Saturday, May 01, 2004

Dodgeball: Now playing in NYC, SF, LA, Boston, Philly

A while back I told MS that social networking sites like Friendster and Orkut were dumb because there were no applications. You type in all this information about your social network; you harass your friends to join; and in the end it's good for a couple minutes' amusement, no more. It's just inert data. There's no integration with your mail client, your address book, your instant messenger, your text messaging service, or whatever.

Well, meet Dodgeball. At last, an application:

Q: What does it do?
A: The idea is simple: tell us where you are and we'll tell you who and what is around you. We'll ping your friends with your whereabouts, let you know when friends-of-friends are within 10 blocks, allow you to broadcast content to anyone within 10 blocks of you or blast messages to your groups of friends.

Q: Give me an example.
A: Okay, so you're having drinks at Luna Lounge. Send us a text message telling us where you are and we'll send out a text message telling all your friends where you are AND send you back a message letting you know if any friends-of-friends are within 10 blocks. If you have a camera phone, we'll even send you their picture.

(Sounds like the more civilized, social cousin of toothing.)

This solves one of the problems of social networking sites. But it doesn't solve the bigger meta-problem, which is that all these sites are currently closed: their database isn't published in a form accessible to other software. As a result, you have to wait for the site owners to provide the applications. There's no possibility that some random programmer with a great idea can simply hack up an application and try it out. Result: glacially slow pace of advance in application development, and when applications do arrive they're frequently locked out of the best data (which is in the databases of Friendster etc.).

Consider the consequences of closed networks for a service like Dodgeball. I'm on Orkut and Friendster (though, as this post implies, I don't use them for anything). There's no way in hell I'm going to harass all my friends to join yet another social network. And that's just the beginning: when tomorrow's social networking site comes along with some new and compelling application, am I going to go through the whole process again? What about the multiplicity of effort required when I add someone to my network on a half-dozen sites? What about version skew between my various networks?

This isn't sustainable. In the long run, I can see three possible outcomes:

  • Social networking turns out to be a passing fad that goes totally bust.

    (Unlikely, IMO; social networks are a powerful idea, and the Internet isn't going away. Even if the current generation of networks withers, someday somebody will probably figure out how to make them compelling.)

  • Someone will figure out that sites must provide a (suitably authenticated) protocol so that people who are not the site owners can access social network data, using software of their choice. This may lead to a universe where some sites specialize in providing and aggregating the social network data itself, and third parties specialize in providing applications that operate on this data.

  • The marketplace converges on one or two social networking sites that everyone's on. Any smaller company that comes up with a cool new social network application finds itself rapidly preempted by the behemoths, who simply copy those applications and make them available on their (much larger, and hence much more compelling) social networks.

For a variety of reasons, I think that the second of these alternatives would be the best possible world. But the conventional wisdom with the current crop of sites seems to be: "The data we have is our main asset; by maintaining a stranglehold on access to that data, and thereby locking people into our web site, we increase our competitive edge." And FOAF looks too disorganized and unfocused to provide a credible alternative any time soon. So, it looks like we're headed to the last of the above alternatives.

In this scenario, if Dodgeball works, then sooner or later Friendster or one of the other big sites will copy Dodgeball, and Dodgeball will go out of business. And then, the next group of bright hackers who has some interesting idea for social networks may get discouraged, and decide not to pursue it.