Local media needs to play with Google’s new app

Google's Friend ConnectThe unveiling of Google’s new “Friend Connect” program this week is very big news that must not be overlooked by local media companies as we work to become more web-centric. Friend Connect is the latest from Google’s “Open Social” project, which is designed to allow users to aggregate and take with them various important aspects of social networking sites. The logic is simple (and typical Google): the walled-garden approach to the Web is archaic. What’s needed is portability.

So as MySpace and Facebook duke it out to see who can gather the most users, Google says “let’s make it possible for people to take social elements with them wherever they go (if they wish).” To Google, the Web is the platform. To Facebook, for example, Facebook is the platform. This, Google argues, is limiting, so the Open Social project is a natural extension of the Google model.

Open Social treats elements of social networking like widgets (Google’s term is “gadgets”) that can be moved anywhere. Software developers can use the “open” aspects of the project to create gadgets that can be used by anyone on any site anywhere. Friend Connect makes this possible, and local media sites need to jump in as soon as we can. Google is moving slowly with the project, they say, so they can study potential privacy ramifications, among other things.

Google provides the code, which can be embedded anywhere on your pages via iFrames (code that displays, essentially, a site within a site). When completed, users are able to interact with your content socially by inviting others within their established social networks into your site, ranking stories, sharing comments, and meeting new friends. Publishers who use Friend Connect don’t have access to the data involved, but that shouldn’t stop people from using it. In its introductory materials, Google concludes by saying “Everyone wins in a friend connected web:

  • You, the site owner — Google Friend Connect gives you a snippet of code that, when put into your site, will equip the site with social features, including the ability to run third-party social applications. Moreover, it enables your visitors to log in with existing credentials, see who among their friends is already registered at that site. It also gives them one-click access to invite friends from their existing friends lists on other sites, such as Facebook or orkut.
  • Your site’s visitors — Visitors no longer need to create a new account or develop yet another friends list just to use the social applications on your site. We create the infrastructure that allows one login to be used across multiple sites and the ability to reuse existing friend relationships that the visitor has already established elsewhere.
  • OpenSocial developers — With Google Friend Connect, any website on the web can become an OpenSocial container. Their social applications can now run on social networking sites and anywhere else on the web that uses Google Friend Connect. By placing these applications on sites where users already visit, these application will be seen and used by more users more often.
  • Social networks — With Google Friend Connect, social networks thrive as hubs of activity while giving their users more opportunities to bring their friend relationships to other websites while simultaneously bringing their friends and activities from outside the social network back in — with people having the ability to publish their activities across the web into the activity streams of their social networks.

However, not all observers are impressed. Marshall Kirkpatrick of Read Write Web thinks the Google initiative simply buries social connections in a “dark little box” and dismisses privacy concerns along the way.

Google could have worked with other large companies and with the creators of these standards (some are in the Data Portability Working Group that Google joined, for example) to tackle the hard questions around data exposure, integration and privacy. Instead they are pushing their Open Social standard around in an iframe. Easy is very good, but co-operation could have come up with something better than this.

Kirkpatrick and others are also noting that the service isn’t widely available yet and that Google is limiting access in order to let others help them build it.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the essence of what’s taking place here, and Google’s involvement will accelerate the work of others in developing social portability. MySpace (Data Availability) and Facebook (Connect) are both trying to accomplish similar goals, but both want to be THE platform leading the charge. Google (again) takes a bigger view and says the Web itself is the platform, describing Friend Connect as a form of “social plumbing” for the Web.

And the message to media companies is clear: we need to be in this space in ways beyond providing simple content widgets that can be swapped and shared. We need to be developing gadgets under the Open Social standards, so that we can participate even beyond just bringing “social” to our sites.

After all, “social” is still largely “local,” and that means opportunities beyond that which the big platforms currently provide.


  1. I *really* wish that someone had a directory of local yard sales available. I’d smack that widget on my home page so fast! At the very least, an RSS feed. It frustrates me endlessly when friends tell me about the brick house a few blocks away that sold 400 books last Saturday. I’d have gotten up early and gone if I’d known about it. But as to local media using widgets for their purposes, please, God, let them elevate the intelligence level of their stories a bit. The next time I hear that ANYONE is “speaking out,” or any overly cutesy, not-even-clever crap like “Before you slather on the barbeque sauce, make sure their health scores cut the mustard…” I am going to vomit. I don’t own a TV, and just hearing this s*** on the radio drives me batty. Not to go off on a rant or anything.….….

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