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The 800-pound Gorilla
The tight controls exerted by Facebook may or may not help users, but they have certainly benefited the company, giving it an increasingly dominant position among social networks. However, that dominance is now being challenged by a player relatively new to this arena: Google.

Friend Connect, which Google announced just days after Facebook announced its own Connect, makes it simple for a site to add social-network functions by bringing in existing features and profiles from elsewhere. It competes directly with Facebook Connect, but there is a key difference: users can carry their profiles and connections to a new site from any network they belong to, as long as it supports Friend Connect. Google, in essence, is looking to become a middleman in the sharing of social information.

Despite such innovations, there is still a long way to go before data is freely shared among social-networking sites, says the ­DataPortability Project’s Saad. Right now, he says, many companies want data portability to be a one-way street. Some want to receive data from other sites without giving any up, while others want to provide data without receiving it–each hoping that its site will become a user’s primary social tool. In the future, Saad says, “we’re going to try and push quite firmly on the idea that you need to be both providing and consuming data; you can’t be doing one without the other.”

For users, the key question remains whether companies will find a way to make social tools work together in a simple, logical fashion. “If you can’t plug your camcorder into your VCR and your VCR into your TV, if things don’t work together, you just don’t use them,” Plaxo’s Joseph Smarr says. One way to achieve such compatibility is for a single company to control multiple online social tools; another is for a variety of companies to agree on common standards. As long as tools supporting both models proliferate, however, the users of social networks may be able to assert their preferences on the open market.

Erica Naone is an assistant editor at Technology Review

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Credit: Toby Burditt

Tagged: Communications, Facebook, Internet, Web 2.0, data protability, Plaxo

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