Last week, Facebook announced that it had amassed 500 million users, a formidable portion of the global Internet audience. But even as Mark Zuckerberg and company celebrates, others are busy trying to uproot Facebook's popularity by establishing a set of open standards to share Facebook-like features across the Internet.
Just like open standards for email and the web broke users free from proprietary closed networks of the early 1990s, so too could a new set of standards allow people to share their thoughts, photos and comments across the Internet, regardless of what social networking services they use, argued Evan Prodromou, head of open source microblogging software provider StatusNet, during the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON), held in Portland, Oregon last week.
Open source social, or "open social," networking services are not new. StatusNet has been running an open source implementation of its Twitter-like microblogging service for several years, called Indenti.ca. But no open-source service has gained Facebook- or Twitter-proportioned success.
Now, the developers behind such services are changing their pitch: Instead of stressing the open-source nature of their services and software, they are emphasizing how the interoperability of such offerings could free users -- and their data -- from the locks of any one social-networking service.
Prior to OSCON, a number of social-networking software developers gathered for an informal summit to discuss interoperability. They developed a simple test case to show how federation of social-networking services could share data.
In their example, a person uploads a photo of another person on some photo-sharing service, tagging the photo with the subject's name. The subject of that photo should automatically see the photo on his or her own preferred photo-sharing service. A friend of these two individuals who uses yet another service could see the photo and add a comment, and the message can then be relayed to the two other services.
"A federated social network would be a network of networks, using open protocols and a uniform name space that would allow anyone to participate," Prodromou said.
Such interoperability should be an inevitability, given the history of the Internet, Prodromou argued. Once some company-specific commercial technology gets really popular, it tends to be replaced by a set of open standards that multiple service providers use to offer generic versions of that feature.
Email is one example of this. "Email in 1992, 1993 was characterised by separation. We had large consumer services like CompuServe and Prodigy, with millions of users," Prodromou said. "It was used as a retention mechanism. You had to be on AOL [America Online] to e-mail someone on AOL." Governments and universities and single operator bulletin board systems (BBSes) also offered e-mail, though it was difficult relay messages across different systems.