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Apple’s Ping Versus the Social Web


In my last article, I wrote about the potential impact that Apple’s iTunes Ping, their just-released social network for music, might have on other social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The more important question is, What impact might Ping have on the Social Web?

Since posting my article, I have read a number of other observers’ opinions about Ping. Although many of these articles show great insight and erudition with respect to why Ping, in its current incarnation, falls short in offering a truly social platform on which to discuss music, I have not seen a single article about the most ominous portent of Ping.

A Private Social Club

A big part of my professional day is spent thinking about issues surrounding the Social Web and working on solutions. I do this via debating and evangelizing approaches to making the Web a better place for users and by actively participating in the development of open source social media projects like BuddyPress.

What’s interesting to note is Ping will be an instantly-large social network that is not part of what we have traditionally termed the Social Web. Since iTunes is not a Web-based platform, instead running on a proprietary application that ties into the Internet, the software infrastructure that enabled the success of Web-2.0 startups like Facebook and Twitter is removed from the equation. With Apple’s successful line of products and large install base, more social-networking attention will shift away from the Web.

Ping is another closed data silo, but one that does not live on the Web. It is a closed data silo on a private, exclusive island. It’s a private social club. Will large companies follow Apple’s lead and migrate their social networks off the Web and onto proprietary platforms as well? An increasing percentage of Twitter traffic, for instance, is generated off Web, with input and output instead happening via proprietary applications (TweetDeck as an example, or via one of Twitter’s mobile apps). Fortunately, Twitter provides Web APIs that allow for a subset of their data to be discovered and shared via URIs.

But Ping is different. Its data are not Web-discoverable. Although you can share a Ping URI with friends via the Web, the link redirects from the browser to iTunes—Apple’s proprietary platform. This allows people into Ping’s private club but does not free Ping’s data to the Web. Ping operates in the Internet, not the Web.

This is an issue as the Social Web already struggles with identity and privacy management and still has not lived up to the promise of user-centric data control. Closed data silos snub their nose at the full potential of the Web but closed social islands, like Ping, simple refuse to accept the vision of the Web altogether.

If companies do migrate their networks to propritary platforms, then the issue of data portability and semantic discovery via the power and promise of the Web of linked data will become moot. What will happen to the Social Web? It will become a cobweb on a rundown offramp of the Internet.

Speak Out

What impact do you think Ping will have on social networking, in particular the Social Web? Do you see social networking moving away from the Web, and if so, what are the impacts to users? Do we need to rethink the meaning and use of the term Social Web to encompass social platforms that exist off Web?

Article Comments

  1. sull says:

    Apple has their reasons for maintaining iTunes as a hybrid internet app. It’s a cornerstone.
    They wont migrate away from it until they release a product that will essentially be Safari + iTunes with some new name. That will have much deeper web integration as essentially much of what you see in iTunes is HTML, CSS, Javascript (e.g. LP albums).

    Sprinkling some social features into the purchase experience make sense and it is perfectly normal as much as it is late in the game. Apple can afford not to do things until they want to do them. No risk. That is unless your PR people mess up and in my opinion, this Ping announcement was damaged by vocabulary. Because it is not a “Social Network for Music” even if technically it is 😉 People understand social networks to be Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Tagged, Orkut etc. They are present on the Web as well as companion apps for devices. They open in certain ways. They allow for user-generated content and easy communication with friends and family. Etc etc. Ping is a different product and Apple should have said as much. Ping is a set of basic social assist features for Apple customer purchases on iTunes. They could have clearly said that Ping is not like Facebook and then they would not have had to deal with all the comparisons and obvious negative press from the media who have touted Ping as the next big social network. It’s about language imo.

    If Apple would have used the right language, Ping would be seen as a nice enhancement to the music (and other media formats) buying experience by leveraging “friend” purchase data. Now even if this was properly defined in the announcement, Ping is still flawed in various ways. But I wont delve into it on your blog comments since it has already been over-covered and you and your readers are aware.

    As for the Social Web….. I think this in no way negatively impacts the momentum of the Social Web. Ping is a side-experience and the features it currently has are staples and eventually will be present in all applications that are geared to sell things. It is common sense. It is not a replacement to the Web platform. Especially when people are so used to using several services to meet their needs. Nobody is going to drop what they know an dlike just to live inside iTunes and its store. We have to give the users more credit than that.

    Ping was needed. The hype was manufactured and backfired on Apple from what I can tell. They painted a target on themselves so shit can get flung at them. Not smart but sometimes thats what happens when you live in a big bubble with admiring and compliant fans.


    • Jeff Sayre says:

      I agree with most of what you say. Ping is a social experience and not a social network. Apple should have branded it as such.

      With regards to Apple’s possible webification of iTunes–by embedding Safari capabilities within the platform, for instance–I do not see any incentive for them to do so at this time. More social-networking traffic is going off Web these days with users becoming comfortable accessing their social networks via proprietary apps on mobile devices. Apple has a healthy non-Web ecosystem with which to control user experience and attention. The only advantage of creating a Web version of Ping would be to allow 3rd-party developers to more easily access Ping’s data for inclusion on 3rd-party websites. Since Apple will undoubtably create a Ping API for iOS devices, there is little need to consider a Web-facing API.

  2. Paul Gibbs says:

    Hi Jeff
    Interesting post. I was at dConstruct 2010 yesterday and one of the speakers was Tom Coates whose talk was entitled “everything the network touches (sketchnotes).”

    I can’t hope to do justice to what Tom said, but he announced the death of the semantic web and celebrated its evolution from a series of basic silos, to a place where sites interact with each other and data flows freely to the place where it is most useful. An example given was Lanyrd which combines data from conference from you and your Twitter friends.

    One of Tom’s points was that despite many years of effort by the semantic web community, the ideas of the semantic web have not been universally adopted, and, in my personal experience, when it has been adopted, it often becomes a “take what we want and give nothing back” approach. Tom said that it turns out that the “big companies” actually have done it correctly; the key point being to ensure that the silo’s pipes allows data in and out, to let the data flow freely.

    • Jeff Sayre says:

      Thanks for the comments. I followed your dConstruct tweets with interest and did see the reference to Tom Coat’s assertion that the Semantic Web is dead. I take a different view.

      The marketing of Semantic Web concepts, technologies, and benefits was somewhat bungled from the start. Unless you were a technologist, the packaging of the SemWeb brand was about as enticing as a box of overly-ripe bananas. No one would want to open that box.

      Because of this–and for a few political and practical reasons—the Semantic Web brand was forked to the Linked Data brand. The details are not important. What is important is that whatever term and technologies one wants to use, the Web of Data is beginning to emerge in a powerful way.

      Just look at Facebook’s OpenGraph API. Whereas their efforts to expose data to the Web is admirable, the underlying ontology with which the data is encoded is closed, something that does go against the mantra of openness that the Semantic Web movement is keen to preserve.

      The main point, however, is that with their Open Graph ontology, Facebook is adding metadata in the form of RDFa to the content generated by all 500 million of their users. RDF is one of the underpinning technologies to the Semantic Web. In fact, this comming week, I speculate that Google will announce a similar effort with its search.

      With Google and Facebook providing RDFified, machine-discoverable data, the Semantic Web is not dead, it is not dying. Google will be the big motivating factor in getting smaller players to provide RDFa marked-up content as that will be what’s required for their data to be spidered by Google’s new search features.

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