their social network based on applications. Ultimatley, most of Facebook’s 50 million users couldn’t care less whether their apps are written in a proprietary or open format. Facebook was gaining huge momentum before applications were ever introduced. There was good reason for that success, mainly a usable interface that made it easy to build and join networks and communicate with your friends. (Ironically, an Open Social group is already very active—on Facebook.) If all my friends (or, in my case, colleagues) and the groups through which we interact are on Facebook, why would I want to leave? Open Social applications on crappy social networks won’t make them any less crappy or more attractive.

If it’s applications you want, though, Facebook has plenty of them, and as long as its population and growth rate continue to be attractive, people will continue building them, even if they are now building for the Open Social platform as well. Ultimately, though, despite all the hoopla over applications, 87% of application usage has been going to just 84 applications (according to Tim O’Reilly; only 45 applications have attracted more than 100,000 users. So, just building an application is no guarantee anybody will ever add it to their profile or that anyone will pay attention to it.

And, of course, Facebook can always decide to support the Open Social APIs.

None of the Facebook applications that led to this whole initiative are coming from mainstream businesses or contain bigtime advertising anyway. They let you play Scrabble, share musical tastes, edit Facebook photos, share your political views and rate and review movies. So far, not a lot of companies have seen much value in being part of that equation.

Which isn’t to suggest that the Open Social initiative has no appeal. The estimated 200 million people who belong to social networks other than Facebook will now be able to use apps. That’s a total audience of 250 million people, which may be enough to motivate some bigger players to jump into the socnet application waters. If they do, we can count on as many as four different coding requirements, one for Facebook, one for Open Social, one for your centralized website and one for mobile use. And they won’t have to create online one Open Social version; it will make more sense to tailor each one to the network on which it will reside. Fortunately, writing one of these applications represents 95% of the work involved in writing the others.

That’s one big reason communicators should keep an eye on Open Social. As a means of reaching audiences who are visiting centralized dot-com sites with less and less frequency, building applications that bring your content to people where they are will be a compelling alternative. Add to that the fact that LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, and Oracle are among the companies that have signed onto Open Social, and the prospects for more business adoption of socnet applications begin to look brighter. Open Social could even make it easy for business units to create social nework apps for their internal communication efforts.

All of which is a ways down the road. For now, nothing is certain. Plaxo’s first Open Social app was hacked within 45 minutes of deployment and taken out of play shortly afterwards. Other than that, the API’s are still unstable, they haven’t really been tested and their impact on the social network space is nothing more than a lot of speculation. It isn’t even all that open, since the spec isn’t even freely available yet. So I’ll keep an eye on it, but beyond that, it just doesn’t seem to be worth all the over-analysis and posturing it has produced.

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