a life of coding

Monday, May 04, 2009

The NYTimes Doesn't Understand Social Networks

In "Tinker Away, Facebook Says", the Times summarizes Facebook's recent API expansion announcement with a comparison to a grocery store that "props open the front door and invites everyone to come in, take the merchandise free of charge, and then give it away themselves". They call this "the counterintuitive business wisdom infecting Silicon Valley these days", and proceed to imply that Facebook is doing this from the kindness of their heart.

Let me suggest that Facebook is not a charity but a profit driven company, seeing the consumer primarily as an unavoidable obligation. An API expansion attracts additional users and (more importantly) encourages current users to not leave. A permissive developer API allows more people to participate in innovating their platform for little expense to Facebook. These companies not affiliated with Facebook take risks in developing features that users might want. If users like these features Facebook can incorporate them into the product, otherwise they will wither and die without tarnishing the Facebook brand.

Developers see this as a way to capitalize (however meagerly) on the success of a powerful brand. Consumers see it as a new channel to cater to their needs. What would be better for both developers and consumers is a federated system with non-centralized intellectual property ownership, and thats exactly what Facebook intends to prevent. The most important thing that you should know concerning any Facebook API is that one thing remains the same: Facebook owns its customer's data, and no one, not even the customer, is allowed to export that data from them.

To an extent, this bothers customers. Facebook recently changed their terms of service to say that Facebook owned the property rights all user entered content. Since this would have been catastrophic to artists and writers, there was a substantial backlash that resulted in Facebook rescinding this clause. They additionally apologized and claimed that this was never the intent. It seems unlikely that they would attempt to own all user content in this way, and I believe that they were honest in saying that this was a mistake. What the terms should have said is that Facebook claims ownership of the format and
context of data as it appears in Facebook. You own your posts, but the only way to use them outside of Facebook is to retype them by hand. You own your photographs, but maybe only if you have the originals. And under no circumstances can you export Facebook's bread and butter: the relationships that you have established.

And so Facebook's goal is to make you just happy enough that you won't jump ship. They will claim as much ownership of content that they can for the sole purpose of making it hard to leave. They will make it difficult or impossible to remove content. They will sell as much of your identity as advertisers will buy without the government getting involved. These are what the investors of social networks talk about, and the only way that they can survive as free services.

I am sad to see the Times miss what is blatantly obvious to me. Is it not the age old motto of investigative journalism to follow the money? It may be that our journalists have lost their curiosity. Or possibly that people have generally become consumers, and consumers see themselves not as powerful individuals but as reflected in their relationship to companies. With Social Networks, the money is in owning customer data as much as possible, and selling that data (via keyword advertising, or outright) to advertisers.

If I impress anything on you, let it be that Facebook needs you more than you need Facebook. They need you to buy products so that they can sell advertising, because Facebook is not really a free service. Years from now, the person who owns your past (photographs, notes, messages with friends) will be the one paying for it now, and if you are a Facebook user, that person is not you. The best thing that you can do for your future self is to get involved and start owning your present identity. Data in a product like Wordpress, Blogger (but not Blogspot), or simple HTML on a web server has been paid in full. There is no question about who owns the rights to your past, or what you are allowed to do with it - it is simply yours. Certainly, Facebook has extra features that you cannot get from these truly free products, but comparable features won't exist in other products (free or consumer paid) until there is a demand for them.

So get out there and encourage people to think about the past of the future, which might be tomorrow. Maybe even use Facebook to spread the word - but don't be surprised if they shut you down. After all, they are the ones footing the bill.


  • This reaches to the core of why newspapers are dying on the vine. People understand that they provide less and less value over time! This is just another example of a clueless reporter creating a block of text, reviewed by a clueless editor, released in a periodical read by cluefull readers who understand that they know more about the subject than the reporter. To add insult to injury, the reporters appear to be disinterested in learning or digging, and are lazily reporting their own opinions and biases instead of being industrious enough to hammer, beat and craft an article that has real value in the eye of the beholder.
    You can see this improper attitude in the hullaboo over editors "shopping" articles out to readers to determine what the reader WANTS to read. Sound reasonable? No, we are told that this interferes with some journalist fantasy regarding independence. It's all twisted, and people see this. It's not just that the NYTimes doesn't understand Social Networks, it's that the NYTimes just doesn't understand in general! This is a symptom of a generic problem with newspapers, that is loosely related to the problem that the automakers have. Lack of understanding of what their customers want, and a failure to remain agile enough to provide it.

    By Blogger Bob, At 5/4/09 1:38 PM  

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