Thursday, August 2, 2012

Will social network federate?

There are a few horror stories on developing apps on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn's public API.  Among them Dalton Caldwell's recent experience dealing with Facebook has been making Hacker News headlines.  Caldwell wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg and posted it on his blog after he has been advised to either join Facebook or stop using Facebook Open API.  Caldwell created an app that looked similar to Facebook App Center using API, and he believed that Facebook changed their tactic from supporting his efforts to cutting his access off to his project unless he joins Facebook on acqui-hire term.

This story reminded me of the question that I posed to myself earlier: Will social network like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn federate to create network of social networks?

If social networking sites truly value user contribution and would like to increase utility of their social networks, then federation seems like no brainer.

It looked like Twitter was leading this federation effort by integrating with Facebook as well as LinkedIn.  But we now know that Twitter was not interested in increasing the utility of social network as a whole.  Instead it seemed that Twitter was interested in expanding its user base.  Today Twitter integrates only with Facebook, and there is no Facebook-to-LinkedIn and Twitter-to-LinkedIn integration.

Will social network federation happen?

Probably not.  Unless something drastically changes, like actually getting implemented and having built critical user base, federation will not happen on its own.

There are a few reasons:

1. Economic reason

Facebook and LinkedIn are public companies and Twitter has raised too much money from too many investors to remain private for too long.  They need to make sure all their content consumption happens through their site so that they have well-known way to monetize user's traffic.  Look at how Facebook stocks are getting hammered because of lack of concrete monetization plan on Facebook website and their mobile app.  Twitter is going through the same phase except that it's getting ready to go public.  Sharing content to be consumed on someone else's platform does not make sense when everyone is squeezed to maximize their immediate revenue target.

2. Contexts are different

Users have been using Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn differently.  With Facebook, users think of personal social graph; with Twitter, users think of real-time interest-based news network; and with LinkedIn people use it as professional networking site.  Because each of them are used so differently, users do not see the need to share personal content from Facebook with LinkedIn connections, for example.

3. No third party identity management solution (privacy issue)

Privacy concern is also huge.  Connecting major social networks means that somehow user identity information will be propagated across multiple social networks.  Not only government will be monitoring closely how user traffic gets shared across the network, but also users will be very interested in how their data can be discovered by people who are not connected on the same network.  If there had been a third party identity management solution that lets user control their persona, then it may have been possible.  But we don't have such a system today (perhaps will fill this gap?).

Until any of these conditions change, let's remind ourselves one thing.  Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are free services.  By using them, we are volunteering to be treated as their asset by providing our data.  Therefore, none of major social networks have incentives to share their number one asset with other players.

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