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Social Networking for Books: One Ring, or Loosely Joined?

I have to confess that one of the social networking tools I find most valuable is Goodreads. (It’s a close second to Twitter, and way ahead of Facebook, Friendfeed, or Dopplr.) Unlike twitter, where I follow hundreds of people (possible because of twitter’s minimalism) and am followed by thousands, on Goodreads, I follow and am followed by a small circle of friends and people whose taste in books I trust. As someone who loves books, it is the pinnacle of private social networking for me.

So it was with some interest that I read about Amazon’s acquisition of Shelfari. Much of the resulting commentary has focused on the problems this poses for LibraryThing, in which Amazon also has an invesment (via their recent purchase of Abebooks.) I’m a bit surprised that the articles have seemingly ignored the fact that Goodreads appears to be the market leader, at least based on data from compete.com:

Of course, that could change quickly if Amazon throws their muscle behind Shelfari and integrates it into their overall service. And there’s the rub: we’re entering a period of Web 2.0 consolidation. After all, web 2.0 is all about network effects in applications that get better the more people use them. And that means that companies with dominant share tend to get more dominant over time; that dominance need not be organic to start with (though it helps.) Over time, I expect to see companies who’ve achieved dominant market share in one market segment to use it to dominate a related segment.

But here’s the counter: open and interoperable applications, including open social networks. When are companies with “point applications” of social networks going to realize that their best option, in the face of inevitable competition from big companies looking to dominate their market, is to join forces via shared social networks?

Some of my friends prefer LibraryThing. Others may prefer Shelfari. But I only network with those on Goodreads because that’s the service I ended up using first. What a shame that I can’t see what my friends on LibraryThing and Shelfari might be reading! I’d love to see a firm commitment to cross-application connectivity, with the social network as infrastructure rather than application.

This applies to other specialized social networks as well. Sorry, even though I’m an investor in Tripit, I’m not going to try to rebuild the social network I’ve already got on dopplr, just because Tripit thinks they’d better add this hot functionality to what was already a unique and interesting product.

I’ve argued for years that one of the critical architectural decisions we can make about Web 2.0 applications is whether they are built on the “one ring to rule them all” model that we saw with Microsoft Windows and Office, a game where network effects drive a winner-takes-all marketplace, or the Unix/Internet model of “small pieces loosely joined,” in which cooperating applications come together to build value greater than any of the pieces do alone.

We’re entering the critical phase of that decision. Application developers need to embrace the “small pieces loosely joined” model, or they will be picked off one by one by dominant companies who’ve already reached scale, and who are practicing the “one ring” model. As Benjamin Franklin said during the American Revolution, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or we shall assuredly all hang separately.” Now is a good time for LibraryThing and Goodreads to start talking about interoperability.

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Comments: 26

  1. Was thinking the exact same thing except I started with Librarything. Do we need a ping.fm for books? Can we synchronise our libraries across Librarything, Goodreads, Shelfari and Google Books? If they all have an API (?) perhaps this could be done by a 3rd party.

    It’s about time Amazon were feeding their recommendation engine from these as well. It ought to know what I bought elsewhere and read elsewhere without having to go through pages of saying, got that, got that.

    Such a shame books can’t tell a computer they’re being read, the way music can tell it’s being listened to. Or we might have a proper Last.fm for books by now with book-scrobbling.

    BTW. Shelfari has no RSS feeds. Still! I mean, come on guys!

  2. Thanks to friend activity aggregators like Friendfeed, even if Library Thing and Goodreads never talk to each other, I can keep up with what is happening to my friends in social networking sites I am not part of.

  3. I think the interesting social play here is with e-reader devices, where we _can_ tell computers what we’re reading, quite effortlessly.

    People don’t read for pleasure at their desks, and personally, I find something compelling about taking my book club with me on vacation. I want the social experience at the moment I’m engaged with the book, not days or weeks later when I remember to log into GoodReads.

    Applying the programming virtues of laziness and DRY seem appropriate here: if I’m reading a digital book already, I shouldn’t have to manually type in its title to let these systems know about it. I agree that an open API for sharing books (or any media) would be the big win for the consumer, but automating the “what I am reading” part via digital books seems key to letting people’s libraries grow without forcing them to type or scan in ISBNs.

  4. It’s interesting you mention Tripit, because that’s the one that I’ve always felt was extremely crippled by its stand-alone nature. Nothing would make me happier than to have LinkedIn acquire or at least do a strong hook-in (link in 🙂 with Tripit. Could you go make that happen Tim? Thanks. 🙂

  5. As the proprietor of Readerville (a community-focused site, now in its ninth year), I have a somewhat different take on this. I’ve brought it up in our forum before — this idea that people use the cataloging service they found first — and I think you’re right, Tim, about all of that.

    But rather than heading toward consolidation, I actually see this getting decentralized. I recently launched a very simple app called Note:books, which is specifically not meant to be a competitor to LT/GR/Shelfari, but rather a tool for people who don’t want or need that depth of service. It’s for people like myself who simply want a good and easy way to track what they’ve read, get a peek at other people’s reads, and not have to leave Readerville to do it. (Ultimately it’s just a new “2.0” approach to reading journals, which we used to have in our forum as individually owned threads.)

    The idea of painstakingly cataloging my library just doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m certainly not alone, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been happy with writing notes to myself in a Moleskine either. Given the number of other tools like Note:books that are cropping up (such as Readernaut, just announced on Webmonkey the other day, and several others that have turned up lately), I think we’re going to see smaller communities forming around shared tastes instead of more people crowding into these mega-mall sites, for lack of a better analogy, and trying to find people. The Readerville community is mainly literary, for example, the Readernaut community may be more tech-ish/SF — I don’t know; just throwing out examples. But with lower barriers of entry — Note:books is exceedingly easy to get started with — I see more people finding niches that suit them, and see other sites offering different levels of tools and interaction for their existing audiences. So I think the future of all of this is more diverse than just consolidation and/or cross-pollination of the big three.



  6. Interesting comparison. I honestly haven’t joined up any of these social networks.

    I will have to test drive each one and how they compare as well as what I can learn for our own social networking objectives.

    Thanks Tim.

  7. Don’t forget that these networks can be discovered, and used, within other networks. I started using Goodreads via Facebook, which has 36,197 active users on Facebook.

    But that is dwarfed by the Visual Bookshelf app — which only exists as a Facebook app — at 774,346 users.

    Shelfari’s Facebook app is a distant third, with 9,620 users. LibraryThing has no Facebook app.

  8. I use Books iRead on Facebook, which has some 700,000 monthly visitors. While Tim and others seem to be interested in websites like GR where none of my friends hang out, I am much happier with iRead that lets me share my books and reviews with friends that would never take the time to go to a site like shelfari.

  9. Tim, this is really good. I knew I was going to be excited about what you were saying here when I’d just read the title and no more.

    I want to propose: the magic phrase for this concept is “loose coupling with cohesion”. The origins of the phrase appear to be Grady Booch’s Object-Oriented Analysis and Design (OOAD) in the early 80s. I believe that Booch borrowed the concept from complex physical systems.

    I have been studying tensegrity structures and their application to biological systems for several years. I was having a conversation with Ron, an EE and the inventor of tensegrity chimes ( tchime.com ). The tubular bells in Ron’s chimes do not touch; their spatial relationship is maintained by the lines of tension between the bells.

    You’ve hit it right on the head: the fundamental dynamic you want to have is cooperation between the social networking sites. You could even say that cooperation should be the most fundamental thing in their design: unless some social-networking site is able to become loosely-coupled with other services, it’s far less useful to individuals and our loosely-coupled society.

  10. Phil, I would take your commentary one step further and that is not to just offer loose coupling with cohesion with other social networks but to create the easy links to research and purchase the object which is the focus of the social network.

    As long as you are going to create the web services to inter operate with other social nets, also open the monitization of the social network (i.e. give it the funds to grow).

    How many times do I see a discussion of a new gadget or book in a social net and what do I do next, go to Google and search for places to purchase it. If you truly built these networks with OOAD you could easily link not just with the similar social nets, but also with the suppliers.

    That is the glue to grow your network but also to create revenues.

  11. You’ll also find plenty of audiobook recommendations on all of the book social networks, as well. Wouldn’t it be great if audiobook publishers (or audiobook fans!) could add short sample clips to the title’s information on the site? I try to keep my LibraryThing account up on my blog http://audiobooker.blogspot.com/ but agree that it would be great to have interoperability!

  12. Very good, Jon.

    Everything should mesh together. Or maybe not — the meshing of gears is a tightly-coupled system.

    What I don’t know is who determines the rules for cooperation. Or can the rules for cooperation themselves shift over time?

    It’s useful to see the examples from biological systems: one sees time and time again that they are engineered for cooperation.

  13. Yes, yes, yes … but, no, no, no!!! This is very interesting and touches the main point that is bedevilling software architectural people today (the hardware guys solved it long ago) … but where to start?

    “The network is the computer” (Sun Microsystems: John Gage?)

    It serves us poorly to attempt to operate on the basis of a model that is too simple, it just makes things more complex. The model needs to be “as simple as possible but no simpler” (Einstein)

    Think tipping points: there have to be Connectors, Mavens and Salemen (Gladwell) you need all of them and it is most unlikely that any player can take more than one role [this is not the Monopoly game where one of the players is also the banker].

    Tim asks: ‘When are companies with “point applications” of social networks going to realize that their best option, in the face of inevitable competition from big companies looking to dominate their market, is to join forces via shared social networks?’ The answer is when they know “how to” do that. The mechanisms are about things like protocols and APIs, guys! But the process of selection, popularity and, even, celebrity is messy. And, isn’t the term “competition” and “join forces” is at odds with the concept of “shared”?

    It is the usual “bottom up” vs “top down” perspective split.

    So, it is not clear that there is any benefit in encouraging coagulation: “Now is a good time for LibraryThing and Goodreads to start talking about interoperability”. Does this not just build another “point application”.

    I am not convinced that: “We’re entering the critical phase of that decision.” It is always critical, but life goes on. The tectonic conversion of software system architectures from vertical silos to horizontal layers continues to permeate our systems from the bottom up. The bigger the point applications become, the harder they fall.

    In the end, it’ll come down to “value” and “incentive”. Relax, play, we’ll get there!

    [Pleasantly surprised that the first comment is from Julian Bond, but you are unlikely to be allowed to play in more than one layer.]

    John Lewis (no relation!)

  14. John Lewis –

    I’m a bit confused by your comment. Cooperation between LibraryThing and Goodreads and Shelfari and the Books I Read application on Facebook wouldn’t create a point application. Each application could still compete on added value.

    Think back to my analogy to the days of Unix. vi and emacs compete on features, but they are completely interoperable because they agreed on the same format for text files. I could take a file and edit it with vi one day, emacs the next, and teco the day after. I could run that file through sed and awk and eventually perl to process it further. Amazing diversification, competition, evolution, but always agreement on one thing: we’re not going to have specialized file formats. That was what made Unix tick. Everyone agrees to use ascii files whenever possible, to read standard in and write to standard out, and on that simple playing field, an enormous cooperating ecosystem of programs was built.

    Now consider the web: everyone agrees to html, http, javascript, and a few other features (although this time kicking and screaming, with the browser market leaders (Netscape and then Microsoft) trying for lock-in). And once again, we have a universe of completely independent players competing, evolving fabulous interoperating sites.

    Now consider Web 2.0. On top of that original web we’re building new layers of data, new types of application dependent on user-generated data. And we’re back in the browser wars, forgetting that it was interoperability that made Unix and then the Web flourish as an environment in which anyone can bring their small contribution to the “stone soup” and have the entire thing get richer. Instead we’re back to the winner-takes-all model that ultimately destroyed the personal computer software ecosystem.

    Agreeing on simple rules for interoperability — an in this case, that interoperability needs to be based on shared standards for fundamental data types – the social graph, time, location, artifacts such as books. Note how web 2.0 subsystems like location are progressing, because everyone shares the same namespace of addresses and lat/long coordinates. (But note how winner takes all is taking hold in areas like street level photography of said locations.)

    Or look how all of these book/library applications can rely on the commons of book covers and metadata that is provided by Amazon. (Amazon is a winner-takes-all player in many respects, but they have done a great job of creating a commons with respect to the first level metadata of books, reserving their proprietary added value for other areas. This is GOOD, and as it should be.)

    Meanwhile, the social graph is incredibly fragmented, with everyone keeping their own friend lists proprietary, forcing users to recreate their social graph on each new site. This is BAD.

    And ultimately, it holds back these sites. John Battelle recently quoted a great line from Peter Drucker: “Marketing is the whole business seen from the customer point of view.” And from the customer point of view, competition over the basic social graph sucks.

    I love competition. But we also need to figure out where we’re going to cooperate. Get the balance right, and good things happen.

  15. We seem to grappling with explanations of the technical and market mechanisms which give rise to the, so called, “network effect”.

    Text files acting as conduits between programs on Unix are certainly a good example of the network effect as a mechanism for interaction becomes popular. Of course, the context for compatibility has now moved up the stack quite a bit. We still need to agree not only bit-level layouts, and also line termination, encodings, and file formats; but MIME and, gradually, XML schemas allow us to multiplex content types across a variety of protocols: FTP, HTTP (with or without WebDAV), SMTP, etc.. So the equivalent agreement nowadays is required to encompass, perhaps: paradigms (REST/RPC) and content (whether RSS/Atom or messaging interfaces defined, for example in WSDL). But this is just the technical specification and not the crux of the numbers game of network effects.

    I apologise for any confusion generated by my comment on “point applications” which was probably exacerbated by my omission of the ‘?’. The point is about the conformity or otherwise of competing services (whether for sharing book reading information or for anything else).

    Let’s distinguish between competing services, which offer sufficiently similar services that some degree of interchangeability exists, and complementary services, which offer different services which can be combined to beneficial effect.

    Certainly, providers of competing services can continue to compete whether or not they share the same interface to complementary services. But, in the absence of complementary services, that sharing does not offer their customers much, if any, added value. The proprietary-versus-common tension involves service providers either attempting to generate proprietary “lock in” or accepting commonality and competing in other aspects. An increasing number of competing services, while providing some incentive for compatibility to allow migration between them, also increases the incentive to provide proprietary interfaces for differentiation; whereas an increasing number of complementary services tends only to increase the incentive to use common interaction interfaces, especially when from different providers. Think: web browsers and web servers (HTTP); electrical power generators and electrical appliances (electricity supply specs); etc..

    On this basis, the best way to increase the chance of the emergence of a common interface is to encourage providers to agree the means of interaction with providers of complementary services. Only once this is occurring does encouragement of competitive services gain traction; and not directly, but indirectly by encouraging more complementary services to conform. Interestingly, arithmetically, the balance does not tip from favouring propriety to favouring commonality until there are at least about three services of each type, by which time proprietary stances have often already been taken. By the way, it seems that the whole EAI/SOA world faces the same conundrum. Nevertheless, it is in a network context and from the point of view of complementary services that competing services which share an interface look like a “point application” or perhaps more accurately “point service”, because they appear to be of the same type, whatever their implementation.

    Do we need more complex models and accompanying vocabulary to progress? Where else can we seek input on this?

    My view is that there is quite a lot more to discuss … and at least one actor missing from the picture!

  16. Tim: can we just do a simple one first — like figuring out how to have communities be portable from one social networking group to another.

    Or is that really a complex problem?

    BTW, did you hear that there is now a thriving industry in hacking the Captcha tests: http://www.blogherald.com/2008/08/30/zdnet-takes-a-look-at-the-captcha-economy-in-india/

    (Third try. Wish that someone else would do those captchas for me!)

  17. How does this challenge differ architecturally from the early days of email from everyone was using closed services like CompuServe and the like, then they discovered “real internet” email! ?

    If it is similar, then perhaps we need to put together some inter-network communication behaviour. It could probably use existing mechanisms such as feeds (RSS, or better Atom) and/or RDF and/or SMTP.

    I suggest that it is probably important to concentrate on the messaging protocols, rather than just on the content portability.

    But where are the members of the communities, are they localised within each existing network? Are we going to have identities which are specific to GoodReads or LibraryThing or Facebook or Twitter? Surely not? Don’t we need identity across the inter-community using: email address, OpenID …whatever?

  18. Funny you should mention this — I’ve been thinking for a while of building an application that provides an interface between the major social book sites. It seems like it’s past time someone did so….

  19. If you’re looking to join the largest book sharing community, you’re not going to find it with LibraryThing, GoodReads, or Shelfari- you’re going to have to look at weRead.

    Everyone loves to trot out the web traffic charts from compete to talk about the so called “big three,” but this is a seriously flawed and old fashioned analysis because these three have little presence beyond their .com addresses.

    weRead on the other hand focuses on integration within existing social networks like facebook and myspace. On facebook alone, weRead has over 650,000 users, more then 10 times as many as shelfari, goodreads, and librarything combined. Overall their total user base is nearly twice that of the other three (once again, combined).

    What’s this mean for you? A larger community, better recommendations, and the ability to share your bookshelf with your existing social network rather then build it from scratch. Check it out at http://www.weread.com

  20. First, I’m not paying for one of these services. It’s fun, but it’s not like it has to be done. So for that reason the “LibraryThing” service is out. I probably won’t use a service that is integrated into Amazon because I don’t want to have to deal with all the “suggestions” and other nonsense from a site that primarily is focused on selling me something.

    I’m a big fan of Goodreads because it is simple, clean and efficient. I’m not assaulted by commercial sales pitces and I’m not asked to shell out my hard earned money to “categorize” my books when I can walk over to my shelves and look for free.

    As far as I’m concerned Goodreads is the only real choice.

  21. However well intentioned the call to integration may be, the fact is that the social apps in question (as most other out there) are still in a highly immature state, in which I would venture they don’t truly know what comes next in the great roadmap in the sky. Land grab dreams, pressure of consolidation by the biggies, the urge to remain hip (sorry, I meant 2.0-ish), all of them combine for them not to see the treasure right ahead.

    It’s good that I played my daily 45 minutes of Spore before I got to this thread: it reminded me that, despite grandeur dreams of “winner takes all” (where the “all” they are trying to take is the infinitesimally important book recommendation ultra-thin slice), there are big monsters cleaning up the pool, and sooner or later what they don’t do right somebody else will. IF integration has value AND they don’t do it, THEN somebody else will… AND they will become more organic remains in the pool.

    Let’s face it, Buck is right, looking for complementary value-add between networks that just recommend us a better book to spend money on next is turning a little speck into a mountain. The Goodreads “gene” is efficient, non-obtrusive and humble. It will probably survive, by itself or as part of a larger thing. And if integration has value, they will find a way to make it work (after all, approximately 50% of social vendors are thinking about variations of the problem any way)

  22. In particular I like the conclusion you’ve arrived at: following and paying attention to the right people can really make you more effective.
    This says it all – knowing what the right people know is a commodity – it has always been the case but social networking now brings this concept into 3D.


  23. “one of the critical architectural decisions we can make about Web 2.0 applications is whether they are built on the ” one ring to rule them all” model… or “small pieces loosely joined,” in which cooperating applications come together to build value greater than any of the pieces do alone.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t see how “we” make that decision, except to endorse and opt to use any company that opts for openness. Typically the top player in any market stays closed while the losers become sudden converts to the benefits of openness. By then it is usually too late.

    PS Did your title come from here? http://booksellerchick.blogspot.com/2008/10/goodreads-librarything-shelfari-one-to.html

  24. I enjoyed reading this article. My favorite social network for books is goodreads, by far. I loved the site and all the things it offers.

    I do like the Living Social (aka Visual Bookshelf) app within other networks. It’s the most visually appealing.

    I’ve also used the iRead (now WeRead) app within facebook… only because some of my friends use it… and I like to “Chuck a Book” at someone.

    I’ve tried Shelfari and it really had zero appeal for me. Everything that it had to offer, I had found elsewhere already.

    There are a few other lesser known alternative apps within facebook and/or myspace that I haven’t really tried.

    Most of them DO have the option to import from Amazon and/or export into an excel file, so it didn’t take too long for me to move my lists from site to site in order to try them out.

  25. I concur with the opinion about Goodreads, it is the only site of this type I participate in. I am amused about the the comparison with Facebook they are not designed for the same purpose! Thanks for the insight.

    Kenneth James Ford

  26. Seriously, what’s with all the consolidation stuff? It would be more than useful and OK in a honorable society, but it’s not plausible in the one we have right now.

    On a different note, I didn’t quite like that Amazon took over Shelfari – it now slaps you with Amazon shopping all the time.