Social Software: Finding Beauty in Walled Gardens


Mike Vernal and I are supposed to be writing a Bill Gates Think Week paper about Social Software. However given how busy both our schedules are this may turn out to be easier said than done. For this reason I’ve decided that I’ll continue blogging my thoughts around this class of software that led me to switch job roles a few months ago.

Today’s entry is inspired by a blog post by Stowe Boyd entitled Mark Ranford on Open Standards for Social Tools. Stowe writes

I would like to see — as just one example — a means to manage my personal social tools digital identity independently of the various services through which I apply and augment it. None of the social tools that I use today — whether communication tools, coordinative tools, or community tools — support anything like what should be in place. My eBay or Amazon reputation is not fungible; my slash dot karma cannot be tapped when I join the Always-On Network; and the degree of connectedness I have achieved through an explicit social networking solution like Spoke, LinkedIn, or ZeroDegrees or through a more implicit social media model as supported by blogging cannot interoperate in the other context in any productive way.

We are forced to live in a thousand separate walled gardens; a thousand, disconnected worlds, where each has to be managed and maintained as if the other don’t exist at all.

As a result, I have gotten to the point where I am going to retreat from those worlds that are the least open, the least integrated to others, and the most self-centered. The costs of participating with dozens of tiny islands of socializing are just too high, and I have decided to extricate myself from them all.

This is the biggest problem with the world of Social Software today. I wrote about this in my previous post on the topic entitled Social Software is the Platform of the Future. In that post I wrote

So where do we begin? It seems prudent to provide my definition of social software so we are all on the same page. Social software is any software that enables people to interact with one another. To me there are five broad classes of social software. There is software that enables 

1. Communication (IM, Email, SMS, etc)
2. Experience Sharing (Blogs, Photo albums, shared link libraries such as del.icio.us)
3. Discovery of Old and New Contacts (Classmates.com, online personals such as Match.com, social networking sites such as Friendster, etc)
4. Relationship Management (Orkut, Friendster, etc)
5. Collaborative or Competitive Gaming (MMORPGs, online versions of traditional games such as Chess & Checkers, team-based or free-for-all First Person Shooters, etc)

Interacting with the aforementioned forms of software is the bulk of the computing experience for a large number of computer users especially the younger generation (teens and people in their early twenties). The major opportunity in this space is that no one has yet created a cohesive experience that ties together the five major classes of social software. Instead the space is currently fragmented. Google definitely realizes this opportunity and is aggressively pursuing entering these areas as is evidenced by their foray into GMail, Blogger, Orkut, Picasa, and most recently Google Groups 2. However Google has so far shown an inability to tie these together into a cohesive and thus “sticky” experience. On the other hand Yahoo! has been better at creating a more integrated experience and thus a better online one-stop-shop (aka portal) but has been cautious in venturing into the newer avenues in social software such as blogs or social networking. And then there’s MSN and AOL.

Since posting that entry I’ve changed jobs and now work at MSN delivering social software applications such as MSN Messenger, Hotmail and MSN Spaces. My new job role which has given me a more enlightened perspective on some of these problems. The issues Stowe has with the existing Social Software landscape will not be easily solved with industry standards, if at all. The reasons for this are both social and technical.

The social problems are straightforward, there is little incentive for competing social software applications to make it easy for people to migrate away from their service. There is no business incentive for Friendster to make it easy to export your social network to Orkut or for eBay to make it easy to export your sales history and reputation to Yahoo! Auctions. Besides the obvious consequence of lock-in, another more subtle consequence is that the first mover advantage is very significant in the world of Social Software. New entrants into various social software markets need to either be extremely innovative (e.g. GMail) or bundle their offerings with other more popular services (e.g. Yahoo! Auctions) to gain any sort of popularity. Simply being cheaper or better [for some definition of better] does not cut it.

The value of a user’s social network and social information is the currency of a lot of online services. This is one of the reasons efforts like Microsoft’s Hailstorm was shunned by vendors. The biggest value users get out of services like eBay and Amazon is that they remember information about the user such as how many successful sales they’ve made or their favorite kinds of music. Users return to such services because of the value of the social network around the service (Amazon reviews, eBay sales feedback, etc) and accumulated information about the user that they hold. Hailstorm aimed to place a middleman between the user and the vendors with Microsoft as the broker. Even though this might have turned out to be better for users, it was definitely bad for the various online vendors and they rejected the idea. The fact that Microsoft was untrusted within the software industry did not help. A similar course of events is  playing itself out with Microsoft’s identity service, Passport. The current problems with sharing identities across multiple services have been decried by many, even Microsoft critics feel that Passport may have been better than the various walled gardens we have today.

The technical problems are even more interesting. The fact of the matter is that we still don’t know how to value social currency in any sort of objective way. Going back to Stowe’s examples, exactly what should having high karma on Slashdot translate to besides the fact that you are a regular user of the site? Even the site administrators will tell you that your Slashdot karma is a meaningless value. How do you translate the fact that the various feeds for my weblog have 500 subscribers in Bloglines into some sort of reputation value when I review articles on Amazon? The fact is that there is no objective value for reputation, it is all context and situation specific. Even for similar applications, differences in how certain data is treated can make interoperability difficult.

Given the aforementioned problems I suspect that for the immediate future walled gardens will be the status quo in the world of social software.

As for MSN, we will continue to make the experience of sharing, connecting and interacting with friends and family as cohesive as possible across various MSN properties. One of the recent improvements we made in getting there were outlined by Mike Pacheloc in his post Your contacts and buddy lists are the same! where he wrote

Over the last couple of years we took the challenge of integrating the MSN Messenger buddy lists and your MSN Address Book Contacts into one centralized place in MSN.  Although they were called Contacts in both MSN Messenger, Hotmail, and other places in MSN, only until now are they actually one list!  Some benefits of doing this:

* You can now keep detailed information about your MSN Messenger buddies.  Not just the Display Name and Passport login, but all their email addresses, phone numbers, street addresses and other other information.
* Creating a buddy in MSN Messenger means you immediately can send email to that buddy in Hotmail, because the information is already in the Hotmail Contacts list!
* If you define a Group in Messenger, that Group is available in Hotmail.  You can email the Group immediately.  If you rename the Group in Hotmail, the change is immediately made in Messenger.

These are a few of the benefits of the integration we did on the services platform.

The benefits listed above do not do justice to the how fundamental the change has been. Basically, we’ve gotten rid of one of major complaints about online services; maintaining to many separate lists of people you know. One of the benefits of this is that you can utilize this master contact list across a number of scenarios outside of just one local application like an email application or an IM client. For example, in MSN Spaces we allow users to use their MSN Messenger allow list (people you’ve granted permission to contact you via IM) as a access control list for who can view your Space (blog, photo album, etc). There are a lot more interesting things you can do once the applications you use can tell “here are the people I know, these are the ones I trust, etc”. We may not get there as an industry anytime soon but MSN users will be reaping the benefits of this integration in more and more ways as time progresses.

Well, I have to go eat some breakfast, I’m starved…

Happy New Year!!!


Comments (10)

  1. Dare Obasanjo: "The social problems are straightforward, there is little incentive for competing social software applications to make it easy for people to migrate away from their service. There is no business incentive for Friendster to make it easy to…

  2. brian says:

    Excellent points, dare.

    Also, think about your non-computer life. There is a ton of info we deal with daily (bills, recipes, mail, etc.). All of that tends remain independent or most – if not all – of those things. So it is to be expected that most of our online info might never be truely integrated.

    Although, Spaces, Hotmail, Messenger, msn.com, the whole MSN brand seems to be tackling this problem admirably. =)

  3. Weddings says:

    Mike Vernal and I are supposed to be writing a Bill Gates Think Week paper about Social Software. However given how busy both our schedules are this may turn out to be easier said than done. For this reason I’ve decided that I’ll continue blogging my