You Can’t be Social Without a Widget

Nearly every Social Networking site now features a widget or two.  Why?  Because we want our personas to be portable.  Perhaps we want our Match.com profile to show our FaceBook profile.  Or we want our MySpace Pages to show our love for our pets.

Whatever the case, we seem to want to mix and match our social personas.  We want to share what we want, wherever we want.

What does this really mean for Social Networking and Widget Creation though?  Can you have one without the other (or, more precisely – does it make sense to try and do one without the other?)  And if you assume that Widgets have become a necessity for Social Networking, and that people want and expect to be able to stick any widget on any site, where does the actual “social” part of the network live?  Right now, it lives in sites like Match.com. MySpace, PageFlakes, etc. 

But could it be migrating to the widget?  I think so.  Will the widget become the next Social Network – where the host site doesn’t really matter that much, because after sharing your profile information with the site (so you can populate your widget) the only interaction you ever have with the site is through the widget you stuck on another site?

Social networking is in the infantile stages – and so are widgets.  They are both going to grow up though, and I think they’ll wed.  Social Networking sites that don’t provide portability via widgets won’t be able to survive – and likewise, they *must* accept external widgets – even from competitors.  Why shouldn’t I be able to put a MySpace Widget on my PageFlakes page, or vice versa?  Why shouldn’t all of my social networks live on my blog – via widgets?  Why couldn’t I manage each of those sites through just the widgets?

I know – right now you are thinking, “because nobody makes money this way”.  Wrong – there are still plenty of ways to make money off of distributed social networking”.  Google does it with adsense now – they share the revenue with the entire food chain.  Amazon, MSN, everyone shares ad revenue.  There is no reason this can’t be extended to a social widget network

So what would this take?  Well, we would probably need a “single sign on” for the Internet.  Yes – think Microsoft Passport – but in an open system, not a closed one.  An open source non-profit single place on the web where you store all of your profile information.  Signing up to a new Social Widget/site?  You don’t re-enter all of the pertinent data – you just allow the new widget/site to access whatever parts of your single sign on profile you want it to see.  The rest is invisible.  No more remembering 30 different sites with 30 different sign ons. No more remembering which site you lied to about your age! 

And yes, this means security is even more important than ever – but with the reduced overhead of having to log into multiple systems, security could be strengthened drastically at the single sign on point and still provide a more seamless network experience.  So you get asked two questions to log into one site instead of one question for ten sites.  Or you use Biometrics.  Whatever – it can be managed.  A Single Sign On service can be more secure than using multiple sign ons across multiple domains with who knows what security standards. 

Imagine a social network based on a distribution of disparate widgets – each of those widgets needs to know a little about you – and some of them know things about you that overlap.  Some of them know who you really are.  Some don’t.  But if you update your “favorite artist” on one widget, all of the widgets that you have authorized automatically know your new favorite artist.  The same thing for your height or eye color – you control your data, and who you share it with.

But where would the data reside?  Easy – pretty much where it sits now – if you have a social widget that contains a unique piece of your data it would reside on that social widget’s site (like how many friends you have in that network, your unique avatar for the widget, whatever).  All common data would reside on the Single Sign On site – AND on any sites you shared that data with.  Redundant.  And it can be safe – especially if the decryption key (or certificate) to access the data was stored out of the individual sites – basically meaning that even Match.com couldn’t physically read your data – not without you being in the loop, supplying the key (or in this case, you might have a widget in the loop that you have authorized to use your key on your behalf).

Social networking is anything but social right now.  There are thousands of walled gardens.  And like any garden, they all need care – they need our time, and our attention.  We don’t have time or attention to manage keeping our profiles updated on both our “soccer dads” website and our “I need a date” website.  The walled gardens will eventually die of neglect – as will most of the companies building the walls.  Some with thrive – the ones that build the thickest walls.

So how do smaller companies – the ones that can’t afford to build the thick walls – how do they survive?  They stop talking about building social networks when they are really building smaller walled gardens.  Instead they start really building a social network – one that lets me create, place, share, edit, hide, show – and delete any of that information either globally or within one community.  I manage my data.  Imagine!  Give me your special sauce on a widget and let me control my data.

 Maybe the goal of single sign on for the Internet is too lofty right now (I don’t think it is).  But even if it is, why not a standardized way to share data (and revenue) between different services – one where user data is completely controlled by the user, not the walled gardens?

Why are all of the social networks building walled gardens?  Not to make my life as a user easy, that’s for sure.