I Don’t Get the Open Social Graph Meme (and why the Facebook “Tax” is OK by Me)

Every now and then some meme goes around the blogosphere that I just don’t get (check out this post, this post, or this post if you want a good summary). Right now, that’s how I feel about the “open social graph” meme that keeps talking about how we need an open system for social networking relationship information that is portable and open to a wider set of applications. I’m not sure why I should care about this. At the end of the day, I don’t care about whether a product is open or closed – I just care that it works and meets my needs. In everyday life I have lots of products where I pay a “tax” in terms of flexibility in exchange for using a proprietary, integrated system. Before the openness zealots jump all over me, I’d like to point out that I, like many consumers, are happy to pay this “tax” (and it’s a real tax, by the way – you often pay a premium in terms of price or foregone functionality) provided that it’s not egregious and the integrated offering provides real value. Think the iTunes + iPod system – it costs more but it just works. The same is true of the Blackberry, TiVo, and most of the other products I have around my house or on my desk. For me, having functional products that are easy to use trumps any ideological conversations about openness.

For a good counterfactual, look at the home PC. It’s probably the most open device that people own. And it’s probably the biggest headache as well. Technology has become such a part of our lives that the “do it for me” crowd is much larger than the “do it yourself” crowd. Building tools for the DIFM crowd means that things have to just work and that it’s worthwhile to have things just work if it means the loss of some theoretical flexibility.

The other thing to keep in mind is that companies who get too aggressive in taxing consumers for the benefit of the closed system end up sowing the seeds for their own downfall. All of the enterprise software vendors who made big profits in the 1990s selling proprietary software are having to cope with a world in which open source is a real threat – their consumers decided that the tax was too high and started looking for alternatives.

Social networking is too new to benefit from openness. Right now, I like the Facebook tax – they’ve built a great application that just works really well and it’s open enough for my tastes. Given the stakes, I’m sure competitors will emerge if that tax ever starts to feel too steep.
I don’t think you can beat Facebook just by being open. Openness, like anything else, is just another product feature. If you want to beat them, you need to build a better product and one that does something they can’t easily enable. I don’t see any obvious answers there.

  • Ryan Kiskis

    I definitely agree on the willingness to pay a tax for using a closed system that really works. I’d much rather have a great experience like Facebook than worry about yet another setup/configuration/maintenance process (this time on my social network, no less :P)

    But I think the point of the open social graph isn’t necessarily to just beat Facebook. It may seem like Google is trying that, but I’d guess they’re just trying to make the next leap. What is the next killer app going to be? I’d argue it’s not a social network at all. It’ll be something else, some other experience or focus that we don’t even know yet. What’s different about this new killer app (and, for that matter, every new app once a distributed network is deployed) is that it will come with your friends already built in. Other developers will build new, great, easy-to-use closed apps on top of this open social network. The social network will become the utility, like a development framework or drive backups – it’s just there.

    Now Facebook would love to be that provider. But they also can’t let go of their core business – they’re not rolling in enough cash to really try and dominate new areas at a loss yet. So I can see a scenario where Google et al release an open social platform, many many people start developing on it (many more than are currently developing Facebook apps, since these apps can run anywhere and be monetized any way and aren’t at the whim of Facebook as to how they can contact their users) and then Facebook is left either having to open up entirely and compete with Google on how easily they’ll give up their users and pageviews to 3rd parties, or face irrelevance as people migrate on to the next big thing that isn’t fundamentally squeezed into the interface of a social network.

  • Ryan Kiskis

    I definitely agree on the willingness to pay a tax for using a closed system that really works. I’d much rather have a great experience like Facebook than worry about yet another setup/configuration/maintenance process (this time on my social network, no less :P) But I think the point of the open social graph isn’t necessarily to just beat Facebook. It may seem like Google is trying that, but I’d guess they’re just trying to make the next leap. What is the next killer app going to be? I’d argue it’s not a social network at all. It’ll be something else, some other experience or focus that we don’t even know yet. What’s different about this new killer app (and, for that matter, every new app once a distributed network is deployed) is that it will come with your friends already built in. Other developers will build new, great, easy-to-use closed apps on top of this open social network. The social network will become the utility, like a development framework or drive backups – it’s just there. Now Facebook would love to be that provider. But they also can’t let go of their core business – they’re not rolling in enough cash to really try and dominate new areas at a loss yet. So I can see a scenario where Google et al release an open social platform, many many people start developing on it (many more than are currently developing Facebook apps, since these apps can run anywhere and be monetized any way and aren’t at the whim of Facebook as to how they can contact their users) and then Facebook is left either having to open up entirely and compete with Google on how easily they’ll give up their users and pageviews to 3rd parties, or face irrelevance as people migrate on to the next big thing that isn’t fundamentally squeezed into the interface of a social network.

  • charles

    Ryan,

    Wow, that’s one of the best comments I’ve seen on my blog in a long time. I agree that the ability to bring your friends to new applications is a key to the future of social media applications.

    There are two questions I have, though. I am “old” by web 2.0 standards and you could bootstrap my social network just by looking at my email inbox. Even if you didn’t have access to my message stream, you could just give me a nifty contact importer and I would be all set. Why isn’t coarse contact information sufficient to make this bootstrap work? If Facebook is the only place you have friend information, you could be screwed – I’m assuming people keep up with people on IM, email, phone, etc.

    The other argument/question I have is whether people are going to re-invest in creating social maps to take advantage of an open platform. So, if people don’t recreate open social maps, will developers build applications with the expectation that people will migrate? And if there aren’t any good apps, will people work on creating open maps? How do you crack that cycle?

  • charles

    Ryan, Wow, that’s one of the best comments I’ve seen on my blog in a long time. I agree that the ability to bring your friends to new applications is a key to the future of social media applications. There are two questions I have, though. I am “old” by web 2.0 standards and you could bootstrap my social network just by looking at my email inbox. Even if you didn’t have access to my message stream, you could just give me a nifty contact importer and I would be all set. Why isn’t coarse contact information sufficient to make this bootstrap work? If Facebook is the only place you have friend information, you could be screwed – I’m assuming people keep up with people on IM, email, phone, etc. The other argument/question I have is whether people are going to re-invest in creating social maps to take advantage of an open platform. So, if people don’t recreate open social maps, will developers build applications with the expectation that people will migrate? And if there aren’t any good apps, will people work on creating open maps? How do you crack that cycle?