Friend Connect, Open Social, Ning, and the web

First, I’m very happy to say that Ning will be rolling out our formal production support for Open Social in June.

In case you missed the news at the time, Open Social is a standard way, sponsored by Google, to build new features (“gadgets”) and/or plug those features into social networks all over the web, including social networks on Ning.

Ning has had beta versions of Open Social running for six months now so we’re excited to be able to now provide Open Social in production to all of our Network Creators and users. Open Social will be available within all 265,490 social networks already running on Ning, as well as the 10,000+ new social networks being created on Ning every week now.

Second, I’d like to discuss Google’s new Friend Connect initiative and how we plan to support it at Ning.

We at Ning think that Friend Connect is a great idea, and has huge potential to make Open Social even more functional and widely available for a broad swath of our users and Network Creators on Ning and throughout the web.

However, in the last couple days, there’s been some confusion around the idea that perhaps Friend Connect is somehow competitive with Ning — which is odd, because we don’t think so and because we think it’s obvious that it’s not. So let me start by first explaining what Friend Connect is, and then how Ning is going to implement it.

Friend Connect is a mechanism by which Open Social gadgets can be published and used not just within a social network but also beyond that social network. When an Open Social gadget shows up elsewhere on the web, via Friend Connect, the friend data and social context comes with the Open Social gadget from its origin social network — and that origin social network might be a network on Ning or a large walled garden network like MySpace or Orkut, and that Open Social gadget might be embedded on any page anywhere on the web.

In a sense, Friend Connect one-ups Flash widgets. Many social networks and other content hubs today publish Flash widgets like video players and music players that get embedded in pages all over the web. Friend Connect is a mechanism that provides the embedding capability for Open Social gadgets to be used all throughout the web — with the added benefit that with a Friend Connect-enabled Open Social gadget, the user gets her social context anywhere she goes, which isn’t the case with a typical Flash widget.

Now, as you are hopefully aware, Ning is a service for creating your own social network for anything — with your choice of features, your design, and your members, customized however you want it.

From a strategy standpoint, we want to enable maximum flow both into and out of Ning networks and the rest of the web. It should be as easy as possible for users to get from elsewhere on the web into a Ning network, and likewise as easy as possible to flow from a Ning network to anywhere else on the web — and ideally, while taking their social context with them. We think this makes strategic sense for two key reasons:

  • First, it’s good for users, and whatever is good for users is good for a service like Ning. We think that’s obvious.
  • Second, you don’t get lots of flow into anything on the web without having lots of flow out to the broader web. We think that’s also obvious — you are compromising your own product to your self-inflicted detriment if you’re not making it as easy as possible for activity to flow out as well as in. Google of course itself illustrates this — Google’s primary business, search, generates revenue purely by having people leave Google, by clicking on an ad — and that’s no accident, and there is no shortage of people who flow into Google as a result.

As a result, we have from the start published Flash widgets and more recently Facebook apps that any Ning user can embed elsewhere on the web or out to their Facebook page — to extend content and functions from a Ning network out onto the web. This has obviously been a good thing to do because users love it, and because those widgets and Facebook apps link right back to their origin Ning networks and drive traffic back in even while propagating content and functionality out.

For Ning, Friend Connect is simply a new and better way to do the same thing with Open Social gadgets — in both directions: out and in.

We will support Friend Connect in two ways:

  • Every network on Ning will be able to be an Open Social origin social network — pushing out Open Social gadgets to anywhere else on the web that carry with them the social context and friends data from their origin Ning network. So, for example, the members of a backpacking social network on Ning can still interact as friends on any third-party backpacking web site, by publishing an Open Social gadget out from their Ning network onto that third-party web site. In short, people will be able to flow more easily from Ning to many other web sites without losing the social context of their Ning networks.
  • Every network on Ning will of course be able to contain Open Social gadgets published out from other social networks on the Internet via Friend Connect. So, for example, a group of friends on MySpace who all enjoy cooking will be able to travel from MySpace to a cooking-specific social network on Ning, via any Friend Connect-enabled Open Social gadget published from MySpace into that Ning network. In short, people will be able to flow more easily from other social networks and walled gardens into Ning social networks without losing the social context from those other networks.

Ning’s role remains the same — to be the easiest, most powerful, and most widely used way for anyone to create your own social network for anything. Friend Connect then makes social networks on Ning more powerful and more relevant for a larger base of users to do more on the web, to flow out and to flow in — a good thing for those users and a good thing for us.