Clash of the networks

Posted on May 28, 2007

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With the opening of the Facebook Platform a war has broken out, with the two sides aligned with similar views to the ones we talked about at Museums and the Web.

On the one hand is MySpace, the rambling, ugly behemoth with over 100 million accounts, a closed database of users and no API. On the other – now – is Facebook: a mere 20 million users and as of just recently, an API and developer network.

The MySpace approach is closed – almost fascistic, in fact – the experience is entirely to be had within the bounds of the MySpace website. No Flash can be embedded. No widgets which haven’t been authored by MySpace themselves. No data can travel in, out or around the application.

This is (museum) website 1.0. The user experience is there, on the site, with known edges, known paths. It is comfortable, comforting, understood – and ultimately flawed. The Facebook way is markedly different. Obviously it’s primarily a social network, and many hundreds of thousands of users will remain there and move around the site within this framework, never knowing what else is behind the scenes. But now, it’s also going to mutate into many other things – unknown, weird, wonderful, creative things. With a strong API, the data is set free. Yes, it’s true, the API only allows development of applications within the Facebook walls, but it’s a huge head-start.

The reason I believe this works is because this is how people use the web. We pillage images, sounds, text. We remix, mash, rehash, copy, paste. Who here hasn’t sourced stuff from the web and re-used it for a presentation, a talk, a blog post? More to the point, who hasn’t seen the power of this way of working: blog comments, flickr images, google docs…?

MySpace has always been an anomaly to me. I posted about it on the old Electronic Museum website when I questioned that this horrendous beast – ugly, inaccessible, hard to use, terrible to navigate – should be so damn popular. The answer of course is that MySpace could probably be anything at all, but has a critical mass which ensures its continuing success. Most users don’t give a crap about an API, so why should MySpace care?

Well, according to TechCrunch the questions aren’t just about some academic “in an ideal world, data should be free” position. One application launched just a few days ago using the Facebook API now has nearly 400,000 users.

It’ll be very, very interesting to see what happens next. As Josh Kopelman says in his blog:

Facebook has recognized (and embraced) something that Myspace has not – that there is more value in owning a web platform then a web property.”

When are museums truly going to start recognising that we should start building platforms rather than properties?

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