Bob Bickel of Ringside Networks is always sending interesting stuff to my trusty Thunderbird. His latest exposition is a timely call to arms regarding the Social Web, and is worth five minutes of any Webmaster's time. In essence, Bob's argument is that some version of open social (all rights reserved, Google Corp.) is happening, and that all you Webmasters are going to be dancing in the streets when you see what this thing will do. If, that is, you wake up in time and get to grips with what it means. And part of that, according to Bob, will mean that you're going to have to get savvy with Social Application Servers like Ringside's.

Social Big Bang

Most of you probably didn't notice, on account of you were sitting, glazed, in front of GTA 4, but the walls of Social Jericho shook last week, as both MySpace and Facebook announced that they are going to open up their user's identity, friends and other information to any websites that want it. Google is expected to make a similar announcement presently. If that happens, there will be no doubt: the foundation for ubiquitous Social Web will be already be upon us, enabling a far greater range of user interaction, and massively increasing the level of connection you can achieve with your audience. For instance, 'any website can start to offer socially aware applications, like putting a Facebook user's profile picture on that user's webpage, or listing friends to buy a gift for.' Of course that just scrapes the surface. The real applications for this thing are as yet unimagined, or at best lurking in some frustrated high-school kid's brain, stuck behind a bunch of geometry, Shakespeare, and endless sinful thoughts about girls, slowly simmering. To ask anyone for the genuine killer Social Web application now would be like asking Tim Berners-Lee in about 1988 to foresee Facebook Scrabulous. Guys who've been planning for this Social Big Bang (like Bickel), are kinda like those guys who used to go around wearing sandwich-boards declaiming the end of the world. You knew they were right and that it'd happen eventually; you just didn't think it was anything you were going to have to worry about anytime soon.
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Ringside Founder Bob Bickel Spreading the Word outside North Bridge Venture Partners, Boston (no, not really) But wouldn't you know it, that dang Social Armageddon just crept up on us. And so now we go crawling back to guys like Bob and ask them just what this thing is all about.

What We Need To Know About the Social Web

Bob reckons these are some of the questions that will need answering in the new open social environment: * If some of my users are on Facebook and some are on MySpace, how do I hook them together? * What about my website users who don't use a Social Network? Can they benefit? * Can I offer my own mini social network for my users that hooks into the bigger social networks? * How do I develop social applications that take advantage of all these social networks? * Do I really want to give the big social networks my data that my users trust me with? * Can I learn more about my users by understanding their social interactions better? * Can I retain the context of the social interactions that have to do with my business? All of which is dandy. It's likely that we will increasingly see more of the information which is currently fenced in behind Facebook et al used throughout the Web. That's the end result we can look forward to, and those questions will all be answered in good time. The real problem now facing us is how do we get from where we are to where we are going?

Social Web Architecture: Social Application Servers

What shape will the architecture take which will lead us down this road? An early front-runner is what Ringside call its Social Application Server, which 'enables website owners to weave social capabilities directly into existing websites while seamlessly integrating with ... social networks.' Or, putting it another way, SAS is 'a platform that enables Web site owners to build and deploy social applications that operate with existing content and business applications while seamlessly integrating with social networks such as Facebook.' Moreover, "For websites to really become part of the Social Web, they need their own Social Application Server. One that is open, one that works with their own infrastructure seamlessly, one that connects with Facebook and MySpace and Open Social, one that lets them build their own social graph for their website users, one that helps them understand the context of the social interactions their users are making." If you're interested, go get the download and see for yourself. SAS is free and open source. Download, upload, run through the installer, and you're done. At which stage you can build 'socially aware applications', and so forth. As well as the architecture to build and deploy Socially aware applications, you get a bunch of social-friendly apps built in to the Server, including: user profiles, friends, groups, comments, ratings, favorites, events, etc. And all of this stuff too: * Social Intelligence: Allows business owners to gain insight into their customers, users, relationships, groups, and interactions taking place on their website. * Facebook Compatibility: Enables any Facebook application to run on the Ringside Social Application Server with minimal changes. For Facebook developers, this provides the ability to develop applications on their laptops and deploy to Facebook and/or any website. * Federated Social Graphs: Provides the ability to integrate a Ringside-based social graph with other social networks such as Facebook with full user authentication and security as well as appropriate use according to the Facebook Terms of Service. * Extensible API and Tag Library: Enables developers to extend Facebook's API and Markup Language as well as define their own application-specific APIs and Tags in order to handle custom behavior and improve website integration.

Implications for the Web CMS Industry

Let's look at this from a practical perspective. Let's say Drupal is running your website. Drupal doesn't have this level of sophisticated social interaction built into its core product (nothing does, that we know of). So if Social Application Server or a client website-based analog 'wins', and becomes the dominant method of delivering open social information to your website... what happens? As already mentioned, Ringside's product is Open Source. So do the Web CMS products begin looking at ways to incorporate a product like this into their core framework, bundling it like TinyMCE? Will getting Social capabilities really be as easy as all that for the average, God-fearing Webmaster? Let's hope so. Because we're such good guys we're going to include the link to Bob's blog, even though it means we won't be able to steal his ideas anymore and pretend they're our own. We can also tell you that he and his troops hang out at Passariello's pizza place. We weren't sure which booth they normally go to, so we just bugged all of them. ... and then the plot thickened even as this article was being written, with some interesting open news from Google coming to light. Venture on to find out more. To find out more about the SAS technology and social applications, go to Ringside Networks.