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Social Networks and Software Development

The Year of Socnet Tools?

There is one obvious area in which social networking offers something to software developers: the opportunity to develop software for social networking. Whether or not you ever make use of social networking tools or analytics yourself, you can certainly develop software for this booming area.

Note that I didn't say "booming market." Is social networks a hot area? Undoubtedly. Does it present some interesting challenges in software development? It does. Is there money to be made? Sure, but first you have to figure out the model. Are you going to get rich doing mashups? Creating a social networking site, and competing with all the other socnet sites for attention? Maybe, like Community Analytics, you can focus on tools for mining information from social networks.

Whatever you do, you'll have company. CNet's claim that social networking had got its geek on was a recognition of the tools that have arrived to make it easier to treat social networks as a platform for new tools. And the easier it is, the more competition you'll have.

As we reported in December, IBM has announced IBM Atlas for Lotus Connections, "a corporate social networking visualization and analysis tool designed to help organizations maximize their investment in social software by answering questions such as who the key experts are on a given topic, how they are connected, and whom a user's contacts know that they do not."

Then there's Google's OpenSocial, which Ryan Garver discusses in the accompanying sidebar "Google's OpenSocial API."

Even Cisco is getting into the social networking tools business. And Microsoft is working with researchers at three universities to develop software that can identify experts in online social networks based on the structure of their interactions. Some of the results of the research suggest the kinds of things that Community Analytics teases out of its data, but perhaps less specific: People who offer the most useful information tend to be relatively taciturn, posting to many threads but only a few posts, responding to people who ask specific questions, rarely interacting with frequent posters.

Tools like these, as well as the very existence of Community Analytics, a company entirely focused on the analysis of social networks, suggests that we are in the early days of exploring and exploiting the hidden power of social networks. The next stage could be pretty interesting.

Google's OpenSocial API

By Ryan Garver

Ryan is CTO of ELC Technologies. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Google's Open Social ( was released in November of 2007 and has caused a stir in the social network widget space. Similar to the more mature Facebook API, OpenSocial lets third-party developers embed applications into the profile pages of their users across multiple social networks. Websites such as Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Six Apart, and are all claiming support for OpenSocial.

OpenSocial is comprised of two core APIs:

  • The JavaScript API is designed to run within an OpenSocial container and be used by an OpenSocial application.
  • The REST API supports more general consumption.

These APIs revolve around the basic concepts of People (including their relationships with other People), Activities, and Persistence.

An OpenSocial application is a Google Gadget with an added <Require feature="opensocial-0.5"/>. The <Content> tag contains a CData section with HTML fragments and JavaScript, which is written inside a <div> within the container HTML.

An OpenSocial container is any environment in which the JavaScript API is implemented and an OpenSocial application can be loaded and run. When embedded in a profile page or something similar, the container exists as an IFRAME, which shelters the host network's private information from the executed application. The container loads the application's preferences and content into the embedded IFRAME as raw HTML and JavaScript. In addition to the OpenSocial JavaScript API, the container also must implement most of the functionality supplied by Google Gadgets, also known as the "_IG functions."

OpenSocial caters to the mashup culture that has been skyrocketing since the early days of MySpace, and more recently with the Facebook application boom. Beyond the benefits to existing networks in promoting a richer user experience, OpenSocial opens the doors for smaller niche social networks by making user profile information easy to share. By lowering the gates, big networks are letting users move their profiles across multiple sites, thus enabling smaller networks to thrive.

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