Could Google+ be the first prominent open social network?

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google_plus_open_networkGoogle+ has an incredible amount of buzz surrounding it at the moment. But one element the young network lacks is open standards compliance.

It’s not unique to Google+, as almost all social networks for that matter have this problem. But Google is in a unique position to advance the cause of open standards for social networking.

To put it plainly, open web standards help make the Web and its services run smoothly. Organizations like W3C and the IETF help establish these so online services can work in a broad fashion. Look at e-mail: Because e-mail works on a standard protocol, you can easily send a note to someone that uses a different e-mail provider.

“It can be best explained as having a common, agreed-upon format,” Charles McCathieNevile, Chief Standards Officer at Opera, said in an interview with VentureBeat. “If we both agree to speak English, then we can communicate. And this extends to all web standards.”

With social networks, there are no standard ways to communicate from network to network. I cannot, for example, send a message from Facebook and have it land in someone’s Twitter direct messages box. Additionally, I can’t login to Facebook using a Google+ account or be notified that someone mentioned me on LinkedIn while using Twitter.

These are all closed systems that require you to sign up so you can participate in a single service. The more users consistently using that one service, the more market share it can consume and the more money it can charge for advertising and other monetized services. So there’s little incentive for a player like Facebook, which has 750 million users, to open its protocols to interact with other services. It wants users to spend its time interacting on Facebook, not interacting with Facebook users from Google+.

But Google+ is so new and has such small market share, it might actually have a reason to go open. If it can widely open its API and network, and even a few other networks or websites adopt those same standards, that could provide an incentive for all social networks—even Facebook—to join in.

What Google+ should do first to open up

Edd Dumbill, chair of the Open Source Conference (OSCON), recently explored the idea of Google+ as potentially the first prominent open social network. While Dumbill’s piece is highly speculative, he makes a strong case for why Google would be interested in innovating in this way.

“I don’t believe there should or could be just one social network, Google+,” Dumbill said. “Instead we’re approaching a commoditization of the core social features of identity, sharing, updates and collaboration.”

Dumbill told VentureBeat that Google has several things it needs to do if it wants to truly open Google+ up. One of the most important things it must do is open up its API and clearly define it so it emphasizes sharing and collaboration.

“The Google+ API should be a forerunner of a standard for interoperating social systems that will let people collaborate across the borders of these systems,” Dumbill said.

Another thing Google needs to do is add Google+ functionality to Google Apps, to make the office and enterprise more social.

“You should be able to share and discuss documents with a circle, and use the information flow in that circle to drive workflow,” Dumbill said. “The idea is that everything, which in real life we might be able to talk about, we can talk about in virtual life.”

But how likely is it?

Google’s history suggests it is interested in integrating open web standards and supporting the open web. In 2007, Google introduced OpenSocial, an API for building social applications across platforms.

And just a month ago, Google launched Google Takeout, a service that lets a Google account holder download all of his or her saved inormation from Google’s servers. People can download all manner of data related to their Gmail contacts, their Google+ activity stream, Picasa photo albums, and Google profiles. This sort of action shows the beginnings of a web standard for data exchanges.

Joseph Smarr, a technical lead on the Google+ team and an open standards enthusiast, said a personal goal of his is to make the entire social web more open. Smarr previously worked on OpenID and OAuth, two open protocols that allow data to be shared across networks. He said it’s possible for Google+ to become the first open social network, but that it would be a complicated road to get to there.

“It’s hard but achievable,” Smarr said. “There are usability challenges, and it can get complicated. For example, if you login to Google with your Yahoo account, what features are then available to you?”

Smarr declined to tell us when the Google+ API would open up and said there was no established time line. Game developers, among others, have been eagerly awaiting an API that would let them build applications on top of the network. An API would be a a step towards extensibility, but not necessarily openness, because it could be based (like Facebook’s API) entirely on a private network, or (like email protocols) on open, interoperable standards.

McCathieNevile suggests Google has such enormous resources that it could pull off an openness project without too much effort. He said it’s a matter of re-coding, establishing an open API, and having engineers come in to make it compatible for broad-scale use.

Plus, McCathieNevile suggests it would be a relatively inexpensive process for Google. “It’s extremely unlikely to break Google’s bank or even be a large enough amount that the accounting team would notice,” he said.

In a final note that highlights the realism of the Google+ open network idea, Smarr told us to remember how early we are in the network’s life. Google+ is a month old, and people need to have realistic expectations of what it will accomplish in the months and years ahead.

“We have a ton of basic stuff to do before we can tackle even bigger challenges,” Smarr said. “And how people are actually using the service will determine what we end up doing.”

Be sure to check out the rest of our recent series covering Google+, its features, and how the network fits into our social ecosystem.


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