Are Social Networks Too Closed?
In one of the latest hymns to the power of Facebook, Mark Cuban has an essay out on how Facebook is "the new Internet" and how Microsoft would be well-served by buying it. (In light of that opinion on Microsoft, it's interesting to note that Cuban is an MSNBC contributor.) "If you are like most, you kill more time hopping around on Facebook than you do exploring the Net," says Cuban. "It won't be long, if it hasn't already happened, that Google and Apple will see Facebook as a unique threat to their future," he adds. There is a problem with these scenarios of world domination for the social networking sites, though, and the problem is how closed they are.
Cuban does have a point that Facebook is an increasingly popular way for people to spend their time, but Dana Blankenhorn makes the good point that for Microsoft to buy Facebook (and it already has a financial stake in the company) would imply high "switching costs." It costs money to radically shift the focus of a business, and it takes potentially costly amounts of time.
Beyond the issue of switching costs, though, both Facebook and Twitter face long-term challenges because they are closed systems. Twitter is built on numerous open source components, and Facebook employs them as well, but both social environments harken back to the days of closed messaging systems, when you had to, say, be on MCI Mail to send an email to another user. That model gave way to open standards, where anyone could email anyone else, and open standards are a long-term challenge to both Facebook and Twitter.
Critics of this argument may cite the sheer number of users that the popular social networking sites have, but let's not forget how fickle users of these sites are. MySpace once ruled the roost in social networking, and that was only a few years ago. It is now a sinking ship. Users of social networking sites can make or break them very quickly.
While it's true that efforts to compete in the social networking space in a truly open way--as seen at Identi.ca--aren't yet challenging the Facebooks and Twitters of the world in terms of numbers of users, open standards are likely to become an issue for social networks. And, as far as a Microsoft purchase of Facebook goes, I doubt if Microsoft would be the company to breathe openness into Facebook's walled garden.
Image courtesy of Stephen K. Willi on Flickr.