Today the first salvo has been launched in what will likely be a brutal and bloody patent war in the social networking world. Yahoo! has decided to go after Facebook with several patents which were bought from Friendster a now long defunct social networking site. As I've mentioned in previous posts companies that start suing over patents likely have lost their competitive edge. However, I think this is going to have long reaching impacts.
Facebook will likely try to find something they can use to counter-sue Yahoo! Which I believe will open a huge can of worms. A large number of companies have put forth effort into creating social networks and there are companies that are built on top of those networks. Essentially, this is an entire ecosystems of companies and products that interconnect and work together. Until now, it has been rather peaceful except for a few angry words tossed back and forth.
I'm not really aware of what patents are out there for these types of sites, however, it is likely that all the major companies are going to be scrambling for patents. Some of the companies involved have already been in patents wars, Google for example. I don't think Google is going to sit by and allow other companies to attack them the way that Apple has gone after Android. This would be an extremely foolish business move so, I think it makes sense for Google to actively defend (attack) competing firms by acquiring patents and aggressively targeting firms that may be infringing.
Apple has also tried to get into the social networking side of things with their Ping network. Based on their previous patenting strategies, it seems likely that they have built their own war chest of patents and we know how Apple likes to use them.
Yes, much of this is simply speculation. However, as the entire ecosystem of social media and networks have developed into a huge new area of business and marketing, we need to be aware of how these could impact us. Systems that allow access to multiple different social media accounts could be shut down using patents to enforce the use of each platform. I use tweetdeck and I know other people that use Hootsuite they essentially work in the same way (results may vary), but could a patent derail their use? I don't know at this point, but i'm not happy about the prospect. I've mentioned before my distrust of Facebook, which is why I use tweet deck and sign in using Incognito. An all-out patent war could seriously disrupt this growing environment and reshape the way we use these networks.