This term gets bandied about quite a bit in the Federation Conversation. When it comes up, developers tend to strong emotional reactions: On the one hand “We really need social sign-in to make our service work” and on the other “Ewww, no way; I don’t want our users worried about what’s being shared.” I’ve been digging around the subject; sometimes I think there’s no there there.

Facebook Connect is what started this conversation. The product name has vanished, doesn’t even appear in the Facebook Platform Wikipedia article, even though you can still find the blog post announcing it and the launch notice.

I never used it, either as a developer or an individual. But a whole lot of people did, and — hm, not a coincidence — feelings about it were strong. I think the whole Identity scene is still somewhat in its shadow.

It’s not a secret that since the launch of Google+, developers have been clamoring for access to “social APIs”; while cynics mutter darkly about “social spam”. And Facebook Connect is now just Facebook Login, and it seems to be a lot less “social” by default.

Whatever; Social Sign-in is still a thing, but I’m not sure it deserves to be. Let’s walk through the social things you might want to do in an app. BTW, the things you can do on a Web page are pretty well about the same as you can do from an iOS or Android app, near as I can tell.

Approving · Facebook says “Like” and Google says “+1”. Putting these on your page is a no-brainer. Here’s what produces the +1 readout at the bottom of this page, if you’re looking at it in a browser not a feed-reader.

<div id='plusone'>
  <g:plusone size='standard' count='true'></g:plusone>

Facebook “Like” is no harder. These are social all right, in a broad-brush sense: Through a social lens like those of G+ or Facebook, the approvals add up and make a difference. But not very social, because you’re not directing your message of approval at any particular person or people.

And of course, this doesn’t depend on sign-in. If you’re already signed into Google or Facebook (and you quite likely are) the button will make sure the approval comes from the right source; if not, it’ll try to log you in (without involving your app) then and there. Very very low-friction.

Sharing · This is quite a bit more “social”, by any measure. It works like this:

Or, on the other hand, Share on Facebook.

View source if you want to see how it’s done, but once again, there’s not much to it.

Now, this is getting pretty social. Each of these lets the person doing the sharing pick where they want it to go, who they want to reach; the options offered by G+ and Facebook are different in interesting ways. By the way, in each case the app can pick exactly which link they want to share (here in each case just the page you’re looking at).

Once again: Just as with approval, no sign-in of any kind is involved; just drop the markup in and it works.

So, what does “Social sign-in” buy you, anyhow? Two thing: People and tools

Friends and Followers · Things like the Facebook Facepile; I’ve seen similar constructs in Google+ Sign-In demos. Bottom line; you can find out who your users’ social connections are; nothing secret, just their public stuff.

I think that’s really, really social. How much is it worth to your app?

Tools! Tools! Tools! · Unless you’re paranoid about the social aspects, this is a really good reason to adopt Social sign-in. For example, check out Facebook’s Social Plugins. G+ doesn’t aggregate its goodies in one place but there are lots of them, like for example App Activities and Over-The-Air Installs. Web? Android? iOS? All taken care of for you.

This is a whole lot of polished, pre-cooked, well-tested, easy-to-use goodness here, and I suspect most apps would benefit from a moderate application.

But that paranoia thing · Yeah, it’s real. If you want the social icing on the cake, the people using your app will be asked, carefully and clearly, if it’s OK to tell the app who their social contacts are. Some will say no and walk away.

But consider two things: First, the leverage you get from transplanting an app from single-user mode into a social milieu can be huge; multi-user gaming should have proved that to everyone years ago.

Second, if you’re worried about being too explicitly social, in a lot of cases adding approving and sharing to your app will get you 80% of the way there, without scaring anyone.

Oh, and you can still use an IDP, social or not, to help people sign in and get you out of the password business. Which I continue to think is a good idea.

author · Dad
colophon · rights
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October 30, 2013
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