Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts on social network and its API

I have been thinking about what API meant for social networks.  Social in nutshell is about identities, sharing content and engaging with readers in two way conversation.  It made existing blogging concept easier to adopt and more accessible to millions of users.  While popularizing publishing and subscription model with social relationships, social found new exciting applications like user-reported breaking news network, 1-1 messaging networks, and photo and video sharing services.

Blogging platforms were available well before social networks.  But it took Facebook and Twitter for content publishing and subscription model to really take off.  People saw what they can do by easily sharing updates with friends and families.  Technology (publishing and subscription) disappeared in the background and the user benefit (staying connected with friends and families) emerged.

Social API on the other hand is all about allowing developers to integrate social network identities and social graphs stored in each social networking service.  Social API is there to allow other applications to incorporate what social network has done to blogging platform.  Social API made it for social applications easy to use identities, share information and get engagements from people around us.

It allowed many applications to introduce social component by plugging into social network APIs.  What could have been a run-of-the-mill word puzzle turned into real-time family room board game that could be played across cyberspace.  Flower shop applications knew before I did that my mother's birthday is coming up and reminded me to send her bouquet.  Social API instantly allowed developers to run their applications in context of user's own social graph.  These applications in turn provided richer environment for the social network and its users.

Developers could focus on building the best possible applications within their domain.  They no longer had to think about how to collect social identity and social relationship data.  All social data were already provided to the social networks by many millions of users, neatly formatted into JSON structure and available to be integrated into their applications.  Social API is what made many thousands of applications to be social without creating their own social network.

This led to explosion of social applications.  Everyone started integrating social API.  Zynga made business out of applying social API to simple board games.  Websites integrated social widgets to share information to and from social networks.  Allowing visitors to share the content through social networks became a best practice among SEO-minded sites.

Social API was not just a boon for application developers and users.  Social API is what allowed social networks to collect additional data without investing whole lot of resource on developing the next Farmville.  By allowing social data to be accessible via API, social networks could collect application usage information and monitor the submitted data.  In effect social applications were paying the networks by providing usage data on user's behalf.

Then when social applications began to take shape of their own social networks the social networks took a notice.  They revised the API terms of use to ensure that APIs could be only used in a certain applications.  In effect social networks started to dictate kind of applications that are allowed on their social API.  The API capability remained the same, but developers have to think twice whether their application can possibly run into the network's business model today and tomorrow.

Now social API is not what it used to be.  The incentive for super social networks like Facebook and Twitter to share social data and get paid by data in return from the applications is almost zero.  They have their sight on monetizing their user base and traffic, and their focus shifted to winning the mobile user's choice as the most popular apps of their own.  Social API is no longer the growth strategy that will move the needle for these super social networks, and it started to show up on their business decisions.

It is not yet clear that developers have an alternative.  They can either go with super social networks knowing that their application could be disabled as a competing product, or they can go with smaller up-and-coming social networks that caters to social networking users and application developers, or choose not to integrate social component.  None of them are good choices from developer's perspective.

Most developers are still going with super social networks because the other choices are not acceptable one.  While they are aware of the risk, lack of alternative is leaving them no choice but to work with them.  But because of uncertainty, many app developers are hedging their bets on multiple networks or not entirely dependent on one social network as their distribution channel.  This means new and exciting apps are increasingly not entirely relying on super social networks to get themselves bootstrapped.  And this is further eroding the richness of social application ecosystem available on top of social APIs.

I am actually quite excited about the changes ahead.  This means there will be more diversification of social networks, therefore I am hopeful that more context-ful social networks will emerge in the future.  And I am wishing that the next time around, social APIs will be designed and maintained with users and developers in mind.

1 comment:

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