First the obligatory disclaimer: I work as a part-time freelancer for Broadband Mechanics, the creators of PeopleAggregator. I've actually done analysis and writing work on the PeopleAggregator project itself. So bear in mind that I'm heavily biased :-) Even so, I think it's in my Read/WriteWeb remit to take a high-level look at the concept of open social networks - using PeopleAggregator as my case study. 

PeopleAggregator is the first truly open social network system (SNS) on the Web. I don't think anyone will disagree that previous social networking success stories have all been 'closed' systems: MySpace, AOL, Friendster, Orkut, etc. All of those are systems that make it easy to enter your data, but very difficult (if not impossible) to get that data out again. So if you want to move all your data to a new social network, well tough luck your data is stuck in the old system.

What is an open system?

An open system would be one where you can both import and export your data with relative ease. Anyone who is familiar with Marc Canter's work over the years knows that open standards and formats are key to his vision - and so it is with open social networks too. With PeopleAggregator, there are several aspects to this. A few of the key ones are: open identity, structured blogging (i.e. tools to use open data formats), APIs and web services (interconnecting services across the Web).

The way Marc puts it is that there are three layers of interconnection in an open social network: Authentication, Import/Export of data, and common actions on top of those 2 layers.

The basic premise is that users can create and maintain content across a range of websites and services - and use PeopleAggregator as their central service to manage all that content and connect with others. For example, a user may store all their photos in Flickr. PeopleAggregator can access those photos via Flickr's APIs - as well as establish relationships across the two systems, enable the user to join/create groups, send messages, etc. I'm simplifying, but if you want to know more check this PDF out (which I co-wrote with Marc).

Ecosystems of open data and apps

The real value IMO of open social networks is that they create an ecosystem for lots of vendors and web services to participate in. If you're Amazon for example, or indeed any e-commerce vendor, you can create widgets to use in a service like PeopleAggregator - or simply open up your data via APIs so that external developers can create widgets or web apps. Or say you're an online dating service - you could create a plug-in for PeopleAggregator that enables people to create relationships within and across both systems.

While it's possible to hack together an Amazon widget or an online dating app for MySpace, they can't be integrated with MySpace. The identity systems will be different, import and export will be troublesome (if not impossible) and there will be no way to create relationships across the two systems. They'll be two separate systems, in effect. 

But with an open social network that has open identity, import/export and a "vocabulary" of common actions (like 'create a relationship') - then data and services truly integrate and interconnect. It makes for a more fluid user experience - and gives more opportunities for vendors and web services!

Summary: open social networks are the future

It's early days yet for PeopleAggregator. The current hosted version of People Aggregator and downloadable version (which enables you to create your own SNS) both have the beginnings of this open social network vision - but there's much more functionality to come. And I'm not saying that as a Broadband Mechanics drone, it's just my way of explaining that the big picture concept of an 'open social network' has a long way to go! That's why I rabbit on about microcontent, widgets and Personalized Start Pages here on Read/WriteWeb - because in the long run I see a Web where little pieces of content and small apps interconnect and interact with one another. I don't think this is airy-fairy stuff, I believe it will be reality within a few years. Open social networks is but one part of that grand vision ;-)

Photo: paolovalde