Portal 2.0: The Battle of the Social Networks


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I fear we are entering a new era that I'm calling "Portal 2.0." As the major social sites jockey for position, recent evidence suggests, sadly, that Google, Facebook, and Twitter are building walls around the applications in the exact same way that the Portal 1.0 players did in the late 1990s. I'm looking at you AOL, Lycos, Excite, MSN, and Yahoo!.

With the summer launch of Google+, the Googleplex made clear its intention to become a major player in the social space, and both Facebook and Twitter have retrenched-taking away bits of services from the other guys and forcing consumers like me to have to go to multiple applications. Now when I want to share something (such as a link to this column online) I need to go to all three services to alert my followers.

The culture of social media is all about openness and sharing. The behavior of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, however, seems to suggest that the communities are reverting to more and more closed environments and proprietary networks.

Oh no! Not again!

In the late 1990s, I worked in the business of supplying news content to the portals, and I recall how it had the air of a Turkish bazaar as content feeds were bought and sold like a commodity. Web portal players, such as the ones I mentioned earlier, organized content for people by building islands of information and then fought like hell to keep users on their islands with services such as email and "exclusive content." Everything was about acquiring and keeping eyeballs, and stock market valuations were priced accordingly.  The portal players operated as if people only used one portal (and for most people that was true), and that meant playing hardball.

As the companies fought with each other, consumers were left out of the discussion. So while the analysts talked up the merits of this portal versus that portal-as if that's all there was-a little search engine called Google figured out a better way to organize information on the web. Very quickly, millions of consumers realized that web search was a better option for them than was a closed portal environment.

Soon after Google+ took off, the social sites responded by blocking access to their services from each other. Google discontinued its excellent real-time search feature-powered mainly by Twitter-that had been active since December 2009. While I do expect the service to resume, the very visible spat means that people like me who rely on Google's real-time search must suffer without it.

There are other ways that consumers are put on hold while the companies fight it out. Facebook recently blocked a contact-exporting tool that was used to let people save the email addresses and other contact information for their Facebook friends as a file or to import them into Gmail. It appears the reason for this is because Facebook does not want their users to easily get up to speed on Google+.

As I have played around with Google+ since its launch in July, I've noticed much discussion about Google+ versus Facebook. People were talking about which is better and which they would use more. That's exactly the talk that played out in 1998 regarding portals: Which was better? In the 1990s it was either/or. There wasn't room for more than one.

I still think that Google+, Facebook, and Twitter are different enough that people can use all three as I do. But then again, I'm a social technology geek. Will the average user sign up for multiple services to keep up with friends? The three companies seem to think not and behave as if each person will end up with just one social network.

Sure, I understand that Google, Facebook, and Twitter need to make money. Investors are counting on that. But in the scramble to erect moats around the services and to keep users, are these companies potentially driving those same users to consider other ways to communicate? Remember, that's how Google became huge-it changed the paradigm.

Is there a smart company waiting in the wings that's ready to swoop in with a better way to organize social contacts that doesn't rely on a closed, proprietary Portal 2.0 mentality? My guess is that companies are out there busily solving this problem just like Google solved search a decade ago. I look forward to the day when my social services and personal contacts are not housed on separate islands dotting the seascape of the social web.