22 May 2008

Google Friend Connect - the answer to a programmers prayers?

Dear Tanya,

Google Friend Connect was officially announced last week. It has since come to light that this is no ordinary social network. In fact in the truest sense of the term, it isn't a social network at all!

Friend Connect is a social tool. It seems the lovely people at the big G have been working their socks off finding a way to help us all connect a lot more easily. This fantastic tool is still only in preview, but from the fairly sketchy detail proffered by Google, it seems that even now it has a very wide appeal.

In order to place a perspective on what Friend Connect allows you to do, imagine: you are the only software developer on the planet. You, and you alone, have developed each and every web site in the world and you had to build each site from scratch.

So that means no code sharing. No data sharing. This means for every user who visits a web site that requires authentication they will have to register and verify their details. Then they will have to maintain them. This is the kind of data duplication that would make a data analyst's butt clench.

By now you would have won plenty of awards... at the very least you would be long overdue some much-needed shut-eye.

The solution would seem obvious: extract the common data structures (in this case the individual member's details) into a central pool that each site can get access to. That is what Friend Connect does!

You can close your mouth now.

As well as being a social connector, it is also a social enabler. What I mean is that a site that is not a social network (DamnILoveChocoDip.net for example) and never intends to be can still benefit from the viral nature of social networking. The social aspect of visiting a web site and sharing your experience is made even easier.

Yes as the modern social surfer you no longer have to re-register the same details you saved with the previous web site into this one. Simply log in with the same credentials et voila you're in. Your data isn't copied or duplicated. You keep the one central piece up to date and Friend Connect does the rest (as they say).

Beautiful! Adding to this is the entire social aspect. In theory (because I haven't had a chance to test it yet) you can see who of your friends are registered with this site. They will see when you do things on the site (that you explicitly allow).

So all of a sudden, for the majority of web sites we visit, we can now see who else is there. It's like all of the other patrons visiting this virtual shop/bar/resource centre become visible.

You could actually "bump" into someone who you know from another web site. As you seem to share a passion for at least two things, you might pluck up the courage to strike up a conversation, perhaps opening with an oft-hounded 'chat-up line'.

It would be the equivalent of walking around the town, bumping into that cute girl in two different shops, suggesting you go for coffee, then quickly cut to 3 years later and you're story is being told in some horrible romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks.

There are some questions on security and integration, all of which I'm sure will be answered in time. If you're a programmer like me, I'm sure you will see the benefits though. I'm drooling over some of the possibilities. Least of all not having to build a registration engine every time I build a site. A close second is the speed with which people will discover a new web site.

Also in this orgy of social debauchery is OpenSocial. Now application developers have an opportunity for their applications to make it onto millions of web sites, not just the few major and accessible social networks.

The issue at the moment is that not all networks are supported, and indeed not all will want to jump on the bandwagon. But when things become this easy for users, where do you think the majority will go?

So then the key lessons from all of this are... build a site that can make use of this centralised platform! If you're building an application, build it for OpenSocial as the chances are it will lead the way in terms of mass integration.

Is this a sign that Facebook may slip into Microsoft's online "I just don't get it" pit? I wonder why that could happen.

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