If Social Networks Open, Will The Masses Follow?

Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson laments from Greece (where he is ostensibly vacationing) about social network lock-in. “We’ve got social networks with lots of users, like MySpace, Beebo, Facebook, etc., and we’ve got open social networks like Marc Canter’s People Aggregator and Marc Andreessen’s Ning. But we really don’t yet have an open social network with a lot of users.” Wilson joins a long-running conversation that Dave Winer addressed yesterday, writing that Facebook could be the breaking point for locked-in networks: “It’s attracting so many users, who may at some point realise that they want control of the data that’s locked up inside Facebook,” he says.

Thankfully, some geeks in California are on the case. As NY Web design guru Jeff Zeldman notes, Daniel Burka (digg, Pownce), Eran Globen (Digital Chocolate), digital consultant Brian Oberkirch and Web standards prodigy Tantek Çelik are talking about a microformat for “social network portability.” They outline a format that will let you “import, or preferably subscribe” to your profile information and social network, plus notification and privacy settings, on any social network.

Sounds great to us, but there’s a big business hurdle before any of this can happen: while giants like Facebook and MySpace are opening up to third-party apps and content, the future of both businesses is predicated on keeping existing users’ content locked into their sites, and attracting millions more to join the party. So don’t look for much help from either of the big networks.

Wilson addresses a second, equally important problem: That network lock-in may not be a real problem for most people. “Most of Facebook’s traditional users (like my two daughters) don’t care that their data is locked up in Facebook,” he says. “The Techcrunch 50,000 might leave when they realise that they can do most, if not everything, that they do in Facebook on the web on a platform they control. But that won’t make a dent in Facebook’s core audience.” Which is good news for Rupert Murdoch and whoever wants to pony up $10 billion for Facebook.

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