What newspapers need to do about OpenSocial

Over the last five or six years we've seen a tremendous shift in power from destination sites to search. Google has been the big winner. In general, newspaper websites have been slow to recognize the implications of this shift, and have adjusted poorly to the new realities.

In the last 24 months a new contender has arisen: social networking sites, which are so "sticky" that they're displacing everybody else, even Google. And again, newspaper sites are slow to recognize the implications.

Myspace wasn't the first, but it was the first really big winner in that space, and became a platform for third parties to offer "widgets" that users can embed in their personal pages.

In the last six months Facebook has grown explosively. There are a host of reasons, but the big thing you should keep in mind is that it's a semi-open framework on which third parties can build mini-applications that interact with Facebook data. Facebook published a set of methods through which programmers can interact with Facebook data, going far beyond Myspace's ability to embed widgets. This set of methods is called an application programmer interface, or API.

This transforms Facebook from an application that people use into a what technologists call a platform. Marc Andreessen explains what that means:

Definitionally, a "platform" is a system that can be reprogrammed and therefore customized by outside developers -- users -- and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform's original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.

In contrast, an "application" is a system that cannot be reprogrammed by outside developers. It is a closed environment that does whatever its original developers intended it to do, and nothing more.

There are more than 7,000 Facebook applications so far, including some from several newspapers. One of the most interesting, Neighborhoods, is being used by a company that runs a real estate listing website to slip their listings into Facebook space. Think about that for a minute.

This week Google fired back, unveiling OpenSocial, which aims to provide a standard API for developing applications that plug neatly into a host of existing and future social networks. On board are Engage.com, Friendster, hi5, Hyves, imeem, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ning, Oracle, orkut, Plaxo, Salesforce.com, Six Apart, Tianji, Viadeo, and XING.

Given the magnitude of the change in Web consumption behavior brought about by social networking sites, newspaper companies need to think about how their content, tools and services might interoperate with these standards.

I'm not proposing that newspapers give up everything else and become providers of little applets to big social networking sites. On the contrary, there's bountiful opportunity for news sites, especially local newspapers, to build their own social networking environments, as we've demonstrated with BlufftonToday.com and other projects.

We live in an "and" universe, not an "or" universe, so don't be looking for one big winner to come out of this, or one single model, or one standard.

We'll be destinations and search engines and content syndicators and content integrators and social networks and satellites of social networks, all at the same time.

What is clear is this: We can't go on running islands.


Steve - Like your post and definitely agree that the newspapers and other community sites can't go on running islands. NYTimes wrote an article this morning indicating that we can not live in an island economy. Facebook may have created a platform but Google's approach is far more broad and the fact that many of the big players got on board is an indication that there is going to be great new way of sharing and spreading the information using this OpenSocial "platform".

Small community newspapers can benefit the most if they can tap into this network and syndicate their content, reader comments etc.