My Guardian column this week (a last-minute substitution for the BBC Newsroom column, which delayed to the next time because of an overdose of BBC news) is about Facebook’s momentous choice — control v. openness — and how Google maneuvered them into it.
That is the essential choice Facebook faces: openness v control. That quandary is not unique; every media company is now facing the same choice in the Google age. Google values openness so it can search you and send audience to you.
Whoever succeeds in mapping the social graph will better understand how society operates: who is friends with whom; who is influential; what we like; what we do. The winner in the social war will understand how we behave and interact and it can bring that knowledge to commerce, advertising, media, even government. That is the real prize.
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.
I wrote back in 2006 that the internet is the social network. The winner will be he who brings that — to use Mark Zuckerberg’s own words and credo — elegant organization.
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 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.
Leisa Reichelt says that the syncopated updates we share publicly with friends and followers in Twitter (and blogs and Flickr….) add up to what she called “ambient intimacy.”
Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.
Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.
There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.
Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.
Right. I argued in this post and column sometime ago that these functionalities — plus our ongoing connectedness on Facebook and our searchability via Google — will have a profound impact on friendship and our relationships. I said there that they will keep us in touch longer and so we can’t just lose people anymore. Reichelt says they also change our current relationships and I agree. It’s quite an insight that this causes a new kind of intimacy: We see the things we wouldn’t see in others’ lives unless we were damned near living together. For some people, I couldn’t care to know that much. For others, she’s right, it is a handy way to catch up, to be in touch.
I’ve mentioned here that I’ve found and been found by friends I haven’t seen in decades (more than I’ll admit) thanks to one or the other of our Google shadows. I’m about to meet up with one of them and we’ve been doing this catchup dance via email, which is also new and fits under Reichelt’s umbrella, I think, for it’s just a cold technological tool that makes it easy to update and catch up. If I’d been catching up via Facebook or Twitter or blogs all that time, the possibilities and definitions of friendship would be different.
Reichelt also talks about the flipside of this, ambient exposure: the publicness that makes this possible but also creates some vulnerability. And each force us to define our societies, the people we want to share with: one person on an email, a few people in a chat, a defined group in Facebook or Pownce, a group we don’t define (if we’re public) in Twitter, anyone at all in a blog.
The activism on Facebook is part of larger efforts by youths across the Arab world to use technology — from blogs to cellphone text messages to YouTube — to challenge their governments and push the envelope on dissent in ways older generations didn’t know. In parts of the Middle East such as Beirut and Tehran, local governments immediately jam cellphones if there is civil unrest, to prevent it from spreading.
In a sign the government is taking the challenge seriously, Egyptian security forces last month arrested a young woman, Esraa Abdel Fattah, after she had formed a Facebook group to promote a strike on April 6 over inflation.
I’ve been thinking what Gary Vaynerchuk says: Facebook is too slow. Twitter has spoiled me. I want a constant feed of stuff and Facebook is a trickle. It wouldn’t be at all hard to fix. Facebook should let me both increase the flow of information about my friends and to include external feeds in it (Facebook should have done Friendfeed).
I’ve been talking with lots of news organizations about following the feed model. Sometimes, I may want a packaged, prioritized presentation of news. But mostly, to quote Dave Winer, I want a river of news. Facebook did a brilliant job bringing an algorithmic presentation of a feed but now it’s falling behind in feed wars. They’d better catch up fast.
: Meanwhile, here’s ReadWriteWeb summing up various fears about feed OD and how to cure it.
I want to get video of the uncomfortable keynote with Mark Zuckerberg and Business Week’s Sarah Lacy at SXSW today so I can use it as an object lesson in my journalism classes about how not do conduct an interview. My lecture:
Lacy’s biggest mistake was not knowing her audience. Here she had the founder of one of the most innovative, game-changing, and so-far-successful companies of the age — the age that is being created and celebrated by the audience here. But she could not, in the words of one frustrated audience member, ask anything interesting — not to them. Zuckerberg is a man of few words who doesn’t speak often and so there was a great opportunity to find out what this audience wanted to know.
How could Lacy have known that? By asking the audience. If I were up there, I’d have blogged a week before asking SXSWers what I should discuss with Zuckerberg. And if things still went sour with my own questions, I’d have opened up the discussion to the floor with the simple question: What do you want to know?
Next was the way she treated Zuckerberg. I have no doubt that she likes and respects him and that she was trying to put him at ease because he has been shy and nervous in such settings. But she condescended to him, talking about his age too much and about his flop-sweat when she first met him. In a magazine story for people who don’t know this man and what he has done, that might come off as quaint (it’s a magazine kind of observation — a way to show off, frankly). But, again, Lacy didn’t know her audience and by diminishing Zuckerberg it only seemed to insult him and this crowd. The equivalent would be interviewing Bill Gates at an industry conference and calling him weird who fidgets too much and has bad hair, like everyone in the room.
Worse, in her effort to charm Zuckerberg, Lacy came off like Mrs. Robinson. That was embarrassing for her and us.
She pulled some basic mistakes in interviewing. She interrupted him. The first minute of the conversation, he wanted to talk about people using Facebook to organize against Colombian guerrillas — a fascinating story — and she didn’t let him finish, trying to show that she already knew this. The real mistake was that she wasn’t listening.
Another good indication that she didn’t understand that her role was to let him have his say was when she announced that Facebook was opening in French tonight. That’s what he was going to say.
She rambled on to the point that Zuckerberg had to suggest that she ask a question. Definitely not a good sign in an interview.
She was inserting herself too much into the hour. The audience didn’t care a bit about her — or the book she plugged a few times (said a tweet: ‘Can we short her book?’). They were here for him.
When she tried to get tough with Zuckerberg, it came off as clumsy: “Come on, it’s not worth $15 billion.” And this once again shows that she wasn’t aware of the audience. They didn’t care about a business story. They wanted stories about technology and society. When the audience finally got to ask the questions and got tough on Zuckerberg themselves, they pressed him on why he doesn’t have a decent search on Facebook messaging — to which he agreed and vowed to fix it. In this crowd, that’s news.
When it became obvious that the audience was hostile to her — cheering Zuckergerg when he told her to ask a question — she acted hurt, as if this hour was about her. Worse, she told us how tough her job was. It wasn’t tough. It was a privilege and she was blowing it. And at the end, when she said that people should send her an email telling her what went wrong, she was so 1994; she didn’t understand that the people in the crowd were already coalescing in Twitter and blogs into an instant consensus. Oh, if only there’d been a back-channel chat projected on the screen beside her. Then, she could have seen.
After it was over, Lacy did go to Twitter and left this message: “in my book, getting mark to publicly admit to the yahoo deal, address beacon, and give news on changes in the platform and france equals successful interview”
Still, she wasn’t listening. Now, instead of asking Zuckerberg questions, she should again have been asking the audience. Instead she was telling them, NYTimes-like, what the story really was, not the one they saw.
At the end of it all, I have no doubt that Lacy is an experienced and talented journalist, that she respects Zuckerberg, that she was trying to put him at ease, and that she was going after the stories she found interesting. But that’s the essence of her problem: She didn’t stand back and remind herself that her job was to enable a conversation not with her but with the crowd about what they found interesting. And when she failed at that, the audience could tell her, in Twitter, blog posts, hoots from the audience, and even cartoons:
: Here‘s Rex Hammock on the train wreck. News.com’s narrative. Here’s one clip of the fateful talk.