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Can BuddyPress Break Down the Garden Walls?

BP Logo What do you do next when you already run one of the world's most successful blogging / publishing platforms? How do you address the fact that blogging has taken the buzzword back-seat to social networking over the past couple of years?

Automattic - the company that runs WordPress.com and manages the open source WordPress project - recently announced a spin-off project called BuddyPress, dipping a toe into social networking waters at last. How does it work? We don't know yet, since the BuddyPress homepage currently says only "coming soon." What we do know is that system will be built on top of the multi-blog version of WordPress, WordPress MU (MU is for multi-user). A single WPMU plugin will apparently transform any WPMU installation into a social network.

A glimpse into WordPress' social future was offered a few weeks ago in the form of a clever WordPress theme hack called Prologue, which allows groups to communicate effortlessly in a sort of Twitter-style top-down mode (kind of amazing that it took this long for someone to realize you could securely put the "post" field on the front-end, rather than buried in the administration panels).

All of this is very interesting, but there's more to BuddyPress' prospects for success than the mere existence of the software. Social networks succeed or fail by "the fax effect" - usefulness rises exponentially with the number of users and applications available. Most people already have Facebook and/or MySpace accounts, and only the most avid participants are willing to create yet another login on yet another site. If each BuddyPress installation requires users to sign up, and if the range of applications available is limited to what's installed on each BuddyPress installation, and if people can only "friend" users who are part of each site's mini-social-network, the potential usefulness of each system will be severely limited, and adoption of the technology will be slow or non-existent.

Organizations running social networks live in fear that their users will revolt and move to another SN (remember Google's SN offering Orkut? After a brief period of experimentation, most users left en masse, leaving, oddly enough, Brazilians as almost the sole denizens). Similarly, when Facebook opened its API and became vastly better overnight, MySpace users flocked in hordes over to greener pastures. The social network revolt phenomenon is so feared, in fact, that this year's SXSW Interactive festival is hosting a panel discussion on the topic.

So how can organizations or publications tap into the power of social networks? Throwing up a shingle on Facebook is a start, but publications really need a SN to call their own. Using a more customizable hosted solution like Ning is potentially useful too, but still has limitations - the only social networking possible is with other Ning users. And because the template choices are limited, so are the branding options. A system like BuddyPress, especially in combination with decentralized authentication systems like OpenID, have the potential to give publications a free and open source social networking solution they can run on their own servers, with their own branding, tailored to each publication's exact goals.

But it will only work if BuddyPress is totally transparent from a user perspective. If I create an account on your publication's SN, I want that account to work on all other BuddyPress installations around the world. I need to be able to communicate transparently with users of all other BuddyPress systems. If my publication creates an application ("widget") that works with BuddyPress, I want the option to share that widget effortlessly with users of all other BuddyPress systems. This kind of interoperability is key to BuddyPress success, and Automattic seems to know that. WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg:

"Someday, perhaps, the world will have a truly free and open-source alternative to the walled gardens and open-only-in-API platforms that currently dominate our social landscape..."

BuddyPress could become a tremendously powerful tool in the hands of future-minded web publications. Walled gardens don't work, and Automattic knows that. Now let's watch and see how well Automattic executes on the vision.