Facebook, Google, OpenSocial, Project Agape, Social Networking

Why the vast majority of nonprofits can’t take advantage of OpenSocial

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So here we go again! Another major step in the development of a new social networking platform is set to release tomorrow. Google and a panoply of other social networks have decided to one-up Facebook and create a super-platform whereby developers can create one application that can be served over Orkut (Google’s social network), LinkedIn, Hi5, Ning, Plaxo, and Friendster. Oddly enough, salesforce.com is in this mix too but it’s hard to understand how they can be a part of this unless your app can be added through AppExchange.

However it may be, your average nonprofit will not be able to take advantage of this development in a meaningful way. There’s no doubt that a few will be able to do so but that’s because they’ve already adopted the infrastructure and skill sets that would allow for rapid adoption for new technology. As I outlined in a couple of earlier posts, if you’re not even state-of-2005 in your application development practices, don’t bother with OpenSocial. Basically, your IT architecture needs to handle hundreds and then eventually thousands of requests per minute and you need to do some seriously rapid application development. If you’re not using EC2 or a web framework like Django or Ruby on Rails or even an agile methodology, forget about it. You’re toast. However, I suspect only ventures that are VC-backed will be quick enough to do this.

It’s an interesting race because one could say that Project Agape’s Causes has had an unfair competitive advantage due to Joe Green’s connections to Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. As a result, Causes was the ONLY charity app on Facebook for several weeks and had a huge head start during a period when you could invite an unlimited number of your friends to the app. To this date, competing charity apps are having a tough time breaking 20,000 users while Causes is probably going to have its seven millionth user before mid-November. If Causes is the 800 lb. gorilla of Facebook charity apps, it has little or no recognition outside of it. It’s about as pure a play on Facebook as you can get it as Project Agape doesn’t even have an extensive Web presence.

Google OpenSocial hits a reset button for all the players involved – we can now see whether or not the new microphilanthropies (including the one I’m a part of — socialmarkets.org) will be able to change course and adopt this new API. Ironically, this makes the Facebook portion of Convio’s new open platform even more inadequate than it already is for dealing with this new open world of social networking. Facebook apps are not compatible with Google OpenSocial because Facebook’s markup language is only useful for Facebook. This is ultimately Google’s flanking maneuver against Facebook and probably something that may not have been released had Google won the bid to own a portion of Facebook. The incompatibility of the two APIs will certainly cause developers to look at the prospective user audiences involved. After all, at least for nonprofit technologists, LinkedIn has always represented a more “premium” audience for charity asks than Facebook ever did. The addition of the other social networks is nice and can round out your worldwide reach. For instance, Orkut is strong in India and Friendster in East and SE Asia. So imagine being a charity app developer, you can get fifty million young Anglophones (Facebook) or 100 million users worldwide (Google OpenSocial), which would you pick?

And yes, this means the Gold Rush begins TOMORROW. The chances for your app to explode in a viral fashion diminish quickly by every day you’re not out there. Sigh. It’s like the 1990s all over again.

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  • On 10.31.07 Julius said:

    I’m really curious about Google OpenSocial and how we might be able to use if for our own charity social network site Helpalot. I wonder if everyone is going to be ok with Google having a full monopoly over information on their lives. Soon they’ll have: your searches (obviously), your email, your work document, your location and perhaps your relation to your friends.

    I don’t mind big companies, but it does seem a little bit scary. Can’t we find/build some sort of open source like OpenSocial? Perhaps do some sort of torrent-like data and load sharing.

    I had a quick look on your socialmarkets.org website. It’s not really clear to me how you are going to set the value of ehm.. efforts/things. I guess some sort of market voice will set the value?

    Anyway, it sounds interesting, perhaps we can help each other in some way. Send me an email if you think we can.


  • On 10.31.07 Allan Benamer said:

    Yeah, everyone wants an open-source version of OpenSocial. I want world peace and ice cream sundaes every day but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get it either. The problem with an open source version of OpenSocial isn’t that it can’t be engineered but that you have to convince people to adopt it for social networks. Or worse, build an open source social network that uses that as its backend. I’m a huge FOSS fan but FOSS is a particularly bad fit for the kind of marketing it takes to build a social network due to its fragmented marketing messages. There have been FOSS networks out there — I pointed to barnraiser.org quite a bit of time ago. They end up being customized for a particular niche network like Ning does. And that’s the problem right? FOSS is decentralized and doesn’t like to keep its hooks in you when the most successful social networks uses network effects to do precisely those things. All that’s needed is a major screw up with these APIs like viruses and a lot of people will leave. Until then, commercial social networks have yet to teach the lesson to its users that commercial software already has done.

    And yes, Julius, I’ve been tracking your site for quite some time. And yeah, we don’t mention the secret sauce yet. The secret sauce of SROI metrics won’t be revealed until next year when our beta comes out. Don’t worry — it’s not that secret and will be resoundingly obvious once you learn about it. ;)

    I’ll email you in a bit — I’m just hunkered down working on the alpha for socialmarkets…

  • On 11.01.07 Kurt Voelker said:

    Alan, I’ve got to respectfully disagree with your core position that many nonprofits can’t take advantage of Open Social. If I’m reading you right you claim that because an organization doesn’t know how to write code that scales, or hasn’t embraced an “agile methodology” they cant take advantage of an API that isn’t even officially available yet? That’s just silly.

    It also sends the completely wrong message to those responsible for crafting the strategic communications direction for nonprofits. It’s the kind of thing IT Directors within nonprofits get a bad rap for – it obfuscates the strategic opportunities presented to nonprofits by social media with technical worry-warting. Following your advice, if they don’t know what Django or Rails are (like that solves the scalability issue?) then they can dismiss the massive opportunity to tap into social media because its just beyond them. Yep, no need to even attempt to get their heads around it because they might get, heaven forbid, hundreds of thousands of requests.

    This new API should be looked at carefully by any organization that is creating a social media strategy – and it doesn’t take deep pockets or rocket scientist developers to do that. If you’re a communications director, you dont even have to know what an API is, but you better look into how to engage your constituency online. Take things in that order, and your organization can be well-positioned to tackle the technical side of things.

    Just my .02

  • On 11.01.07 Allan Benamer said:

    Ahh, Kurt, I love the work you do but frankly, I’m not saying anything that should be rocket science to anyone. To wit, how many nonprofits have set up a Facebook app by themselves? That’s after several months of history for the Facebook platform itself. Next, how many nonprofits will be able to ramp up to an OpenSocial app in the timeframe necessary (probably within the next 21 days) to have explosive growth? Can they get a strategy, servers deployed and staff all together in this timeframe without a project methodology or programming infrastructure in place?

    I think the difference here is that you’re selling this to them as a marketing strategy. That’s fine. However, it’s a strategy that’s going to distract the vast majority of nonprofits that still don’t have the infrastructure. And let me tell you Kurt, an equally weighty charge can be levied by nonprofit IT directors at consultants of bleeding nonprofits dry with initiatives that don’t align with the org’s mission. (I’m not saying you do this — I’ve seen your work and it’s very good. What I’m saying here is that nonprofits need lots of Kurt Voelkers in-house.)

    What nonprofits need to do is prepare their staff and infrastructure to take advantage of opportunities like OpenSocial. Working with consultants can rob nonprofits of a great opportunity to take expertise in-house so that they can turn on a dime strategically. This is more important as Internet time increases its pace. So you may call this technical worry-warting, I call it preparing for lucky opportunities. If a nonprofit decides to go with a consultancy to build an OpenSocial app, they miss out on the chance to build the staff and infrastructure to take advantage of further opportunities that may come down the line. (And I don’t think OpenSocial is the end of this) Really good nonprofit marketers don’t want more consultants, they want organizational agility and the ability to deliver with rapidity and efficiency. I don’t see how a really good nonprofit marketing strategy and really good nonprofit application developers are incompatible. This is not to say that consultants are faster or slower than nonprofit staff once the strategy is in place.

    The problem, of course, is that the strategy and business logic has to be communicated to the consultant. That takes up precious time when you’re trying to get to market quickly. And there are always misunderstandings. I believe nonprofits could ramp up quicker and cheaper if they bothered to do it on their own and many of my recent postings have been suggestions and tips to do exactly that. It’s a shame that they can’t or won’t consider this sort of internal staff restructuring as it only increases the amount of friction in the online fundraising sector which oddly enough benefits people like me.

  • On 11.01.07 Kurt Voelker said:

    Interesting take. Do you really think the opportunity for any organization is lost if they dont deploy an app in the next 21 days?

  • On 11.01.07 Allan Benamer said:

    I guess the issue here is what happened on Facebook. Causes stomped on everyone and people are having a tough time getting more users because of Facebook’s restriction on invitations. I’m talking about explosive, Andromeda strain-like growth that ends up with seven million users in a matter of months. If a nonprofit is happy with 20,000 users with pretty much the same effort and expense, then by all means, they should wait six months and do it then.

    There’s only one issue that really matters, right? Whether or not the social networks that make up OpenSocial will also install that throttle on apps invites soon after launch just like Facebook did. My bet is that they will in order to control bandwidth. My thinking is why wait for external factors to hinder the growth of your app? DO IT NOW. Avoid the hassle of having your app wait in line along with everyone else. There seems to be a massive first-mover advantage on this. Unfortunately, I don’t think socialmarkets can do it in time as we’ll be releasing too late to do anything about it. Such is life.

    However, we’re poised for later opportunities should they come along. And that’s what I’m talking about here. If you’re going to get in the game, make sure you have great players on your side and a great infrastructure to support them. Don’t be like the NY Yankees, buying players left and right without strategic thought involved.

  • On 11.02.07 David Zeidman said:

    I have to agree with Kurt on this one. I don’t think rushing to market with an application that is the first one there is necessarily the best thing to do. It may have worked for Causes (although only the vote is still out there for their long term success) but there have just been too many cases of dot com fever where poorly planned, shoddily developed applications have been rushed out in the name of getting to market first and have not been a real part of an organization’s strategy.

    An organization’s response to the online world needs to be held in the same vain as their other strategic decisions; namely carefully planned to generate value. This cannot possibly work for the majority when the time-frame is 21 days.


  • On 11.02.07 Allan Benamer said:

    “although only the vote is still out there for their long term success” — I’m near speechless at that comment. So 7 million installations and nearly 350,000 active users a day is not a vote for long-term success? May I inquire as to what standard you’re trying to set for all apps here?

    And yes, it’s a 21 day time frame. What’s interesting is that Project Agape was not a launch partner for OpenSocial. It’s a huge opening for online fundraising sites other than Project Agape. Tell you what David, give me one rushed app with 1,000,000 users and you can keep your “perfect” app with 10,000 users. Notice that I’m not even considering nonprofits at this point. Nonprofits are not ready to handle this issue. This 21 day time frame is only for those orgs with significant investment around an online presence and can back that up with the developers, project management skills and infrastructure. We’re talking change.org, Changing the Present, Project Agape, maybe Razoo etc. It’s an elite set of online charities we’re talking about here. This is NOT for the meek.

  • On 11.02.07 David Zeidman said:

    “So 7 million installations and nearly 350,000 active users a day is not a vote for long-term success?”

    No it is not. Long-term success is how many active users they have in a year’s time or a couple of year’s time. Whether the hype surrounding them survives longer term. That is long term success.

    “This is NOT for the meek”

    Then I would say that the majority of the most successful charities in the worlds are “meek” by your definition.

  • On 11.02.07 Allan Benamer said:

    Ok David, I think your standards for success are way too high especially when no other online fundraiser can match it also. Kiva, Globalgiving, change.org and Changing the Present combined can’t touch the installed base of Causes but apparently that’s not enough? I think we’ll just have to disagree here. Anyway, Causes will hit its 1 year anniversary in four months. If they’re above 10 million installed users then, will you concede that they are going to be a long-term success?

    I’ve listed the top 25 web sites that are run by nonprofits. Of those 25, Wikimedia Foundation and caringbridge.org stand out because of their minuscule budgets in comparison to the “most successful charities in the world”. That is what I mean by agility. Most of those agencies in that top 25 list are big on the Web because of their enormous scale in terms of publicity and marketing not because of some inherent ability to do application development. They still deserve kudos just for getting the traffic but not everyone started with an equal footing. And that’s the issue here — OpenSocial gives you that equal footing but it will not stay that way for long. Indeed, RockYou is a Facebook apps developer that gets early shots at the API. So, it’s only somewhat equal footing. In this kind of scenario, being meek is simply a drawback.

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