Category Archives: identity
When I reflect on my use of Facebook over the last seven years, it strikes me that how I used Facebook in 2004 is very different than how I use it in 2012. I remember hearing about it for the first time:
I was sitting at home in front of my computer in the months leading up to my freshman year in College. My friend Will instant messaged me with a startling proposition: “Check out this website where you can see pictures of the incoming freshman girls in your class!” For an 18 year old dude, this is the equivalent of Internet gold. I’ve never handed over my email address so willingly.
This past week, Facebook released a series of changes to the way it manages sharing and privacy controls. You can read more about them here.
The short story is that they are giving their users finer control over their sharing and how others tag them in photos and updates, and building the concept of friend lists more fully into the experience. One other interesting change, which made its way into the blog post as little more than a “by the way,” is that Facebook has removed the places feature from its mobile applications.
In response to these changes, Matthew Ingram over at GigaOm wrote a great piece asking, “Are Facebook and Google Splintering the Social Web?” His analysis focused on the much-talked-about Circles feature from Google, along with the similar changes from Facebook, and questioned whether or not people would actually use these features.
Are people really going to spend the time it takes to create groups or lists or Circles and then choose from a pull-down menu every time they want to share a piece of content? I don’t think so (even Mark Zuckerberg once said that people hate lists). And my fear is that people will share less as a result, or will turn away from these networks in confusion, or because the settings are too cumbersome.
I’m less concerned than Ingram is on this point, but to answer the question in his title: Yes, the social web is splintering, but it is not Facebook or Google doing the splintering – it’s Instagram, it’s Foursquare, it’s any network that is purpose-built for a specific behavior, a specific community, and a unique set of privacy expectations.
Facebook and Google are merely responding to the “splintering” that they are seeing outside of their walls. My friend Nina Khosla wrote a great post that neatly elucidates why this might be happening:
“Therein lies the paradox of the social network that no one wants to admit: as the size of the network increases, our ability to be social decreases.” – The Social Network Paradox
Size is one reason why these communities might be losing value in the eyes of users, but I think something else is at work.
Last year, when Facebook’s Places feature was released on mobile phones, I wrote that they would ultimately “lose location” to Foursquare, since on Foursquare we had the opportunity to rebuild our networks with location-sharing in mind.
Speaking more generally, I believe that social networks built with a purpose in mind have two distinct advantages over larger catch-all networks like Facebook:
1) Functionality: it’s easier to do one thing well than to do many things well (just ask Yahoo)
2) Social context: every type of sharing has a unique privacy expectation associated with it, and unique social context in which that sharing makes the most sense
Users have shown that they prefer the switching costs of rebuilding their networks elsewhere to the costs of managing their existing networks in order to make them more suitable for the kinds of sharing they want to do. In other words, users would rather build a network from scratch, with a particular use case in mind, than mold an existing network to make it fit one additional use case.
The bottom line: Users are going elsewhere to share their location. Users are going elsewhere to share their photos. Facebook will continue to do a few things well (birthday messages?), but they will more and more find themselves unable to compete with these smaller “splinter networks.”
Yes, the social web is splintering, and we should celebrate.
The network neutrality / common carriage debate is one of the most important debates of our time. At stake is the freedom to innovate, the freedom to listen, and the freedom to speak. To date, arguments for or against common carriage have focused largely on the relationship between Internet service providers and content creators, but a new threat is emerging.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have unlocked new ways for people to connect, curate, and consume. They have changed and continue to change how we interact with the web – how content is distributed, discovered, and delivered. But with the emergence of this new social layer comes a threat that rivals that posed by the great information monopolies of the 20th century – AT&T, the Radio Trust and the Motion Picture Patents Company, companies known for price gouging, anti-competitive behavior, and the stifling of innovation.
I recently finished Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empire.“ For anyone interested in network neutrality, this book is an incredible primer. Beyond presenting a thoughtful analysis and historical review of the information industry, Wu provides a compelling read – one might even call it a page-turner! If you haven’t yet, go buy it, and read it.
If you’re familiar with the basics of network neutrality, feel free to jump to my main argument below. If not, let’s start with a definition for common carriage.
At the heart of common carriage is the idea that certain businesses are either so intimately connected, even essential, to the public good, or so inherently powerful—imagine the water or electric utilities—that they must be compelled to conduct their affairs in a nondiscriminatory way.
As a simple example, if a man operates the only ferry over to town, that simple boatman is in a position of great power over other sectors of the economy, even the sovereign authorities. If, for example, he decided to charge one butcher more than another to carry his goods, this operator could bankrupt the one who didn’t enjoy his favor. The boatman is thus deemed to bear responsibilities beyond those of most ordinary businesses.
Wu, Tim (2010). The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (p. 58).
Reflecting on Wu’s review of information monopolies, one can extract two primary tendencies manifest in countless examples throughout history. First, like all institutions they follow a law of self-preservation. If the ferry owner senses a threat to his monopoly in an innovation outside of his control, he will do everything in his power to acquire or squash it.
Second, information monopolies will always act to maximize profits, and will often do so at the expense of their “riders.” If a passenger on the network is seen to reap significant profits on the back of the network, it is in the short-term interest of the monopoly to ransom network access for a share of those profits.
- The Motion Picture Patents Company consolidating control over film production and distribution by ransoming access to patent licenses and buying up independent theaters, ultimately leading to the independents’ flight to Hollywood.
- RCA buying up nascent radio networks to create a single national content creator and distributor.
The tenuous relationship between distribution channels and that which is being distributed is summarized neatly by Wu:
You cannot serve two masters, and the objectives of creating information are often at odds with those of disseminating it.
Ibid., p. 306.
Social Network Neutrality
So what does this have to do with social networks like Facebook or Twitter?
Distributors, owners of “the pipes,” will always have an incentive to maximize profit by way of price discrimination, or, if they choose to produce their own content, to prioritize their own goods ahead of or instead of those of their competitors.
Social networks are a critical layer of infrastructure for a wide variety of applications and content. Unlike physical networks, opportunities for lock-in emerge not at the physical layer but at the social layer: our connections. In other words, they do not wield monopoly control by dint of massive up-front fixed costs but rather by the accumulated value contributed by users in the form of the social graph!
Without access to our social connections, applications like Zynga, Turntable, and Spotify face significant barriers to entry – both in terms of the product experience that they are able to deliver and their path to adoption via access to social promotional channels.
But will these social networks really exert their platform authority at the expense of competitors and users? The answer is that they already are.
Take the social gaming company Zynga, for example. The pace of Zynga’s growth has been mind-boggling. A significant portion of Facebook’s users spend a significant portion of their time on Facebook within Zynga’s games. When Facebook sensed a competitive threat emerging on their platform, they chose to reduce that threat by exerting their platform authority. Zynga was forced to give up 30% of their revenue to Facebook so that Facebook’s users could “benefit” from one standardized currency experience. How’s this for a Risk Factor, from Zynga’s S-1:
Facebook is the primary distribution, marketing, promotion and payment platform for our social games. We generate substantially all of our revenue and players through the Facebook platform and expect to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Facebook and other platforms have broad discretion to change their platforms, terms of service and other policies with respect to us or other developers, and those changes may be unfavorable to us.
Facebook has even gone to battle with Google over data portability. The most recent challenge coming by way of a Chrome Extension that allows you to import your Facebook friends into Google’s new social network, Google+.
Playing the white knight (or social underdog), Google has tended to act in the interest of data portability, but Google’s policy of “we’ll let you import our contacts if you let us import your contacts,” reeks of data protectionism, and should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, given Google’s own checkered past.
Google and Facebook are not alone. LinkedIn recently shut off API access to third party developers that they deemed competitive, including Monster and BranchOut, among others.
Not to be outdone, Twitter recently called on all third party developers to stop building Twitter clients. Said Twitter platform lead Ryan Sarver:
We need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way. This is already happening organically – the number and market share of consumer client apps that are not owned or operated by Twitter has been shrinking.
A “less fragmented world” sounds like code for “consolidation.” Can Twitter really innovate faster than thousands of third-party developers? Can LinkedIn replace the value that companies like BranchOut and Monster were planning on providing to businesses and users? We’ll never find out, because Twitter and LinkedIn can respond to any such emergent innovation by shutting down access to their API.
What happens when an information monopoly attempts to centralize innovation? No organization has done it better than Bell Labs. They were so successful that they invented magnetic tape, used to power the computer revolution, as early as 1934!
“The impressive technical successes of Bell Labs’ scientists and engineers … were hidden by the upper management of both Bell Labs and AT&T.” AT&T “refused to develop magnetic recording for consumer use and actively discouraged its development and use by others.” Eventually magnetic tape would come to America via imports of foreign technology, mainly German.
But why would company management bury such an important and commercially valuable discovery? What were they afraid of? The answer, rather surreal, is evident in the corporate memoranda, also unearthed by Clark, imposing the research ban. AT&T firmly believed that the answering machine, and its magnetic tapes, would lead the public to abandon the telephone.
Ibid. p. 106.
As a result of AT&T’s coverup, magnetic tape would not be “discovered” until the 1990′s. Holy crap! Anyone else terrified?
So what happens next?
Certainly these companies should be able to reap the rewards of the network that they’ve built, but when those rewards come at the expense of the user experience, the troubling effects of lock-in become apparent.
This is just the beginning. What happens when Facebook or Twitter decide that it is too ‘confusing’ for users to see photos from Instagram posted to their network, instead of through Facebook Photos? What happens when Facebook decides that Foursquare check-ins next to Facebook Places check-ins are detrimental to the user experience? Or that Groupon’s daily deals shared through the Facebook platform are confusing for users who are most eager to find Facebook’s deals?
As these networks settle on and begin to expand their business models, the definition of “competitor” will expand commensurately. Monopoly power of these large networks, as owners of our now primary channels for distribution and communication, will only increase as they become an ever larger part of our lives.
It’s time to stop seeing these companies as mere applications. They are the 21st century version of AT&T, of RCA, of the Motion Picture Patents Company. The infrastructure of the social web has been consolidated into the hands of a few. With consolidation comes control, and with control comes an incentive to wield it over those deemed competitive threats to the ultimate prerogative: preservation of control.
Government agencies responsible for policing antitrust clearly have these companies on their radar, but history has shown that government is as capable of enabling information monopolies as it is of squashing them. Users must stand and be counted. We must demand portability, and we should vote with our attention when it is not delivered.
Facebook has a big problem. Facebook’s big problem is Facebook.
Social networking applications are not like other businesses. In other businesses, new products built within an existing infrastructure and delivered through existing marketing and distribution channels benefit from economies of scale that help generate higher profits than would be possible on a standalone basis.
Yes, social networking applications benefit from economies of scale in production, marketing, and distribution channels, but they have a unique property that presents a unique challenge: the network itself.
There are two reasons why no single company will ever “own” the social web:
First, social behavior online, as offline, is largely informed by the context of that behavior. Am I conducting this behavior in front of my family, my friends, my co-workers, my best friends? Photos, videos, events, locations – the success of an application on a social network depends as much on the composition of the network as it does on the feature set.
In other words, my connections and the default privacy settings used to mediate my interaction with those connections can contribute as much to the value of an application as the design and functionality.
A location sharing feature is meaningless to me in the context where the default is to share with the 459 friends I’ve accumulated from who knows where on Facebook. Facebook could design the greatest location sharing application ever invented, but I’d rather recreate a social network on Foursquare, specifically for the use of that feature, than attempt to navigate the myriad privacy options on Facebook to more appropriately control my sharing.
Second, it’s easier to do one thing very well, then to do many things very well. To get a sense of what I mean, download and play around with Instagram. This application is 100% purpose built for mobile photo sharing. It integrates with Twitter, Foursquare, Flickr, Tumblr, Posterous, and Facebook. There are no other distractions in the application, no other purposes than to take a photo and share it with a group of people that you believe would find that photo relevant. It’s a great experience – just ask one of the one million users who signed up within the first two months of the product’s existence.
Taken together, these two arguments lead us to the fundamental point: the value of the user experience in the purpose built application, both in terms of functionality and appropriate social context, easily outweighs the cost of switching and rebuilding that context from scratch.
Facebook isn’t going anywhere, but they will never “own” the social web. They will forever be limited by their generality.
Since inception, the web has seen three major waves in the evolution of relevance: portal, search, and social. These waves manifest typically by the examples of Yahoo, Google, and Facebook/Twitter, and otherwise known as Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and the real-time/social/next/3.0/whatever web.
Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, did a great job of framing that history in his talk at TechCrunch Disrupt in September. I’d like to borrow his framework but take a slightly different approach to the question. I’m probably short-changing this topic, so feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.
The goal of any system of content distribution is to present relevance as early as possible in the process of intent, search, discovery, and consumption. The earlier in this process that a system can present relevance, the greater the opportunity to provide value to the user, and, in theory, the greater the opportunity to monetize that value. The history of relevance on the web is therefore the history of a long steady march towards the holy grail of discovery – consumption without intent: content that you don’t even know that you want.
Each system described below uses the same essential building blocks to produce relevance:
- Human intelligence
Web 1.0 – The Portals – In the early web, the mechanism for discovering content was based on static human-built information hierarchies (Puppies is a category in Dogs which is a category in Pets). The opportunity to present content that you don’t even know that you want was confined to the moment after discovery, and so the value was minimal. Think: recommendations and advertising alongside content in the Teen Portal in AOL – you would have already reached your destination by the time you were presented with recommendations. Relevance was determined by assumed predispositions based on the demographic that had in the past consumed that content (in this case, teenagers). Intent as a predictor was not truly captured.
Web 2.0 – Search – The search paradigm introduced a major step forward for relevance, where the mechanism for discovery was based on dynamic and implicitly social intent-optimization. Whereas in the age of portals, the best you could hope for were recommendations alongside the content you were already in process of consuming, by basing relevance on user intent and an informed human curation via PageRank, Google was able to present relevance prior to the process of consumption.
PageRank, Google’s system for ranking relevance depending on inbound links to a particular piece of content from other publishers, is fundamentally human (it takes people to link to other pages/people), and its emergence foreshadowed the coming influence of the social web on discovery.
The Social Web – Facebook/Twitter – In the emergent social web, discovery has taken on passive characteristics, resulting in a model of consumption that occurs without search, and often without intent.
Consider the patterns of content discovery and consumption prevalent on Facebook or Twitter. Discovery is based on the stream paradigm, where relevance is determined implicitly along three dimensions:
- Time (real-time = conversational)
- Social group (work or friends or school, etc.)
- Social proximity (1st, 2nd, 3rd degrees)
Networks will expand along these dimensions, as users tend to follow or focus more of their attention to those streams that present the greatest relevance (think Twitter and Facebook lists). The social web enables users to iterate through a group of curators who provide relevant content by way of social proximity and temporality. It has replaced intent with context, and so while wading through the stream, we are left with a feeling of serendipitous discovery, as we stumble blindly into content that we don’t even know that we want.
I think (and yes, hope) that Facebook fails in this latest endeavor. Ok, with an ‘installed base’ of 500MM users they certainly won’t fail fail, but I would argue wholeheartedly against the following statement from Silicon Alley:
Facebook will now become the platform on which other check-in applications like Foursquare will be built.
What is the first number that comes to your mind when I ask how many people you are interested in sharing your location with? On average? I bet it’s not 120.
120 is the average number of people the average Facebook user is friends with on Facebook.
As in the offline world, for each social group (family, friends, work friends, colleagues, gym friends, classmates, etc.) and for each social object (photos, videos, locations, news, tweets, status), users will rightfully demand unique privacy profiles to limit access to only those most relevant and appropriate connections. For example, I may want to share videos with classmates but not family; I may want to share location with gym friends but not colleagues.
Foursquare has in part been successful because, along with the emergence of a new social object (location), it has given users the opportunity to build (from scratch) a set of connections particularly relevant to that associated privacy profile.
My friends on Foursquare are only those people with whom I am willing to share my location. They tend to be in New York and they tend to be close friends (especially when compared to the 474 people I am “friends” with on Facebook).
So fear not ye social web start ups! The location-specific social graph is not easily replicable and the social graph subsystem of the Internet OS is only just beginning to mature. Purpose-built social applications that are subject to privacy policies outside of Facebook’s core competency will remain safe from the grasp of Goliath (for now)!
Facebook’s announcements at f8 today represent a vision of the social web that I strongly believe in: one where our experiences online, as offline, are intrinsically and persistently social; one where communication is embedded in the fabric of the web; one where ‘social’, broadly defined, is a primary layer instead of a surface application.
TechCrunch explains just how powerful this vision can be:
Add some “like” buttons and anytime someone likes a restaurant, song, or movie anywhere on the Web with a Facebook like button, that information will flow back into the Open Graph. So that Yelp will know what restaurants you and your friends have liked elsewhere and take that into consideration when giving you recommendations, or Pandora with music, and so on.
Unfortunately, Facebook’s announcements at f8 also represent the single greatest threat to the achievement of that vision.
I’ve written in the past about the challenges Facebook poses to innovation on the social web. The launch of Open Graph takes us from orange to red. Here’s why:
At first glance, the scenario described above appears to be a win for all parties. Yelp and Pandora get to make more relevant recommendations and add more value to their users’ experiences. Providing more value to your users means you can extract more value in exchange. Users receive more value from these external sites because their friends are better at making recommendations than some algorithm developed in some engineer’s garage. And Facebook, sitting at the nexus of this information exchange, begins to learn more about internet users than anyone else. Knowing more about users than anyone else means you can charge a premium for access to that knowledge.
So where’s the rub?
With a user base of 400 million, the promise of dead-simple integration, and an experience that can offer so much immediate value to current and prospective users, Facebook’s Open Graph will be the single social solution of choice for most publishers.
But what if I want to share my activity with co-workers on LinkedIn? What if I want to share my activity with followers on Twitter? What if I want to share my activity with a product that has yet to be built, whose founders are yet to be born?
Beyond sharing, what if the face I want to present to Yelp is different than the face I want to present to Pandora? What if I have music friends and restaurant friends and they have a totally different set of likes and dislikes?
The 500 people I am connected to on facebook are comprised of co-workers, family, friends, best friends, camp friends, and friends from my semester abroad in Scotland. My profile data on Facebook is different from my profile data on Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, and Tumblr. Each profile has a relevant context.
I fundamentally believe that no single social web service can accurately represent the identity of a human being. In the offline world we present different personalities in different social contexts. There is a nuance to identity in the offline world that is not easily replicable in a single, catch-all, generic, online social experience. I can’t quite crystallize why this is important, but my hunch is that this human nuance is critical to meaningful social interaction.
The future we should fight for is one where users decide which profile to present when, and to which sub-group of ‘friends’. If Facebook were serious about building the social web together they would recognize that they cannot do it alone.
Metaphysics aside, in the long run competition benefits the user more than seamless vertical integration. Of course, in mature industries there are always barriers to entry – I doubt that any new search startup will have an easy time eroding Google’s 60% market share – but what is at stake here is more important than search intention and advertising dollars.
What is at stake is the promise of the social web – the potential for relevant, dynamic, and nuanced social interaction through a medium we are just beginning to understand.
Let’s raise hell when proprietary solutions threaten the future we know we want. Let’s build towards this vision with tools that foster innovation and promote the true dynamism of human identity.
What does it take for a brand to successfully ‘socialize’? Anyone who has ventured into this line of inquiry knows that there is a lot of noise out there, and very little signal. I spent the better part of the last two weeks reading, talking, and thinking about brands and the social web, and I thought it would be helpful (definitely for the writer, and hopefully for the reader) to distill my learnings into a few choice nuggets.
1. Listen more than speak
Use brand monitoring tools like Radian6 to listen to what customers and prospects are saying. Engage with a human voice that is more interested in conversation and support than sales.
2. Provide a platform that enables your customers to be your advocates
Brand and promote those customers who use social media most effectively to engage with your company. Rewarding these leaders will signal to others that there is a very public benefit associated with engagement.
3. Leverage social-savvy employees
Make your employees famous. Chances are, they are already engaging successfully in this space. Create a human face for your brand by including them in the conversation and encouraging them to build thought leadership. It’s much harder for a critic to attack real people than a faceless corporation.
4. Consumers of content visit your site with expectations for basic social features
Sharing, liking, commenting, RSS, retweeting. A content site without this functionality looks ancient in the eyes of a social web user (i.e. 400 million people). Any YouTube regular will fear comments, and rightfully so. Reward good behavior and ignore bad behavior. Reward thoughtful comments with a response, or a link, or points, or moderator privileges. Ignore the flamers and allow your thoughtful commenters to manage them on your behalf. See Fred Wilson’s blog for a great example.
Any company that is serious about leveraging the social web to further its corporate objectives must come to terms with the crucial reality that authenticity is a requirement. And yes, being authentic means being wrong in public. Being authentic means giving your employees a megaphone and allowing them to speak on your behalf. Being authentic means hosting a comment on your site that may better belong below a YouTube video.
There is certain risk in authenticity, but the failure of a social media strategy that does not engage with an authentic voice is just as certain.
I highly recommend the following blogs:
These companies are doing a great job:
It’s getting a little scary. I’m at the point where I would rather spend 5 minutes filling out a new profile than log into a third party site using Facebook Connect. Don’t get me wrong, Facebook Connect is a great tool (for Facebook) and I appreciate the gesture of interoperability, but I can’t help but see it as the single greatest threat to the future of the social web.
First, here’s what Facebook connect does well: If I were to click on the button, I would find it incredibly easy to share profile data with any site on the web; I would find it incredibly easy to send my activities back to Facebook where all my friends could take a look; and when I return to that site, I would be so happy to learn that I don’t have to remember yet another user name and password. And therein lies the problem…
Facebook does these things so well that publishers might not feel the need to integrate their sites with other social networks. They will be tempted to conclude that they’ve found the one-size-fits-all easy mac solution to that whole “social media” thing.
For many publishers this reasoning makes sense. With Facebook nearing 400 million members, it’s likely that any existing users of the site already have Facebook accounts. Why force them to create a new profile for the site? Users win because they don’t have to spend time creating an entirely new profile and re-connecting with all of their friends. Publishers win because any friction in the sign-up process is reduced to a mere click.
I believe that in the long run, everyone loses.
When a user logs into a site with Facebook Connect, that user’s activity is shared with Facebook and Facebook alone. This will be enough for some people. But what if I want to share my activity with LinkedIn? What if I want to share my activity with Ning? What if I want to share my activity with an innovative startup that is just beginning to build it’s user base? What if I want to represent a different side of my online personality to the site I’m visiting? Two possible answers: 1) The publisher takes the time and resources to develop an additional ‘Connection’ for each and every additional social service, or 2) I can’t.
#1 is inefficient, #2 is anticompetitive. Both alternatives are bad for users, bad for business, and bad for future of the social web.
The barriers to entry for the small innovative startup will be nearly insurmountable in a world where every site is content with Facebook’s ease of use. Joe the job seeker who wants to engage with other readers of a career advice blog will be forced to represent himself as Joe of Facebook instead of Joe of LinkedIn (when we’re at work, do we act as we do among friends and family? See this post for more). Simply put, Facebook Connect is a lock-in play.
My guess is that the right product will match Facebook’s ease of use but provide ‘plug and play’ functionality so that sites can easily integrate multiple social web services (yes, like OpenID).
Let’s not pretend that all the innovation in the social space has happened. Instead, let’s make room for the next generation of Zuckerbergs.
Boycott the Button.