The Great Debate: Open Up the Social Graph?

It’s begun. There have been rumblings for a while, and lots of good private and semi-public discussions at various events in recent months, whether Mashup Camp, OSCON, or even last weekend’s “We Are All Actors” event in Austin. But now the debate about how to “open up the social graph” has fully emerged into the very public discourse of the blogosphere, starting with this afternoon’s provocative, detailed, and well-written piece by Brad Fitzpatrick (with collaboration and editing by David Recordon), entitled, “Thoughts on the Social Graph.”

Within hours, Plaxo’s Joseph Smarr, one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, waded in, with this response, entitled “More on social network portability.”

So far, there’s more agreement than contention, with Brad, David, and Joseph all in harmony, as voices calling for an open “social graph,” as opposed to the “walled garden” approach currently championed by Facebook (and by many others in the past, such as AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy). In the walled garden approach, a corporation asserts ownership of user-generated content, and imposes terms of use that restrict free movement of the data outside the wall. Such strategies often work well for a time, with popular closed networks generating their own economies and their own ecosystems of developers. Some of us, perhaps naively, thought this was a debate that was settled a long time ago (the mid- to late-’90′s), when the web emerged and up-ended the existing walled gardens.

That said, there are some areas of difference between Brad’s proposal and Joseph’s response, primarily around whether there should emerge some non-governmental, non-corporate, non-profit, benificent intermediary that acts as custodian of the social graph, or whether each user should be the owner of their own part of the social graph, their collection of friends lists at various sites.

My own view, not surprisingly (since I work with Joseph at Plaxo), is that the user must be the ultimate authority. Users should demand ownership, control, and portability of their data and their content, including their friends lists — and force the various providers of social web applications to interoperate in a manner that still keeps private what they do not want floating in the commons.

What do you think?

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