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

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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