Did Andreessen miss the point of Google’s Friend Connect?

I was just reading feeds and it is 4 a.m. in the morning, so maybe I missed something here. But Marc Andreessen just spent quite a few words trying to convince me that Google’s Friend Connect doesn’t compete with Ning, the service he runs that helps companies build their own social network.

Now, if you compare Ning and Google’s Friend Connect head on, Marc is correct. They don’t compete. Ning is a complete social networking site that you can use without doing any coding. Friend Connect is a platform for building social networking features into existing sites (and more, but I’ll just focus on this one piece for the purposes of being clear here).

Look at it another way, though, and you’ll see that Ning and Friend Connect certainly does compete for the same users: people in corporations who want to add more social features to their existing Web sites. Very few corporate site owners, after all, will want to throw out everything they’ve done just to build some identity, commenting, and social networking features into their sites.

In Ning’s approach you gotta pretty much move your site over to Ning and really rethink things. At least that’s the way it’s always been presented to me.

In Google’s approach you just copy some JavaScript code over to your corporate site and, voila, you have a social network and features added to your site. Watch the presentation on Monday night that I filmed and you’ll see this demoed very well.

Reading Marc’s note, I’m not sure he got what Friend Connect does. That’s OK, I’m a little slow on picking it up too, which is why I videoed the Google event where they showed off what it is so I could watch it a few times and pick up on what they really showed off.

I can see why Marc would want his customers to think that Google’s Friend Connect isn’t a way to build a social network, but it sure looked like it is a competitor of Ning’s.

Now, in defense of Ning (and Ning’s competitors like Broadband Mechanics) Ning does a LOT more than what Google does so far.

But again, I doubt most corporate customers think they need everything that Ning offers. To many corporate customers Friend Connect will be just what the webmaster ordered and THAT has got to be causing Ning’s management to be concerned. Certainly enough to write a blog post trying to distance their offering from Friend Connect.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Marc Andreessen wrote me back already and said that his target market for Ning is NOT corporate customers who want to add social networking features to their sites. Looking at their site it looks like Ning is going almost wholly after consumer market. OK, if that’s true, then Marc has a point.

29 thoughts on “Did Andreessen miss the point of Google’s Friend Connect?

  1. What makes Ning potentially much more interesting than FriendConnect, feed aggregators or the incumbent social networks (Facebook, etc.) is interest fragmentation / micro-segmentation (two sides of the same coin). To state the obvious, Ning is a bet on the need for self-expression by niches.

    If you are a passionate reader and particularly crazy about John Steinbeck, you could flag that as a fact about yourself in Facebook, you could join Shelfari or you could set up a special John Steinbeck fan site on Ning. Only the last allows micro segmentation. (Shelfari does come close but while it is easy to imagine top down social networks for mainstream interests such as books, the concept breaks down for long tail interests. Only crowdsourcing – the Ning approach – can sustain social networks in the long tail.

    The commercial dimension to this is that heterogeneous (in terms of interests served) social networks make context extraction very difficult, so can be quite hard to monetise. In contrast, micro-segmented social networks allow much more precise context extraction (I mean why participate in a John Steinbeck themed social network, if you do not absolutely care for the guy) that allows more effective monetisation.

    As an external observer, this seems to me to be what sets Ning apart from everyone else. If they were public, I would go very long on them right now.

  2. What makes Ning potentially much more interesting than FriendConnect, feed aggregators or the incumbent social networks (Facebook, etc.) is interest fragmentation / micro-segmentation (two sides of the same coin). To state the obvious, Ning is a bet on the need for self-expression by niches.

    If you are a passionate reader and particularly crazy about John Steinbeck, you could flag that as a fact about yourself in Facebook, you could join Shelfari or you could set up a special John Steinbeck fan site on Ning. Only the last allows micro segmentation. (Shelfari does come close but while it is easy to imagine top down social networks for mainstream interests such as books, the concept breaks down for long tail interests. Only crowdsourcing – the Ning approach – can sustain social networks in the long tail.

    The commercial dimension to this is that heterogeneous (in terms of interests served) social networks make context extraction very difficult, so can be quite hard to monetise. In contrast, micro-segmented social networks allow much more precise context extraction (I mean why participate in a John Steinbeck themed social network, if you do not absolutely care for the guy) that allows more effective monetisation.

    As an external observer, this seems to me to be what sets Ning apart from everyone else. If they were public, I would go very long on them right now.

  3. Ning would be better for a small group, condo association, church group, fan club. Everything you need in 5 minutes, and send the next 5 years customizing. If it gets big enough you can even get a domain name and stay with Ning for the infrastructure.

    Google lately has been introducing several new goodies every week. Sometimes blockbusters like this, other times just a new map overlay or something. They may not be as nimble as they once were, but they are running circles around Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and the other established players (no, Facebook shouldn’t be lumped in with the older walled-garden crowd age-wise, except that is the way they are acting).

    Still, some of the new Google stuff doesn’t always lend itself to novice use. Much of this latest round requires that you be able to cut-and-paste code snippets into parts of your web presentation that you don’t have easy access to unless you own your own servers. Ironically you can’t easily use some of this stuff if you are also a user of Google pages. They aren’t stopping to make sure that everything works seamlessly together. Conceptually Google is re-implementing for the web the same overlapping bloated wasteland that Windows/Office has become. The difference is, that as a user, I only pick and choose the components that interest me. The rest don’t fill up my hard drive or constantly ding my CPU for cycles or present targets for viruses (at least not the type I have to worry about).

    I guess somewhere at Microsoft they are webifying Word and Excel and at Facebook they have decided to let their captive chat users connect with AIM and Jabber (what a concept! What next? E-mail?) While MS and Facebook play chess with their features, the Nings and Googles are playing Tetris, spitting out new features as fast as possible and letting users figure out how to pack them together.

    It’s a much better model for development, don’t you think?

  4. Ning would be better for a small group, condo association, church group, fan club. Everything you need in 5 minutes, and send the next 5 years customizing. If it gets big enough you can even get a domain name and stay with Ning for the infrastructure.

    Google lately has been introducing several new goodies every week. Sometimes blockbusters like this, other times just a new map overlay or something. They may not be as nimble as they once were, but they are running circles around Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and the other established players (no, Facebook shouldn’t be lumped in with the older walled-garden crowd age-wise, except that is the way they are acting).

    Still, some of the new Google stuff doesn’t always lend itself to novice use. Much of this latest round requires that you be able to cut-and-paste code snippets into parts of your web presentation that you don’t have easy access to unless you own your own servers. Ironically you can’t easily use some of this stuff if you are also a user of Google pages. They aren’t stopping to make sure that everything works seamlessly together. Conceptually Google is re-implementing for the web the same overlapping bloated wasteland that Windows/Office has become. The difference is, that as a user, I only pick and choose the components that interest me. The rest don’t fill up my hard drive or constantly ding my CPU for cycles or present targets for viruses (at least not the type I have to worry about).

    I guess somewhere at Microsoft they are webifying Word and Excel and at Facebook they have decided to let their captive chat users connect with AIM and Jabber (what a concept! What next? E-mail?) While MS and Facebook play chess with their features, the Nings and Googles are playing Tetris, spitting out new features as fast as possible and letting users figure out how to pack them together.

    It’s a much better model for development, don’t you think?

  5. Goodle ought to hope they are not competing for the same type of user … Ning is so easy to set up and use its almost idiot prof …. From what I have seen of Friend Connect you have to be a developer to implement it ….. Ning wins on ease of use – speed – and function

  6. Goodle ought to hope they are not competing for the same type of user … Ning is so easy to set up and use its almost idiot prof …. From what I have seen of Friend Connect you have to be a developer to implement it ….. Ning wins on ease of use – speed – and function

  7. I agree with your first position, that Friend Connect and Ning will go head to head.

    FC is not just for enterprise. It’s for anyone who has a website. So you have a choice now: do you (a) build a Ning network and link off of your site to it, (b) redesign your whole site on the Ning platform, or (c) add FC to your website. The last option seems like the easiest. You give up some control because you don’t have the audience on your servers, but you get a functionality as if you do. And unless your online network is a huge part of your company’s value, then the FC tools are a simple value add to your website. It makes your site more sticky and attracts more traffic.

    That said, there is plenty of room for both b/c they are different enough (until Google decides to offer a full-featured platform, which would be quite easy for them). The big losers in this are the companies who are providing white label solutions to enterprise customers. Google just did a huge end run around them.

  8. I agree with your first position, that Friend Connect and Ning will go head to head.

    FC is not just for enterprise. It’s for anyone who has a website. So you have a choice now: do you (a) build a Ning network and link off of your site to it, (b) redesign your whole site on the Ning platform, or (c) add FC to your website. The last option seems like the easiest. You give up some control because you don’t have the audience on your servers, but you get a functionality as if you do. And unless your online network is a huge part of your company’s value, then the FC tools are a simple value add to your website. It makes your site more sticky and attracts more traffic.

    That said, there is plenty of room for both b/c they are different enough (until Google decides to offer a full-featured platform, which would be quite easy for them). The big losers in this are the companies who are providing white label solutions to enterprise customers. Google just did a huge end run around them.

  9. Robert,

    In this era of cloud computing, arguments like “I want to keep a web app in my own infrastructure” doesn’t make any sense. There might be a few companies with hangover from last era saying this. Now, IT doesn’t matter. CIOs will become endangered species. Wanting to keep your website and apps in your infrastructure is naive and stupid from a business angle. Even with friend connect, you rely on Google’s infrastructure in a way. If any company is smart, they will not fall for the “I wanna keep my stuff in my cupboard argument” in this cloud computing era.

    Also, if anyone wants to keep their stuff in their cupboard, Marc Canter’s People Aggregator offers this option too. So, there can be more players in this space in spite of Google. I like Google’s approach with their friend connect. But there is no way they will gain monopoly in the decentralization marketplace.

  10. Robert,

    In this era of cloud computing, arguments like “I want to keep a web app in my own infrastructure” doesn’t make any sense. There might be a few companies with hangover from last era saying this. Now, IT doesn’t matter. CIOs will become endangered species. Wanting to keep your website and apps in your infrastructure is naive and stupid from a business angle. Even with friend connect, you rely on Google’s infrastructure in a way. If any company is smart, they will not fall for the “I wanna keep my stuff in my cupboard argument” in this cloud computing era.

    Also, if anyone wants to keep their stuff in their cupboard, Marc Canter’s People Aggregator offers this option too. So, there can be more players in this space in spite of Google. I like Google’s approach with their friend connect. But there is no way they will gain monopoly in the decentralization marketplace.

  11. I suspect that Puneet Gupta’s ConnectBeam is more directly in the path of Google’s Friend Connect.

  12. I suspect that Puneet Gupta’s ConnectBeam is more directly in the path of Google’s Friend Connect.

  13. From an corporate or serious/professional web publisher’s point of view, Ning and Friend Connect both suffer the same shortcoming, ownership of the relationship with the audience. If you’re a professional web publisher, core to your business are 3 things: your brand, content and relationships with your audience. As a bolt on, neither Ning or Friend Connect (or Data Availability or Facebook Connect for that matter) give you that ownership. Marc’s right, the power in Friend Connect is as a gateway to a large, aggregated audience. Under the right circumstances it is a great tool for driving pageviews and engagement on your website. A terrific value add. What you can only get from owning the data is the deep insight that fuels programming, marketing and targeted advertising.

  14. From an corporate or serious/professional web publisher’s point of view, Ning and Friend Connect both suffer the same shortcoming, ownership of the relationship with the audience. If you’re a professional web publisher, core to your business are 3 things: your brand, content and relationships with your audience. As a bolt on, neither Ning or Friend Connect (or Data Availability or Facebook Connect for that matter) give you that ownership. Marc’s right, the power in Friend Connect is as a gateway to a large, aggregated audience. Under the right circumstances it is a great tool for driving pageviews and engagement on your website. A terrific value add. What you can only get from owning the data is the deep insight that fuels programming, marketing and targeted advertising.

  15. i do think there’s a market for both. when a bunch of etsy sellers want to create the etsy social network, they’ll do it on ning, as they have already done.

    when i want to turn my blog into a social network, which i’ve done already with mybloglog and disqus, google’s friend connect is a better choice.

    one thing’s for sure, the web is going social super fast and not everyone is using facebook to have great social interactions on the web.

  16. i do think there’s a market for both. when a bunch of etsy sellers want to create the etsy social network, they’ll do it on ning, as they have already done.

    when i want to turn my blog into a social network, which i’ve done already with mybloglog and disqus, google’s friend connect is a better choice.

    one thing’s for sure, the web is going social super fast and not everyone is using facebook to have great social interactions on the web.

  17. Dave:

    Marc Andreessen certainly knows who his company is trying to target. But, I wonder if he knows how to grow Ning into a viable competitor strong enough to stave off the competition?

    I am a Ning social network creator. I have created the fastest growing global network of content professionals using Ning. In just under two months I’ve attracted nearly 1700 members from countries around the world. I was able to do so easily, thanks to Ning.

    However, despite its easy setup, the company still has yet to identify and create their own “evangelists” from members in their customer base. Folks like me, and my alter ego, The Content Wrangler, have big audiences (and a mailing list of nearly 20,000 content management professionals). If we were brought into the development process and actively involved in marketing it, Ning would grow faster, better, and perhaps, stay ahead of the competition.

    So Marc, if you’re reading this. I’d love to have a chat with you about Ning. It’s a wonderful and powerful platform that needs loud-mouthed evangelists with big audiences to promote its growth.

    The opportunity cost of switching from one platform to another will prevent companies from bouncing from one social network tool to another, but in the consumer market, that’s not the case. Google and other competitors will fragment the space. But, if Marc and his team are smart, they’ll get connected with the right folks and cement themselves into the niche markets they are undoubtedly creating.

    I see Ning as the perfect tool for trade associations, product-specific customer support centers, and so much more. But, without evangelists, Ning is going to face a harder battle than they need to.

    Scott Abel
    Blog: http://www.thecontentwrangler.com
    Community: http://thecontentwrangler.ning.com
    Email: scottabel@mac.com

  18. Dave:

    Marc Andreessen certainly knows who his company is trying to target. But, I wonder if he knows how to grow Ning into a viable competitor strong enough to stave off the competition?

    I am a Ning social network creator. I have created the fastest growing global network of content professionals using Ning. In just under two months I’ve attracted nearly 1700 members from countries around the world. I was able to do so easily, thanks to Ning.

    However, despite its easy setup, the company still has yet to identify and create their own “evangelists” from members in their customer base. Folks like me, and my alter ego, The Content Wrangler, have big audiences (and a mailing list of nearly 20,000 content management professionals). If we were brought into the development process and actively involved in marketing it, Ning would grow faster, better, and perhaps, stay ahead of the competition.

    So Marc, if you’re reading this. I’d love to have a chat with you about Ning. It’s a wonderful and powerful platform that needs loud-mouthed evangelists with big audiences to promote its growth.

    The opportunity cost of switching from one platform to another will prevent companies from bouncing from one social network tool to another, but in the consumer market, that’s not the case. Google and other competitors will fragment the space. But, if Marc and his team are smart, they’ll get connected with the right folks and cement themselves into the niche markets they are undoubtedly creating.

    I see Ning as the perfect tool for trade associations, product-specific customer support centers, and so much more. But, without evangelists, Ning is going to face a harder battle than they need to.

    Scott Abel
    Blog: http://www.thecontentwrangler.com
    Community: http://thecontentwrangler.ning.com
    Email: scottabel@mac.com

  19. Google Friend Connect is embedded Ning (i.e. it’s integrated socnet/community functionality). And since GFC/3rd party developers will be adding more apps the gap between the two will shrink, in functional terms. Ning feels more neutral to me, as a platform, though (although that may be an illusion). So think it will come down to whether the site ‘owner’ wants a completely managed platform, a la the self-contained white label socnets, or if plugging the functionality into a pre-existing site does the job fine.

    Thing for me is whether site owners will also be prepared to cede this aspect of their web presence, i.e. social is becoming ever more important, to somebody like Google. There’s one thing integrating adsense, but it’s quite another to have them essentially be in control of the social element of your site too (haven’t worked out where data ownership resides here, and if Google lays a claim on it). Will be interesting to see how they build out the publisher tools side of things, to help the publisher interact with their Google-powered community. Also, will a more neutral like js-kit be more attractive to publishers who fear the Google influence (Goog’s reach will probably make it difficult for that to be the case). Also interesting for people like disqus.

    And btw, how long before Yahoo re-purpose MyBlogLog to do essentially the same sort of stuff on a broader scale, leveraging the Yahoo social graph (and plugging into 3rd party social graphs too)? This is all really fascinating stuff, and although adoption may take a chunk of time before it gets into the mainstream (depending on how logical it all seems to the end-user) it feels like it’s going to be very significant. Will also be interesting to see the FB and MySpace response, in terms of whether they’ll enable their portability plays in a way that enables distributed social networking. If they can continue to act as the hub/aggregator for all this activity, and if they can somehow monetise the distributed presence, then could be killer for them. And if that scenario plays out then interesting implications for the likes of FriendFeed.

    This is gonna be a hell of a situation to watch.

  20. Google Friend Connect is embedded Ning (i.e. it’s integrated socnet/community functionality). And since GFC/3rd party developers will be adding more apps the gap between the two will shrink, in functional terms. Ning feels more neutral to me, as a platform, though (although that may be an illusion). So think it will come down to whether the site ‘owner’ wants a completely managed platform, a la the self-contained white label socnets, or if plugging the functionality into a pre-existing site does the job fine.

    Thing for me is whether site owners will also be prepared to cede this aspect of their web presence, i.e. social is becoming ever more important, to somebody like Google. There’s one thing integrating adsense, but it’s quite another to have them essentially be in control of the social element of your site too (haven’t worked out where data ownership resides here, and if Google lays a claim on it). Will be interesting to see how they build out the publisher tools side of things, to help the publisher interact with their Google-powered community. Also, will a more neutral like js-kit be more attractive to publishers who fear the Google influence (Goog’s reach will probably make it difficult for that to be the case). Also interesting for people like disqus.

    And btw, how long before Yahoo re-purpose MyBlogLog to do essentially the same sort of stuff on a broader scale, leveraging the Yahoo social graph (and plugging into 3rd party social graphs too)? This is all really fascinating stuff, and although adoption may take a chunk of time before it gets into the mainstream (depending on how logical it all seems to the end-user) it feels like it’s going to be very significant. Will also be interesting to see the FB and MySpace response, in terms of whether they’ll enable their portability plays in a way that enables distributed social networking. If they can continue to act as the hub/aggregator for all this activity, and if they can somehow monetise the distributed presence, then could be killer for them. And if that scenario plays out then interesting implications for the likes of FriendFeed.

    This is gonna be a hell of a situation to watch.

  21. I agree that Ning and Friend Connect aim at the same pool of users, and that for most of that pool, the Friend Connect model for adding on social networking features is more palatable than porting content to Ning or any other platform.

    Even as a casual experimenter, building a network for fun around a reunion of high school friends later this summer, I find Ning’s templated design very limiting. Its modular “turn a feature-on-or-off and drag it around on the page” approach may be the only way to manage functions such as blogs and message boards, but it strikes me as too clunky and MySpace-y for corporate use. More importantly, it promises to beget tons of “me-too”-looking sites — a major obstacle to companies trying to carve out distinct identities in highly competitive markets.

  22. I agree that Ning and Friend Connect aim at the same pool of users, and that for most of that pool, the Friend Connect model for adding on social networking features is more palatable than porting content to Ning or any other platform.

    Even as a casual experimenter, building a network for fun around a reunion of high school friends later this summer, I find Ning’s templated design very limiting. Its modular “turn a feature-on-or-off and drag it around on the page” approach may be the only way to manage functions such as blogs and message boards, but it strikes me as too clunky and MySpace-y for corporate use. More importantly, it promises to beget tons of “me-too”-looking sites — a major obstacle to companies trying to carve out distinct identities in highly competitive markets.

  23. I’ve been putting our development of social networking features in our app on hold until I could take a look into OpenSocial. It just seemed daft to write our own code when Google was looking to put themselves in that very gap.

    Now, of course, I’m bewildered with OpenSocial, Friend Connect and Facebook Connect.

    Which way to jump is going to take some time. But I certainly wouldn’t want to port over to Ning, so I’m with you – these developments are just what the doctor ordered…figuring out the ‘right’ path is now the task ahead.

    -pc.

  24. I’ve been putting our development of social networking features in our app on hold until I could take a look into OpenSocial. It just seemed daft to write our own code when Google was looking to put themselves in that very gap.

    Now, of course, I’m bewildered with OpenSocial, Friend Connect and Facebook Connect.

    Which way to jump is going to take some time. But I certainly wouldn’t want to port over to Ning, so I’m with you – these developments are just what the doctor ordered…figuring out the ‘right’ path is now the task ahead.

    -pc.

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