Online social networks try to play nice with others

Facebook, MySpace, and Google take stabs at being more open to rival sites, but will the walls truly come down?

By , Contributor for The Christian Science Monitor

Imagine a Web where your profile comes with you. Rather than manage contact info, friend lists, and descriptions of yourself across several websites, you’d maintain an overarching account that would be open to whomever you like.

For years, “open Web” enthusiasts have argued the importance and inevitability of a shift away from the “walled garden” atmosphere of social networks such as Facebook, and toward a more connected Web. This way, your information belongs to you, not your social networks.

This month, MySpace, Facebook, and Google consecutively announced their stabs at a more open Web.

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MySpace’s Data Availability and Facebook Connect look almost identical: The social networks will share their users’ information with a few partner sites so that when someone updates his profile, those changes are automatically reflected on all the other sites. Friend lists will also follow you, although the details are murky at this early stage.

Google’s Friend Connect looks a bit different: Since the search giant lacks a major social-networking hub, Google has decided to basically lend its programming code to any website that wants social features. A user can go to a participating website, sign in using an account ID (from Googletalk, Orkut, and Hi5 for now – the latter two being popular networks abroad), and view, invite, and mingle with friends through the site.

Google launched a trial of Friend Connect with a few small websites, including the home page of indie musician Ingrid Michaelson.

Before plugging into Friend Connect, Ms. Michaelson’s site was little more than a place holder for information, says Lynn Grossman, the pop artist’s manager. Her music was primarily marketed through social networks, which were great for attracting new listeners, but Ms. Grossman had little control over the information presented to potential fans, not to mention the ads that MySpace and Facebook stick on the pages.

Now that Google has empowered Michaelson’s website, fans can sign in through their social networks and invite friends to check out her music. The increased traffic has encouraged Grossman to put more energy into the website.

Although users could previously post comments on Michaelson’s site, Grossman views the Friend Connect initiative as taking that basic social interaction to the next level.

“The biggest change is that we now lead people back to our website,” she says. “This brings your entire posse with you.”

She anticipates that if Friend Connect is successful, it will make Michaelson less reliant on networks like MySpace to promote her music.

Google clearly is making great friends with small website owners with this move, but it’s not pure altruism. Neither is it the ideal version of an open Web that some have in mind.

“What we are seeing is a brawl over who is going to host users’ profiles,” says Dawn DeBruyn, head of WeMeUs.com, a site that helps professionals manage their connections across various social networks. “The assumption is that this will happen from one central location, with each player trying to lock it down in their site, or services in Google’s case.”

Perhaps that’s why Facebook, initially listed as one of the sites that would work with Google Friend Connect, has suddenly banned the service. And why shouldn’t they ban it? Google is effectively trying to co-opt its status as a dominant directory for user information. Facebook’s official response is that it is looking out “for the privacy of [its] users.”

So what now? The Google initiative may fail, once again separating small website owners such as Michaelson from her network of friends and fans. Facebook and MySpace’s push to extend their fence while still maintaining their walled gardens might eventually lead them toward a public relations backlash.

“Overall I think that all of these companies will have to get over it,” says Ms. DeBruyn, “in spite of their efforts to the contrary, because the movement to the open Web and decentralized storage and distribution of information is inevitable, the only question is how quickly will it happen?”

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