Over a year ago two competing photo sharing services stumbled upon some thorny issues surrounding the openness of their data: Flickr initially denied Zooomr access to its API on the grounds that it was too similar a competitor, but eventually agreed to open up only if the stream was to be a two-way channel.
The social networking space is presently going through a similar stage of evolution and thrashing out similar issues — first Google announced OpenSocial, an open standard to which developers of applications for social networks could adhere to so that they ran on any network, and Facebook have recently made moves to shrug off their perception of being a walled garden by with a similar (not unexpected) announcement. Developers are faced with a choice: one option that exists but only has two players, and another option with lots of partners but has yet to be released.
And this is all fine. I hate repeating code and wasted effort, so the fact that Bebo users can now play Scrabulous with their friends without the Scrabulous team having to write a Bebo version of their Facebook app is all well and good.
But what about those users and their connections?
All of this openness and talk of API parity and open standards does nothing for the fact that the biggest complaint by anyone who uses more than one social network is that they have to re-enter their data every freaking time they sign up. Sure there are hack ways to get most of your data out, but the resulting data doesn’t exist in any kind of standard format that you can then reuse with a different network, and the contact information you can retrieve is restricted anyway.
Besides, what format would it take? XFN? Ha! Brian Suda wrote recently about how Microformats could be the answer to this problem, but not enough social networks support them yet, so this is not yet practical.