How to climb over that “Walled Garden” known as Facebook…

Joseph Smarr, Plaxo’s architect, and John McCrea, VP of marketing, talk about their new “online identity aggregator”

Despite us living in an open “Web 2.0” world, there are still popular services we use that still rule our data as their own and keep it locked within their “walled gardens”.

Wait, what’s a Walled Garden?
In Internet-speak, I would explain “walled gardens” as web sites that…
1. Require registering an account to enter,
2. Lets you play and trade information (e.g. personal profile, news from friends),
3. But doesn’t let you use it elsewhere (e.g. personal blogs),
4. And everyone else who wants to see it has to go to Step 1.
5. The idea is to trap users on the site (i.e. to score on advertising).

OK, how about giving me some examples?
Sure! AOL was an infamous example, and it’s losing momentum today (See AOL’s history of layoffs). According to SearchSecurity.com (2004), AOL is generally considered the major, and most successful, practitioner of the walled garden approach. According to a spokesperson from Disney (arguing against the recent AOL – Time Warner merger), 85% of AOL users never leave AOL territory; according to The Economist, almost 40% of the time Americans spend on the Web is within the confines of AOL’s walled garden. Do note that these are old numbers, and they have probably dropped now since more users have left AOL.

Facebook is one of the biggest walled gardens today, which is one major reason why I am careful about spending time on it. Just by looking at their Terms of Service and Privacy Policy gives me the jitters. If you need it in plain English (instead of legalese), check out Legal Andrew’s “Facebook Isn’t Private, and 7 Other Things You Should Know“. BTW, did you know that Facebook employees apparently know what profiles you look at? (hat tip MrBig).

OK, so what can we do about it?
It’s about time we took back ownership, control, and portability of our online identities. From our personal profiles, to status updates, to our friends lists, we should be able to choose where and when we want to share it. Right now most of us may have account with various services, making it hard to manage friends and updates across the board.

Socially “Bridging” Applications
We could use applications like MoodBlast (for Mac) which gives you one-click updating of your status across various services, namely adium, facebook, ichat, jaiku, skype, tumblr, twitter, and yappd. Social web browser, Flock, does a reverse by aggregating friends activities across social networks in your sidebar. I’ve also tried search engine Lijit which has a bevy of neat features, but the neatest of which includes the ability to search within your blog, del.icio.us accounts, etc, as well as that of your social circle (which is likely to have content similar to yours). There might be more of such time-saving apps out there, so if you know any, please drop a comment.

Lifestreaming: Syncing by Replication
As I’ve blogged extensively before, we could also use lifestreaming tools like Jaiku, TwitterFeed, FriendFeed (and many more on Mark Krynsky’s LifeStream Blog) to make it easy for friends in each network to see our activities across all networks. This lifestreaming method is akin to samizdat, which was the clandestine copying and distribution of government-suppressed literature or other media in Soviet-bloc countries. It’s ironic how we’ve resort to using ancient anti-censorship methods in combating controlled spaces in our digital age.

The Social Graph: Return to The Semantic Web
Apparently we’re starting to get back on track with microformats. It’s back the the idea of the semantic web where web content follows a particular standard which allows it to be understood not just by humans, but by computers as well. Scientific American has a good piece on The Semantic Web, explaining how it works. Part of this movement includes a better (deeper) approach to taking control of our online social networks, by having us define content and links we share in terms of relationships and properties.

Relating to this, there’s a new (somewhat confusing) term which embodies our relational selves… it’s called “Social Graph”. This recently stuck with bloggers, social networkers and web developers alike. Brad Fitzpatrick and David Recordon shared their Thoughts on the Social Graph, which they define as “global mapping of everybody and how they’re related”. Check out their page which has a presentation explaining this concept in detail.

On a pragmatic note, Plaxo stands as a great example. I love their address book service which syncs my contacts across all my networks and helps me discover old friends in new ones. They also recently released a working open-source app which they called an Online Identity Consolidator (not sexy, but it works). As mentioned on the Plaxo’s Online Identity Consolidator page…

An important aspect of the open social graph is being able to declare the different sites you use and tie them together. That way, your friends can keep in touch with you across multiple services, and you won’t have to tell each new site what other tools you’re already using.

The easiest way to tell people—and computers—about the sites you use is to link from your home page, blog, and profile pages to the other sites you use. If you add rel=”me” to the link tag, it says “this is another site about me”. Many sites already do this, and services like wordpress make it easy to annotate your links like this.

Plaxo’s Online Identity Consolidator—which you can use here or download the source code and use yourself—starts with one of your web sites and crawls all the rel=”me” links to find the other web pages you want people to know about.

You can try this out for yourself right on their page, but chances are you’d probably find nothing linked to you since you haven’t added any rel=me tags to your links yet. It’s a bit of work, but some web services, like WordPress, have had this all along. Just take a look at the “Links” tab in your WordPress dashboard and you’ll see a “rel” column right there… Never gave it a second look did you? I’ve seen earlier versions of WordPress having an entire XFN section, which I’ve been curious about but it never got popular enough to take off. If you’re wondering what XFN is about…

XHTML Friends Network (XFN) is an HTML microformat developed by Global Multimedia Protocols Group that provides a simple way to represent human relationships using links. XFN enables web authors to indicate relationships to the people in their blogrolls simply by adding one or more keywords as the ‘rel’ attribute to their links

In Conclusion
Popular “wall gardens” like Facebook must either open up, or die. They are likely to milk users for all they’re worth until users figure out how to take back control of their online identity. Competition in the form of Plaxo’s open address book (connecting friends across networks) allow us to become first class citizens once again, instead of being held hostage by the very same services we depend on. I can’t wait to see more services adopt such open social graph / XFN standards.

Update 1: I like Thomas Marban’s roundup in “rel=me is the new social pointer” as well as WIRED’s “Slap in the Facebook: It’s Time for Social Networks to Open Up“. Don’t forget WIRED’s Wiki which shows us how to “Replace Facebook Using Open Social Tools“.

Update 2: More social graphing… Google and Friends to Gang Up on Facebook (Oct 31st, 2007) by rolling out a common set of standards to allow developers to write programs for Google’s Orkut and other social networking Web sites. Meebo also released their “rocket ship”, which are third-party apps that work within meebo’s multi-protocol IM system. Right now Meebo let you make video/audio calls (TokBox), voice chat (Pudding Media), and group voice call (TalkShoe) on meebo, plus you can even create your own live TV show (UStream) to share with your friends!

8 thoughts on “How to climb over that “Walled Garden” known as Facebook…

  1. yay for google’s opensocial, i believe is the right direction, especially when they say it’s not google social, but a possible standard api for all.

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