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Why is Google making OpenSocial? The answer, as always, is advertising

Lots and lots and lots of talk today about OpenSocial, Google’s social networking platform which it’s finally set to announce. Unlike other social networking platforms, OpenSocial isn’t a walled garden – instead, it’s a set of APIs which link together profile, friends and activities, allowing you to tap into
information which Google holds for you.

The list of hosts and developers is interesting, including basically everyone except Microsoft, MySpace and Facebook – the companies which stand to gain most from a walled-garden approach to social networking. Plaxo, LinkedIn and others will be hosts. Developers include the hyper-popular iLike.

What Google is doing effectively redefines the idea of a social network, moving it from the closed, proprietary world of the likes of MySpace into the heart of the web itself. OpenSocial will allow anyone to build bespoke social networks based on the cornerstones of friends, profile and activities, without having to find themselves locked into a single site. It will allow a huge amount of fluidity in social networks, so that groups can splinter away from existing sites and move – wholesale, if they want – onto others. Or even, if they feel like it, build their own.

Key question: Why is Google doing this? Is it just to hurt Facebook, after the start up spurned its offer of investment? The answer is, of course, no. Instead it’s all about making Google’s search and advertising capabilities even more powerful, by putting together vast data maps of interests and relationships. Knowing what activities you like and who your friends are is incredibly powerful data for targeted marketing, and could potentially make advertising MUCH more interesting on a personal basis. Google will, undoubtedly, let you opt out: but the ultimate aim is to make advertising that’s so tightly targeted to you that it anticipates your needs almost before you know you have them.

When you have advertising that’s as personal as that, it almost ceases to be advertising. Instead, it’s in the realms of pre-emptive search, giving you information you actually want, at the time you most want it. It’ll be really interesting to see how far Google can push this as time goes on.

UPDATE Dave thinks that it’s all about undermining Facebook. I don’t think that’s the case at all: Google has so much money that there’s a dozen far more effective ways it could undermine Facebook (not least by simply buying it).

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  • http://husk.org/ Paul Mison

    “including basically everyone except Microsoft, MySpace and Facebook – the companies which stand to gain most from a walled-garden approach to social networking”

    You forgot Yahoo. Now, I know 360º didn’t really take off, but there’s also Flickr (although they do seem to be slightly independent), and presumably a Yahoo Mail address book. I assume they’re delicately poised on the cusp of whether to join or not; it’d probably do them a lot of good to do so, but who knows if they will?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ianbetteridge/ Ian Betteridge

    You’re right – I forgot Yahoo, and that probably indicates something about their efforts :)

    I can actually see Yahoo joining, as they have a decent history of tapping into things like this and it doesn’t really harm their business model. As you say, 360 didn’t take off (unfortunately, imho) and they already have lots of disparate properties like Flickr and Upcoming.org which could benefit from a more open approach. The question is whether, in a time of uncertainty for them as a company, they’ve got the balls to do it.