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.