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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 August 2007, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
Pull down the walled gardens
Facebook is popular in English-speaking countries
Internet law professor Michael Geist says the walled gardens of social networks should be pulled down.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have become part of the daily routine for millions of internet users. The popularity of these networks, however, has resulted in an unfortunate by-product - the mushrooming number of requests that come from dozens of these sites.

While not quite spam, the steady stream of requests for Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, Dopplr travellers, or Plaxo contact updates, highlights the lack of interoperability between social network sites and significantly undermines their usefulness.

The interoperability issue is likely to become more prominent in the months ahead as hundreds of specialty social networking sites, covering virtually every area of interest from dogs to cooking, jostle for new users.

In fact, services such as Ning now enable anyone to create their own social network site.

The result is that internet users are repeatedly required to re-enter their personal information for each new network they join and find that each network is effectively a "walled garden", where the benefits of the network are artificially limited by the inability to link a friend in Facebook with one in MySpace.

These limitations are particularly striking when viewed from a global perspective. While Facebook is a leader in the UK (as well as in Canada, South Africa, and Norway), nearly a dozen other sites hold leadership positions in other countries.

These include MySpace (United States, Australia, Mexico, and Italy), Bebo (Ireland and New Zealand) , Cyworld (South Korea), Friendster (Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore) , Fotolog (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay), Hi5 (Colombia, Ecuador, and Thailand), Mixi (Japan), Orkut (Brazil, India, and Paraguay) , Skyblog (France, Belgium, Senegal), Studiverzeichnis (Germany, Austria) and Vkontakte (Russia).

The result is that social networking sites are far more "local" that is often appreciated.

The better approach - for users and the sites themselves - would be to work toward a world of interoperable social networking

Unlike the global internet, which enables virtually the entire world to connect, social networks have created very large, localised communities with far more limited international interaction.

The obvious solution is to facilitate greater interoperability between social networking sites, thereby enabling users to better control their personal information and reduce the need for duplication, while simultaneously enhancing the value of all social networks by removing the current barriers.

This suggestion is not new - experts began commenting on the desirability of open social networks years ago - yet there are reasons to believe that the opportunity for greater interoperability may have finally arrived.

First, the focus on the benefits of interoperability cut across a wide range of technological issues including recent calls for interoperable wireless networks and the music industry's recognition of the need to offer downloads that operate with all music players.

Moreover, the frustrations associated with the initial lack of instant messaging interoperability serves as an important reminder of how the issue resonates with consumers.

Second, there are signs that the social networking industry recognises the value of openness.

Facebook moved toward an open platform for software developers this spring, enabling third party developers to bring thousands of new Facebook applications to market. Similarly, Plaxo recently launched a service called Pulse, a social networking aggregator that works with many popular sites.

Different social networks need different log ins and passwords

Third, there is mounting interest in developing open standards for social networks that would facilitate greater interoperability.

For example, the Liberty Alliance and Project Higgins are two privacy-focused identity management initiatives that claim to provide users with the ability to manage their personal information across social networks in a secure and trusted manner.

The irony of the current generation of online social networks is that although their premise is leveraging the internet to connect people, their own lack of interconnectedness is stifling their potential.

Some services may believe that it is in their economic interest to stick to a walled garden approach; however, given the global divisions within the social networking world, the mix of language, user preferences, and network effects, it is unlikely that one or two services will capture the global marketplace. The better approach - for users and the sites themselves - would be to work towards a world of interoperable social networking.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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