Social Networking and Open Source: Cut From the Same Cloth

The ideas blend together so well. Open source has been around for a long time and is built on the concept of developers working together and sharing software. Social networking has broken into the headlines as a new generation uses MySpace and Facebook as a whole new means of sharing their life experiences.

Open source developers are passionate about the software, frequently spending much of their own personal time working online with others they rarely meet in the flesh. Social networking users are passionate about their lives and interests and how they intersect with others, and spend a lot of time polishing their profiles and commenting on each other’s walls.

However, social and open source are starting to actually blend — where social networking is beginning to help open source developers, and open source is coming into being a critical enabler of the evolving social networking era of the Internet.

It could be said that the Internet would not exist without open source. Certainly, Linux has become the standard deployment platform for most Web site companies with Google, Yahoo, MySpace and others deploying tens of thousands of systems to serve users. MySQL has become the standard database for the Web site, and open languages like PHP, Ruby and Java dominate the infrastructure. Despite Microsoft’s best efforts, Apache still rules as the Web site server of choice.

Social networking has grabbed the headlines from open source over the past two years. Facebook had over 65 million registered users averaging over 1,000 page views per user in the in March. MySpace is even larger — and the growth is huge.

Walled Gardens

While social networking is taking off, it is flying in the face of traditional open source philosophies in terms of openness. This was recently highlighted in a March 19 article in The Economist: “The problem with today’s social networks is that they are often closed to the outside Web site.”

Walled gardens are nothing new to the computer industry, and open source has proven a useful way to blast through the walls of proprietary vendors — JBoss to the app server, MySQL to the database and, of course, Linux to the operating system. A number of open source alternatives are emerging to bring similar changes to social networking.

Open Source Comes to Social Networking

E-mail could be thought of as one of the first mechanisms for social networking, and could well emerge to be an important piece of the social scene. Thunderbird and Zimbra are two popular open source e-mail clients that will over time incorporate more social features. The very fact that they are open source gives their communities the ability to integrate with other systems and services.

Facebook took a big first step in opening up social networking by publishing an open API (application programming interface) for developers to add applications to its platform. In less than a year, more than 22,000 applications have been developed and deployed. Many of the early applications were simple extensions of pokes, but more recently more sophisticated applications have begun to emerge.

Three different open source efforts have emerged to take the Facebook platform to the next level of openness: DiSo, Apache Shindig and Ringside Networks. In typical open source fashion, the projects are starting to collaborate (Ringside and DiSo share similar ideas, while Shindig will be used within Ringside).

There are two standards that have evolved in the early days of social networking — the Facebook API and the OpenSocial API. Today, Facebook dominates in terms of applications built for that platform; however, OpenSocial is supported by Google, MySpace and others. The various open source projects offer ways to interface with these standards so that developers can have freedom when implementing new applications. The fact that these projects are free also helps unlock the innovation that is important in these early days of social applications.

Solving Problems

Two of the emerging areas of social applications are solving the problems of data portability and identity mapping. Data portability is the solution to the problem of putting a lot of profile and social data into a particular social network and not being able to get it out. It’s similar to early cell phone plans that did not let you switch carriers and transfer your cell phone number with you. A consortium has banded together, created from market forces to form the DataPortability Project. The idea is that all social networks comply with a common mechanism for letting users take information with them easily.

Identity Mapping is a new approach that has been enabled by the Facebook API and OpenSocial. This lets an application use information from a user’s profile in their social network. This allows users to give a Web site site supporting this capability to use information from their Facebook profiles, for example, rather than re-entering it. The Web site uses an identity map and gets certain data from Facebook, like the person’s profile picture, and certain information like the person’s credit card number from its own database to create an integrated user experience.

Open source will help crack open the walls of the big social networks and give the Internet a new revolution that extends far beyond the current impact of Facebook and MySpace.

Bob Bickel is a cofounder of Ringside Networks, which has created an open source social application server.

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