I have been the greatest fan and booster of Facebook but I have to wonder whether they are leapfrogging the shark by cutting off Google Friend Connect — not because it is evil but because it is closed, limiting, wrong, and not in their own self-interest, a key and possibly fatal strategic mistake.
The essential question for Facebook is this: Do you want to be a closed site or an open platform? Do you want to be a closed social network or enable the open social network the internet already is? Clearly, it is better to be the platform. But Facebook is being strangely blind to that.
At the same time, I’ve become less addicted to Facebook because there isn’t enough there. That could be because I hang with old farts, who’ve cooled on the fad. But it’s more likely because Twitter has become a more meaningful platform for keeping in touch with friends (though that, too, could change). Though Facebook still has more functionality enabling me to organize those friends, Twitter is better at distinguishing acquaintances (the followers) from friends (the followed). That is, whereas on Facebook, I have — I’m sorry to say — 1,030 ignored friend requests, on Twitter, I have 1,765 followers. Twitter has learned from Facebook’s mistakes. So has Google.
Facebook should have asked — pardon the plug for the book — WWGD? If they had thought like Google, they would have tried to figure out how to use what they had built — an organizing system for friendship — and turn that into a platform we can use — and control — anywhere on the internet.
Google has quite cleverly done that as they explain on their code blog. They used Facebook’s API by all appearances legitimately. They give us control of how we use our data (and our friends are our data). They also kluged it a bit so they don’t retain data (which also means that other sites can really manipulate it, losing some potential functionality but keeping Google on the safe site of the line).
People find the relationships they’ve built on social networks really valuable, and they want the option of bringing those friends with them elsewhere on the web. Google Friend Connect is designed to keep users fully in control of their information at all times. Users choose what social networks to link to their Friend Connect account. (They can just as easily unlink them.) We never handle passwords from other sites, we never store social graph data from other sites, and we never pass users’ social network IDs to Friend Connected sites or applications.
Google is only doing what Facebook should have done: open up to be more useful across the entire internet. Now Google is giving Facebook the opportunity to do that — the dare to do that — and Facebook is chickening out. Big mistake.
But the truly valuable network, the network of networks, the unbreakable bubble of bubbles, will be the one that manages to bring people together wherever we are, not just on MySpace (read: RupertsSpace), not just in Flickr or Del.icio.us, and not even just in the blogosphere, but everywhere. The internet doesn’t need more social networks. The internet is the social network. We have our identities, interests, reputations, relationships, information, and lives here, and we’re adding more every day. The network enabler that manages to help us tie these together to find not just connections or email addresses or information or songs but people — friends, colleagues, teachers, students, partners, lovers — across this open world, that will be the owner of the biggest network of them all: The Google of people.
I’m no mathematician or scientist, so I have to express this in words, but here’s the way I calculate the value of networks:
The Law of Open Networks: The more open a network is, the more control there is at the edges, the more the edges value the network, the more the network is worth.
The business lessons from this: Any choke point of control, via ownership, decreases the value of the network. Enablers increase the value of the network. The network will abhor and find ways around choke points. The network will value enablers and that is the point at which value may be extracted from the network. The value in networks in the open future is not in ownership and control but in enabling others to control.
Facebook put a chokehold around our data about our friends. Huge mistake. As Steve Gillmor said in his excellent Techcrunch analysis:
Facebook finally has a real problem to deal with – an exceptionally rational and well-thought-out strategy by Google that puts the leading social media cloud in the path of a wave of angry users. The only thing Facebook has going for it is that said users don’t yet know they’re angry.
Umair Haque has been purposefully over-the-top calling Facebook’s act “evil” (a few Twitter folks said his language gets in the way). But when you dig down, Umair, as is his habit, finds a brilliant and new law at work here:
What’s really going on here? There’s a massive tectonic shift rocking the economic landscape. All these players are discovering that the boardroom’s first and most important task is simply to try always and everywhere do less evil. In the dismal language of economics: as interaction explodes, the costs of evil are starting to outweigh the benefits.
Let’s repeat that and dub it Haque’s Law: As interaction explodes, the costs of evil are starting to outweigh the benefits.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Google is really talking about when it promises not to be evil. It is not a campaign pledge (“Yes, we cannot be evil!”) or a geeky Bible lesson about good and bad (open unto others as they would open unto you) but a cold, calculated business rule:
When the people can talk with, about, and around you, screwing them is no longer a valid business strategy.
Be warned, cable companies, airlines, insurance companies, real estate agents, ad agencies, and governments: choke points are evil and evil is bad business.
This is — sorry for the second plug — at the heart of my book. Interaction turns control over to the public and that fundamentally changes business and society. Oh, I know, that drives various curmudgeons, cynics, and polemicists nutty but I do believe it is true. Google has found (not created but exploited) a new economy and only a fool would not try to learn from that and follow its lead if at all possible.
And I can’t believe that Mark Zuckerberg is a fool. I’ve said in the past that he makes mistakes, but he makes mistakes well — listening, learning, and changing quickly. Well, he’d better change quickly on this one. And the lesson here is no different at all from the lessons he learned with the botched announcements of Facebook’s news feed and ad program: It’s about control. We want control of our data.
But there’s a bigger lesson here: It’s about being a platform instead of a service (or portal). Last year, I disagreed with friend Scott Heiferman when he said that Facebook was the new AOL — and, indeed, Scott quickly disagreed with himself. But Zuckerberg may be proving him right after all. If he tries to build his business by attracting us to his garden and then fencing us in, if he doesn’t give us control and let us use Facebook and our identity there as a platform for our lives, then he is turning it into the next AOL when it could be the next Google. And that would be tragic. Tragic.
This is the critical moment in Facebook’s history. This is the moment when they realize that they have to give control to us and to the internet and become a platform. If they do, I’m likely to use my Facebook identity as my key identity only because it is tied to my social network; that is precisely what makes it more valuable than others. I don’t think that Twitter will be that but it may be the best second choice and it is tied to more dynamic information from my friends. Whether friend or follower, I want to link with people online. Who will help me? Who will stop me? He who helps, wins.
: LATER: The irony of Google, of course, is that it’s open when it’s fighting closed systems (advertising, media, Facebook) but its instinct is closed. They wouldn’t even let the NY Times give them harmless publicity for their Lego logo. Don’t need it, they say. Would rather hide in a dark room.
: LATEST: This is why I don’t bet against Zuckerberg. Already, he says he wants to meet with Google and work it out. Smart.