How a Small Band of Upstarts Are Challenging Facebook

Some Promising Open-Source Platforms Aim to Redefining the Social Web

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
More than 500 million people connect with each other and with brands on Facebook – a staggering number greater than that of the US alone. That scale, once hard to imagine, has made Facebook a massive platform for marketers looking to reach consumers, but it has also brought increased scrutiny to the company for its evolving privacy policy.

This week the Wall Street Journal unearthed a new Facebook privacy breach where top ranked applications like Zynga's FarmVille, which has 59m users, have been transmitting identifying information to advertisers and internet tracking companies.

Until recently there has been no real alternative to Facebook as a social platform, but now a small band of upstarts and open source social technologies are beginning to challenge Facebook in the same manner that Firefox began to test Internet Explorer nearly six years ago.

This month Facebook began to address that challenge in a casual and much buzzed about presentation during which CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a series of product announcements (groups, "download my information" and a third party application dashboard) mostly aimed at giving its users a greater degree of control.

That was a welcome and needed move, but it remains unlikely that Facebook's new data download feature will quell the emergence of a number of open source social network start-ups. Nor will it slow the adoption of emerging open social networking standards (OpenID , OAuth and OStatus) which enables people to freely communicate across social platforms like Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn without any custom created APIs. (Note: Facebook recently adopted OAuth, which Twitter also uses, and should accelerate broader industry acceptance.)

The most high profile open source challenge to Facebook is diaspora*, an open source social network created by four New York University programmers that received glowing write-ups in the New York Times and the BBC among others, and netted $200,000 in crowdsourced funding through Kickstarter. In essence diaspora* is creating an open-source service that puts consumers back in control of their data and decentralizes information sharing – a Facebook-like experience (and interface) that is built to be open and distributed from the ground up.

The enthusiasm that diaspora* and other open social technologies have generated amongst certain prominent technology and thought leaders is due, in part, to an increasing awareness that while people are becoming ever more connected through platforms like Facebook, they have less control of their own identities, data and interactions.

This movement to open standards, alternately referred to as the "Open Social Web" or "Federated Social Web," will eventually have a far reaching impact on the way that consumers connect with each other -- and marketers – across platforms. Here's a brief look at some of the more promising technologies and implementations.

  • OpenID - OpenID is the granddaddy of the open social web and provides an independent alternative to identity services like Facebook Connect. For popular brands like Sears, 7-Eleven, HP, Kodak, Interscope Records the major benefit is easing authentication and sign-up barriers, reducing what used to be a series of long, tedious web form(s) with a simple universal log-in and click. For some, such as Comcast's Plaxo, the results have been staggering with a nearly 92% acceptance rate.
  • – is an open source software for microblogging, ala Twitter, that is currently used by over 25,000 sites and has 1.5 million user accounts according to its CEO Evan Prodromou. It enables brands like Motorola and The Sacramento Kings create direct conversations with their users unfettered by Twitter or Facebook. It uses the OStatus protocol – already used by Google Buzz, WordPress, and Tumblr -- to weave open social protocol standards into a more easily implementable social network. It includes technologies like Activity Streams, PubSubHubbub, Salmon, and Webfinger. The website for Sh*t My Dad Says boasts one of the most visible implementations.
  • BuddyCloud – BuddyCloud is an open source social location platform ala Foursquare or Facebook Places. The European-based company defines itself as is a location based, mobile social community that functions without requiring users to "check-in" or unlock badges. You simply bookmark a place and the service takes care of the notifications. It's currently available for Nokia phones via the OVI App Store and will soon be available for Android and the iPhone.

Clearly it's still very early days for the "Federated Social Web" but it's starting to fuel a provocative conversation not just about allowing consumers to own their own identity and data, but brands as well.

The dominant industry wisdom has been to "fish where the fish are" and brands have enthusiastically responded by creating extensive presences on services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube where, despite the illusion otherwise, the platform mediates the brand's interactions with its consumers. After all, on Facebook brands (and people for that matter) have only so much control in how they present themselves or interact with users. It's the same template, like it or not.

Open standards may allow that to change. The true gift of the open social web, at least as far as marketers are concerned, is that they may once again come to own what's really most impost important to their brands: direct control of their relationship with consumers – whether it happens on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or any other property. And that, as the saying goes, is priceless.

Garrick Schmitt is managing director of experience and platforms at Razorfish, whose clients include Microsoft, Best Buy, Intel, Mattel and Mercedes. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual digital brand experience report and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.
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