In February, Om Malik wrote "Are Social Networks Just a Feature?" I didn't think much of it at the time, but as other posts started to appear such as Jon Udell's Critical mass and social network fatigue and Tim O'Reilly's Social Network Fatigue and the Missing Web 2.0 Address Book, I realized that yes, they were just a feature. I still didn't think much of it since I figured it was completely obvious, in part because my team (Popfly) is working on a development tool service for non-programmers that used a social network as a feature. (In the case of Popfly, we use the same Windows Live Storage back-end that powers Windows Live Spaces and Windows Live Messenger.)
But, as the conversations about Facebook's valuation and the valuations of all those companies that are building Facebook applications continue and as people speculate about MySpace opening its APIs, I feel the need to turn the question into a statement:
Social networking is a feature.
Some examples: Amazon, eBay, Last.fm, World of Warcraft, Xbox Live. These are sites primarily for something other than friending and unfriending people and sending short messages to each other. They use the social network to improve the customer experience.
Now that developers can build applications that run on Facebook, we're seeing a number of applications that use the social network to do something useful. I mean something beyond throwing food at each other. That said, judging by the popularity of various Facebook applications, people don't want "useful" applications, they want to be entertained. And a social network is helpful with that, of course.
All of this is a long way to go to say that as social networks become core to the feature sets of applications we will need rules for how privacy is treated and a set of tools for interoperability across social networks. DareO has been working through this thought process in a host of blog posts (Put the User in Control Otherwise Things Fall Apart, The Difference between a Social Network Site, a Social Graph Application and a Social OS, The Problems Faced by a Unified Social Graph, Some Thoughts on Open Social Networks) but it only becomes urgent when you realize that a social graph (or social network) is a feature as fundamental to the next generation of applications as HWnds and System.*.