professional reflections

Playing in the sandpit, while the novelty lasts

My parents recently bought my son a sandpit and a couple of sacks of sand to go in it. He loves it (although his enjoyment has been curtailed by the UK recently developing a monsoon-like climate of continuous rain). He'll generally sit outside of it, playing with the toys and sand inside, or sometimes he'll just climb right in. Either way, the rule is the same. The sandpit is a semi-closed system - no sand is allowed to escape the confines of the sandpit, and only some compatible (i.e. sand-proof) toys are allowed in. Because I'm to old to play with a real sandpit (well…often anyway) I've been looking at the Facebook platform (API) which allows developers to build new widgets which they can deploy within Facebook. A basic use of the API might be to surface an existing, external application within Facebook in order to reach the users inside this system. This is the web-portal model, such as used in Netvibes. A more sophisticated use would exploit the social-networking capabilities, which are the real point of Facebook. There's a lot of hype about Facebook right now, and the opening up of its API has been warmly received. The way I see it, this now makes it possible for us to bring more toys into the sandpit, making the whole sandpit experience a more rewarding one. But it's still the sandpit, walled-off and separate from the rest of the world. Jason Kottke says:

you do know that Facebook is AOL 2.0, right?

The world is still adjusting to the "web is the platform", core to the Web 2.0 meme. But is this already being usurped by a new reality, the re-appearance of walled gardens, as in the early days of AOL? In a very interesting post about 'platforms' and lessons not learned in the web-platform era, Marc Andreessen points out that:

You can layer new code and functionality on top of what Facebook's own programmers have built, but you cannot change the Facebook system itself at any level.

I just can't get all that excited about Facebook as a platform. From my point of view, in an exciting era of mashups, Facebook is only seriously mashable in one direction, and it's the wrong direction. If Facebook's social networks were exposed to the web, 'mine-able' and mashable - now that would be exciting. But as Jon Udell points out, that would be risky and with "no obvious benefit to Facebook". Mike Ellis says:

…the mashup environment is about playing with technology - it is therefore partially technology driven (a bad thing) but also understands and build on content and data from disparate sources in the hope that the thing which pops out at the end is useful (a good thing). It relies on a Darwinian process to determine what works and what doesn’t: if your users like it, they’ll take to it and it’ll succeed.

I agree. And Facebook's viral aspect gives the Darwinian process a shot of adrenaline. It's a pity that Facebook's social-network, it's viral power can't be applied to mashups, 'out there' on the web. I think that Facebook is a sandpit. I've had a little fun in there, playing with a few toys. I'll probably play in there from time to time - I like a sandpit as much as the next kid. But then I'll get bored and wander off, leaving my toys lying half buried in the sand, looking for something better to play with. Having said that, people whom I respect have a higher opinion of Facebook. Perhaps I'm missing the point?

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