journalism that swims
against the current.

Cracking Open Social Networks

The world's new 'walled gardens' online.

Michael Geist 14 Aug

Michael Geist's column on the Net and society appears every Tuesday in The Tyee. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, and can reached at or online at

image atom
Facebook Canada, Bebo Ireland, Skyblog Senegal...

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have become part of the daily routine for millions of Internet users who connect with friends, share photos, and reach out to other people with similar interests. The popularity of social networks has resulted in an unfortunate byproduct, however: the mushrooming number of requests that come from dozens of these sites.

While not quite spam, the steady stream of requests for Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, Dopplr travellers, or Plaxo contact updates, highlights the lack of interoperability between social network sites and significantly undermines their usefulness.

The interoperability issue is likely to become more prominent in the months ahead as hundreds of specialty social networking sites -- covering virtually every area of interest from dogs to cooking -- jostle for new users. In fact, services such as Ning now enable anyone to create their own social network site.

The result is that Internet users are repeatedly required to re-enter their personal information for each new network they join and find that each network is effectively a "walled garden," where the benefits of the network are artificially limited by the inability to link a friend in Facebook with one in MySpace.

Friend me, Uruguay

These limitations are particularly striking when viewed from a global perspective. While Facebook is a leader in Canada (as well as in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Norway), nearly a dozen other sites hold leadership positions in other countries. These include:

The result is that social networking sites are far more "local" than is often appreciated. Unlike the global Internet, which enables virtually the entire world to connect, social networks have created very large, localized communities with far more limited international interaction.

Doctor interoperable

The obvious solution is to facilitate greater interoperability between social networking sites, thereby enabling users to better control their personal information and reduce the need for duplication, while simultaneously enhancing the value of all social networks by removing the current barriers. This suggestion is not new -- experts began commenting on the desirability of open social networks years ago -- yet there are reasons to believe that the opportunity for greater interoperability may have finally arrived.

First, the focus on the benefits of interoperability cut across a wide range of technological issues, including recent calls for interoperable wireless networks and the music industry's recognition of the need to offer downloads that operate with all music players. Moreover, the frustrations associated with the initial lack of instant messaging interoperability serves as an important reminder of how the issue resonates with consumers.

Second, there are signs that the social networking industry recognizes the value of openness. Facebook moved toward an open platform for software developers this spring, enabling third party developers to bring thousands of new Facebook applications to market. Similarly, Plaxo recently launched a service called Pulse, a social networking aggregator that works with many popular sites.

Third, there is mounting interest in developing open standards for social networks that would facilitate greater interoperability. For example, the Liberty Alliance and Project Higgins are two privacy-focused identity management initiatives that claim to provide users with the ability to manage their personal information across social networks in a secure and trusted manner.

Talk to the hand

The irony of the current generation of online social networks is that although their premise is leveraging the Internet to connect people, their own lack of interconnectedness is stifling their potential.

Some services may believe that it is in their economic interest to stick to a walled garden approach; however, given the global divisions within the social networking world, the mix of language, user preferences, and network effects, it is unlikely that one or two services will capture the global marketplace. The better approach -- for users and the sites themselves -- would be to work toward a world of interoperable social networking.

Related Tyee stories:


  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Do You Think Free Contraception Should Be Available Across Canada?

Take this week's poll