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Google’s ‘Friend Connect’ Offers a Way to Bring the Social Web Together [Updated]

google.jpgIt seems inevitable at this point that the Web itself will eventually become a broad, interconnected social network like MySpace or Facebook, but without your data being stuck in a corporate garden.

Even the existing corporate gardens seem to recognize that an “open” social network is coming. First MySpace announced its “Data Availability” tools, which allow you use your MySpace profile info on other sites, and then Facebook announced more or less the same thing a day later.

Not to be outdone, Google is announcing a new set of tools known as “Friend Connect” (note that the second link isn’t live yet). Using Friend Connect, any website owner can, according to the press release, “add a snippet of code to his or her site and get social features up and running immediately without programming.”

Among the things you get for your snippet of code are basic social site functionality like “user registration, invitations, members gallery, message posting, and reviews, as well as third-party applications built by the OpenSocial developer community.”

Although there aren’t many details at the moment, the press release claims that Friend Connect will work with existing open data tools like OpenID, OAuth, OpenSocial, as well as proprietary APIs like those from Facebook and MySpace. [Update: Google has released some more details, see below.]

Obviously, since Friend Connect is a full set of APIs, Google has been working on it for some time, so it isn’t strictly a “me too” response to MySpace or Facebook. In fact Friend Connect looks infinitely more useful than either of the toolsets that MySpace and Facebook are talking about releasing, but it still doesn’t solve all the concerns of data portability. With the limited information that’s available, Friend Connect looks to be primarily of interest to other websites that want develop social tools — not something that will allow users to have more control over their data.

Dave Winer, a long time observer of the social web, wrote in response to the MySpace announcement last week:

I wouldn’t pay too much attention to what the big players do here, they will be too constrained by BigCo thought processes, and a desire to appear to be giving stuff away without actually giving anything away.

Which is precisely why you see, for instance, that the bigger names in this space will embrace OpenID from the provider end, but not the consumer end. However, given that Google’s Blogger service is a notable exception to that trend, the Friend Connect tools may end up being more useful than they appear on the surface. Another thing that isn’t clear is how Friend Connect fits with Google’s existing Social Graph API which covers some of the same ground. It would appear that thus far the two services remain separate.

Not to pick on iLike, but I find their blurb in Google’s press release particularly telling. It reads: “‘We want to bring ourselves to every eyeball, not bring every eyeball to us,’ said Hadi Partovi, President of iLike.”

Now what’s your vision of an open social web? Are you looking forward to a set of tools that allows iLike to easily expose itself to you on a variety of sites? Or do you generally think of yourself more as a person? A person who wants to interact and keep in touch with your friends without ever bothering to figure out how iLike, Facebook, MySpace or any other company fits into the picture.

But that’s precisely the problem as Winer sees it, the existing social networks are too blinded by their own aims to see what people actually want.

BigCo’s can’t afford to do what it takes to coalesce a popular maturing technology around their own platform. It won’t happen in BigCoLand. Only a little dude with nothing to lose can choose to build around something truly open.

We’ll get you more info as details of Friend Connect are made public, but if you’re looking for the truly open social web, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for Google, Facebook or MySpace to create it.

Update: Google has revealed a few more details on how Friend Connect works:

Essentially there’s nothing here you couldn’t have already done on your own using the same tools, like OpenID, oAuth and FOAF (and indeed what projects like DiSo are already doing). However, for those that don’t want to dig into the actual code, Friend Connect handles the heavy lifting.

The Friend Connect tools are designed such that there’s no need to do any actual coding, just plug in your site’s info and copy and paste the code into your page.

That means that the actual social capabilities you add will likely load into an iFrame, so it doesn’t appear that there’s any way for users to move any of the “shared” information. In other words, the originating site doesn’t actually share your data, it temporarily loans it out.

From a user point of view, when you head to a Friend Connect site you get to decide who to bring into the new site. For instance, you can select to import all your Facebook friends, or just some of them. Once you’re logged in and in touch with your friends, what you can do is up to the site you’re visiting.

As an example Google’s is touting musician Ingrid Michaelson’s site which uses Friend Connect to include an iLike application so fans can see comments by their friends, add music to their profiles or see who is attending concerts, all without leaving the site.

Also interesting is the ability to send your activities on the site you’re visiting back to the site whose credentials you signed in with. For instance, if you stop by say, my blog, and post some comments by logging via Friend Connect using your Plaxo Pulse ID, you could choose to send your comments back to Plaxo’s Pulse so that they’re visible there as well.

Keep in mind that this is a preview release and you won’t be able to play with anything just yet. Interested developers can sign up for the wait list at the Friend Connect site, which will live later tonight. Google also says that in the next few days a dozen or so sites will be live using the new tools which should help you get a better sense of what’s possible with Friend Connect.

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