Virtual worlds, social networks may intersect

[7 August 2007]

By Mark Boslet

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Imagine if those two neighborhoods came together.

Some Internet developers believe this blending of sites is inevitable - thanks to a new wave of technological openness spreading across the Net. Facebook is credited with sparking the change when it allowed outside programmers to develop new features for the wildly popular social networking site.

More openness is on the way, and with it innovation that could include the possible linking of popular Web destinations in ways that can only be imagined today, according to software executives and Internet entrepreneurs.

For users, the benefits could be endless. Imagine sending online invitations to friends and directing them to a virtual movie theater for an old Spencer Tracy classic. Or what if a social network - where members develop networks of acquaintances and post personal details - could permit users to display their virtual neighborhoods and online homes?

“There has to be something better than a static page,” said Fouad ElNaggar, an associate at the venture firm Redpoint Ventures in Menlo Park, referring to the Web pages in today’s social networks that do little more than hold profiles for others to see. “They are not how people do things in the real world.”

The new openness represents a dramatic turn for the Internet. Boosters say the potential for innovation and “mash-ups” - combinations that mix the features of two sites - will offer an exciting new dimension to Web 2.0 - the wave of innovation that has let users publish blogs, post videos on YouTube, accumulate friends on MySpace and even fire questions at presidential candidates.

They say this next step could lead to greater self-expression and new ways to communicate, in addition to offering more live events and creating spontaneity online that more closely resembles the real world.

Since Facebook began permitting any company or software developer to build services, or applications, on its site, more than 1,700 have appeared. One popular application called iLike keeps track of favorite bands and musicians. Another, Slide, creates collaborative slide shows.

“If Facebook is successful, the social-network sites of today will be obsolete,” said Salil Deshpande, a partner at the venture firm Bay Partners, which this month promised to invest between $25,000 and $250,000 in up to 50 companies developing applications. “It is something quite monumental.”

So far, the applications have been well received. According to a study of six top applications, including slide-show service RockYou, the average traffic growth to the application’s Web sites is 390 percent, said San Francisco-based researcher Quantcast.

Box.net’s application, which allows people to store music, photos and video, already has 60,000 registered users, said Aaron Levie, chief executive officer of the Palo Alto company.

Another early winner is Konstantin Guericke, co-founder of the social networking site LinkedIn and now chief executive officer of Jaxtr, a company with an online telephone service. Jaxtr designed an application for Facebook and other social networking sites that lets visitors call each other by phone. He now has 500,000 users.

These sites become “much more living organisms,” Guericke said.

One Facebook member, Todd Irwin of Redwood City, said iLike lets him learn about the musical interests of his friends as well as display his own favorite bands. “It allows me to express myself,” he said. “That’s one of the socializing aspects of the Web.”

This may be only the beginning. Many technology executives see independent developers finding even more creative ways of integrating Web 2.0 sites. “There will be many online communities of (open) sites, and you are going to be able to mash them together,” much like the music from two songs is mixed together to create something new, said Jeremy Burton, an Oracle and Symantec veteran who is now chief executive of Serena Software of San Mateo.

“If it was left up to programmers inside MySpace and Facebook, you wouldn’t get nearly as many,” said Burton, suggesting a lot of innovation is going to come from developers outside a company.

The Facebook decision already is becoming infectious. Social networker LinkedIn said it is looking at opening up its site to third-party development.

Second Life also is paying attention. The company is taking steps to allow outside developers more freedom to work with its software “platform.” Already, the virtual world allows people to create clothes for their avatars, storefronts and other items online, as well as write little programs to give avatars capabilities, such as the ability to dance.

Now it is moving to let third-party developers add extra features to the software that users need to install on their computers to enter Second Life’s virtual environment. There are other efforts under way as well, said Alex Yenni, a spokesman for the company.

MySpace also says it is looking at more broadly opening up to developers. The site already allows some access. Companies such as YouTube and Photobucket let users link videos and photos to their MySpace pages.

Sources suggest MySpace’s efforts may be further along than the company suggests, saying a decision has been made to allow broad access to its software “interfaces” and to launch a formal program to attract third-party software developers.

Some companies are adopting a more open approach right from the start. One-year-old Areae, a San Diego company, is building a virtual world that it claims will integrate more easily with other Web sites by design. President and founder Raph Koster points out that many Web 2.0 companies haven’t yet fully opened themselves up to interact with other sites. He says his product will be in testing soon but declines to offer details.

Integration is “a natural next step for social networking,” said Koster. “I think it is happening fairly quickly.”

Web 2.0 was indeed born with a lot of “single-purpose” sites, or islands to themselves, said Mike Cordano, chief executive of Fabrik, a San Mateo online storage company. “There was a narrowness of purpose.” Cordano says Fabrik wants to change this.

The company, founded in 2005, plans to open its own “interfaces” - software doorways that permit connections to other programs - in September with a new release of its software. The idea is to encourage other companies to link with its site.

The new openness could have a quick impact on the Web. In June, about 99 million people signed onto social networks, and several million more roamed virtual worlds, according to the market research firm Nielsen/NetRatings. The changes could quickly attract audiences, especially if creative applications evolve that permit friends to book joint vacations, play fantasy football, gamble, or buy and sell products.

The Internet needs to be more spontaneous, added Todd Dagres, general partner at Spark Capital. Open sites could help enable more life-like gatherings, similar to online-game communities, where users from around the world compete.

“I think the next iteration of Web 2.0, let’s call it Web 2.5, is to take a lot of stored applications (like a page in a social network) and make them live,” Dagres said.

This is beginning already. Gaia Interactive, a virtual world for teenagers, opened a cyber cinema at the end of May where members can join their friends to watch old movies, such as the “Night of the Living Dead.” Avatars plop into chairs, chat about the flicks and throw tomatoes at the screen. The films are attracting steady audiences.

“I believe the interoperability of services is a great illustration of the next generation of things for the Internet,” said Gaia Chief Executive Craig Sherman. “I think it is something virtual worlds in general should do.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/virtual-worlds-social-networks-may-intersect/