Open Web, Open Social, Open ID, Open Graph: Definitions & Explanations

This post originally appeared on the Girls in Tech blog

Open – it’s a web buzzword so buzzy you can practically see the vuvuzelas flaring behind it. But, what does it really mean? And, why does everyone care so much?

But first, a little background. Most websites run like their own unique countries. They have specific rules, structures and languages in place to help the site communicate with its users, with its databases, with its developers, etc.  Because every site operates differently, it’s been historically difficult for programmers to create sites that can clearly communicate with each other in an efficient manner. That’s where the API – or application programming interface – comes in. To really simplify things, an API is like an interpreter that allows different sets of site code to communicate with one another coherently and consistently.

The past few years have really seen the rise of the API as an important part of a site’s structure, and as a major selling point for companies like Facebook and Twitter, whose API’s have allowed them to become more than just stand-alone websites. Thanks to API’s, these sites are now more like platforms, from which other developers can draw on the site’s databases and core functionality to create new features, programs and applications. They also allow sites to use information about the entire breadth of a user’s internet use – from the music you like on Pandora being promoted on your Facebook page to the friends you chat with on Gmail getting automatically loaded into your LinkedIn address book. And that’s where the whole open web thing comes into play.

The open web is basically a movement to standardize certain practices across the web, and to share data between developers and the sites they work for. It’s being heavily promoted by groups like the Open Web Foundation, who works to foster communication and collaboration across the web. But, it’s more conceptual than concrete.

Open Social, OpenID and the Facebook Open Graph are all concrete, code-based examples of the movement towards making the web more open.

Open Social, which was developed by Google and MySpace with help from various other partners,  is basically a set of APIs that allow users to sign in and share with one ID across sites that have implemented the OpenSocial code. Facebook’s Open Graph allows users to use their Facebook login information and data across a network of partner sites, and send and share content between their Facebook profiles and their profiles on these partner platforms.

Similarly, OpenID provides users with a single username and password, which can then be used across a variety of sites, including LiveJournal, Google and Yahoo. And, services like OAuth, which Twitter uses,  use the same sort of concept to allow users to give a single set of sign-in information for multiple sites – often with some restrictions on what kinds of data the sites you sign in to using those credentials can get access to.

These are all examples of a single service trying to make it easier for a user to take their login information, personal data and any content they’ve created or shared from site to site across the web. But, that’s not where this story ends. Now that so many of these services exist, there’s a bit of a battle going on to see if any one service can become the standard for everything social and shared across the web.

If any one service can stand out as the single place for users to get login credentials, store their data and share their content from, then the company behind it will have all sorts of power and influence on the internets. Not to mention major monetization opportunities, and unmatched access to all sorts of interesting information about pretty much every person who uses the web. Forget that silly little ring. On today’s web, it’s all about one registration to rule them all.

Of course, it’s not all as big brother as it sounds. In fact, these open web services are responsible for some of the coolest cross-site mashups and mobile apps around, and giving sites the ability to easily communicate with one another and share information across the internet is a surefire way to guarantee even more amazing innovations in years to come – and to save developers a whole lot of money on the Aspirin required to cope with the dizzying array of different standards and systems on the web today.

At this point, only time will tell how all of the new open web standards and services shake out. All I can say for sure is that it’s a really interesting time to be a web user – not to mention someone who works on the web.

And that, my friends, is what all the buzz is about.


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