Yesterday Robert Scoble once again declared that the Open Web was dead. His argument was that Apps and proprietary black holes like Facebook are absorbing all the light (read: users, attention, value, investment) and taking our beloved open platform right along with it. In his post, he kindly (but incorrectly) named me as the only person who really cares about the Open Web.
While that’s flattering, I think he’s wrong about me being the only one who cares.
But he is right about the Open Web. It’s in real danger. URLs are fading into the background, native Mobile apps are all the rage and Facebook threatens to engulf the web into a proprietary black hole.
But I think there’s a bigger problem going on right now. Not just with the web, but with silicon valley (as stewards of the web). We’ve lost sight of the things that matter. We’re obsessed with quick wins, easily digestible VC pitches, stock options and flipping for a Ferrari.
There’s more to this game than that. Let me touch on some of the things I see going on.
Lead not just cheerlead
In our obsession with being seen by our micro-audiences as ‘thought leaders’ or ‘futurists’ it’s always very tempting to watch which way the wind is blowing and shout loudly that THERE is the future. Like a weather vane, it’s easy to point the way the wind is blowing, but our biggest, best opportunity is not to declare a popular service ‘the next big thing’ just because a few visible people are hanging out there. Rather our collective and individual responsibility is to help articulate a direction we think moves the state of the art forward for both the web and for society at large. Something, as leaders of this field, we believe in. Just like VCs develop an investment thesis, we should all have a vision for where the web is going (and how it should get there) and actively seek out, support and promote quiet heros who are building something that moves the needle in the right direction.
Add to the web’s DNA
Almost every startup I see today is focused on building an ‘App’ and calling it a ‘Platform’. Too often (almost every time) though, these apps are nothing more than proprietary, incremental and niche attempts at making a quick buck. We need more companies to think deeper. Think longer term. What are you doing to change the fabric of the web’s DNA forever? How can you contribute to the very essence of the Internet the same way that TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, JS and so many other technologies have done. Even proprietary technologies have provided valuable evolutions forward – things like Flash and yes, even FB. How are you going to live forever? This is why Facebook used to call itself a ‘Social Utility’ instead of a ‘Social Network’. Mark Zuckerberg was never content to be the next Myspace Tom. He wanted to be the next Alexander Graham Bell. And now he is.
Don’t just iterate, innovate
Of course, someone has to build Apps. We can’t all be working at the infrastructure layer. But too many of the Apps we chose to build (or champion) are incremental. As startup founders, investors and influencers it’s so easy to understand something that can be described as the ‘Flipboard of Monkeys’ instead of thinking really hard about how a completely new idea might fit into the future. Sure there are plenty of good business and marketing reasons why you shouldn’t stray too far from the beaten path, broadening it one incremental feature at a time, but the core essence of what you’re working on can’t be yet another turn of a very tired wheel. If you’re shouting ‘Me too’ then you’re probably not thinking big enough.
B2C, not Ego2C
Silicon valley is clearly a B2C town. We all love the sexy new app that our mother might eventually understand. Something we can get millions of users to use so we can show them lots of ads. Besides the fact that I think we should focus a little more on B2B, the problem is we’re not really a B2C town at all. We’re actually more focused on what I will call Ego2c. That is, we pick our favorite apps based on how famous the founding team is OR how easily we can use the app to build yet another niche audience for ourselves (and brands/marketers). It would be a tragedy if the social web revolution boils down to new methods of PR and marketing. But that’s what we seem to be obsessed with. As soon as any app from a famous founder gets released we give it tones of buzz while plenty of more deserving projects get barley a squeak. If the app gets a little traction (typically the ones that have Ego mechanics baked in) you see a million posts about how marketers can exploit it. Inevitably the app developers start to focus on how to ‘increase social coefficients’ instead of how to help human beings make a connection or find utility in their lives.
“Users don’t care”
Speaking more specifically about the Open vs. Closed debate, too often we hear the criticism ”Users don’t care about open”. This is absolutely true and the reason why most open efforts fail. Users don’t care about open. They care about utility and choice. This is why the only way to continue propagating the open web is to work with BUSINESS. B2B. Startups, Media Brands, The bigco Tech companies. They care about open because the proprietary winners are kicking the losers ass and that usually means there are at least 1 or more other guys who need a competitive advantage. They need to team up and build, deploy and popularize the open alternative. That’s why open always wins. There’s always plenty of losers around who are going to commoditize the popular closed thing. As technology leaders we’re paid to care about things users don’t care about. Things that shape the future. While users, in the short term, might not care, we should dare to think and dream a little bigger. As a case study look at Android vs. iOS. iOS is more profitable for a single company, but the other is now a force of nature.
Death is just a stage of life
Just because something is no longer interesting doesn’t mean it’s dead. Its spirit, and often times the actual technology, lives on, one layer below the surface. RSS is a great example of this. RSS’s spirit lives on in ActivityStreams and the general publish/subscribe model. It is powering almost every service-to-service interaction you currently enjoy. Is it dead, or has it simply become part of the DNA of the Internet? Could RSS (or something like it) be better exposed higher up in the stack, absolutely, but that will take some time, thoughtful execution and influencers who are willing to champion the cause. The same is true for OpenID and OAuth.
The Arc of the Universe Is long but It bends towards Open
The battle of Open vs. Closed is not a zero sum game. Both have their time. It’s a sin wave. First, closed, proprietary solutions come to define a new way of fulfilling a use case and doing business. They solve a problem simply and elegantly and blaze a path to market awareness, acceptance and commercialization. Open, however, always follows. Whether it’s a year, a decade or a century, Open. Always. Wins. The only question is how long, as an industry, are we going to keep our tail tucked between our legs in front of the the great giant proprietary platform of the moment or are we going to get our act together to ensure the “Time to Open” is as short as possible. It takes courage, co-ordination and vision, but we can all play our part to shorten the time frame between the invention of a proprietary app and the absorption of that value into the open web platform.
FB has won. It’s done. Just like Microsoft won the Desktop OS (in part handed to them by IBM), so too has FB won the Social OS (in part handed to them by Microsoft). For now. Acknowledging the truth is the first step to changing it. The only question now is how long we’re all willing to wait until we get our act together to turn the proprietary innovation of the ‘social graph’ into part of the open web’s core DNA. We need to recognize our power. They have ~1B users? The open web has more. Chances are that the major website or brand you work for has plenty of its own users as well. Are you going to send them to FB, or are you going to invest in your own .com. Trust me, I know it’s really, really easy to take what you’re given because you’re too busy putting out a million fires. But as technology leaders I challenge us all to build something better. We’re the only ones who can.
[Edit] Don’t kill Hollywood Did you catch the YC post calling for silicon valley to kill hollywood. Not only was this reckless and short sighted, it’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Instead of trying to kill or cannibalize media companies and content creators, how about we work with them to create the next generation of information technology. They have the audiences+information and we have the technology. Instead, most silicon valley companies, by virtue of their B2C focus, are too busy leaching off major media instead of finding ways to help transform it. Sure most of them move slowly – but move they are. Move they must. Helping them is very profitable. I write more about this on the Echo blog – calling it ‘Real-time Storytelling‘
[Edit] Today’s data portability problem When I started the DataPortability project the issue of the time was personal data portability. That’s not the case anymore. While user-centric data portability is still being done via proprietary mechanisms it’s a) actually possible and b) moving more towards open standards every day. The real issue right now is firehoses. Access to broad corpuses of data so that 3rd parties can innovate is only possible through firehoses (for now). To put it another way, the reason Google was possible was because the open web was crawl-able - for free – with no biz dev deal. The reason FB was possible was because the open web allowed any site to spring up and do what it wanted to do. Today, too much of our data is locked up in closed repositories that can and must be cracked open. Google’s moves to exclude other socnets (besides G+) from their search results until they had free and clear access to them might be inconvenient for users in the short term, but, as a strategic forcing function, is in the best interest of the open web long term.
So at F8 last week Facebook announced Ticker, Timeline and extensions to the Open Graph API to allow for new verbs and nouns.
Here’s what really happened.
They split their single ‘News Feed’ into 3 levels of filtering. Now (Ticker), Relevant (News Feed), Historical (Timeline). (Side note, we’ve had a ‘Ticker’ style product at Echo that we called ‘Community Stream’ for a long time now – and most of our customers and partners said to us ‘why would we want to show all that data it’s just noisy’. Maybe now they will take a second look.). Question: Will G+, Twitter and the REST of the web adopt the same model? They should.
This allows FB to collect more ‘noise’ (also known as synaptic firings or Attention data) which, in turn, allows them to find more signal (also known as synaptic inferences or attention management). I’ve long said that the answer to information overload is not LESS information – it’s MORE. The more information you have the more ability you have to find patterns and surface them in relevant places (I said it so long ago I can’t even find the link). Question: Will independent websites think to collect their OWN Attention data BEFORE sending it to FB so they can leverage for their own purposes. The value of this data is incalculable.
Having these new presentation metaphors in place, they then created a mechanism to collect more data in the form of expanded Verbs and Nouns in the Open Graph API. With this new API, user’s are now expected to abandon explicit gestures of sharing and instead, accept that every action they take is auto-shared to their friends. Question: When will the first horror stories start coming out about engagement ring purchases, personal health issues and sexual orientations being inappropriately revealed due to auto-sharing?
Using all the bling of the Timeline, along with new messaging and a simple little opt in toggle of ‘Add to my timeline’ they managed to re-launch ‘Beacon’ without anyone noticing (none of the tech blogs I saw even mentioned it). Question: Why did none of the tech media cover that angle of the story?
I continue to be in awe of Facebook’s scale, seriousness, ambition and momentum. There has never been anything like it before.
They have created an Attention Management Platform that rivals Google Search and easily out classes many of my best ideas about Attention Management and Personal Relevancy back when I was thinking about the problem.
And since it is all done with hard links to a single proprietary hub, it is eating the web like a cancer.
Before F8 it was clear that Google+ was a 1 or 2 years behind FB. Now they are 3 or 4.
Only time will tell who, how and why more open systems will begin to reassert themselves in the ecosystem. My bet is that it wont come from a b2c copy-cat, though. It will come from a well organized, commercially incentivized b2b play.
The part that still confuses me, though, is why ANY serious media company would want their news to load in a ‘FB canvas app’ instead of their own website. It makes zero sense. None of this changes the reality that you need to own your own data and your own point source. I made a little comparison table earlier in the week that explains why.
Over the last few days I have been debating the NYT pay wall on a private email thread of friends.
I didn’t feel the need to post it on my blog because I thought that pay walls were so obviously a losing strategy that it was a waste of time to comment.
But combined with the recent law suit against the Huffingon Post and Arianna Huffington’s eqloquent response yesterday, I felt it was worth while to re-publish my thoughts here. Most of them are based on thinking and writing that I did many years ago around Attention. Most of that old writing has been lost in the blog shuffle. Hopefully one day I will dig it up and re-post it in a safe place.
On to the issue…
The price of content
I believe that people have historically paid for the medium not the content.
They pay for ‘Cable’ not for ‘CNN News’. They pay for ‘The Paper’ not for the content in the newspaper. They pay for ‘CDs’ not for the music on the album.
Also they paid a lot because the medium was perceived to be scarce (scarce materials, scarce shelf space, scarce advertising dollars), scarce talented people.
Consumers are not stupid, they understand (if only somewhere at the back of their mind) that the COST of creating and distributing things has been deflated by a growing list of converging trends.
We live in a world of abundance (in the area of digital content anyway). Shelf space is infinite (database entries), any kid in a basement can make content and there is no physical media anymore so cost of distribution has disappeared as well.
The scarcity now is on the consumption side – Attention is the scarce resource. Value is derived from scarcity.
That’s why on the Internet, Attention allocation systems (Google Search, FB News Feed etc) are attracting traffic, engagement and ultimately profit.
In this new world, the price of content must be reduced significantly as shakeouts and rebalancing occurs – because the cost of producing it is approaching zero.
The more the Music, TV and News industry fight this, the more they leave themselves open to disruption by Google, FB, Twitter and the rest of silicon valley.
This is not even to mention that everyone is producing content now. Tweets, Photos, Videos – it’s abundant. Of course most of it isn’t very ‘good’ by J school standards – but that’s irrelevant. The world has never rewarded good with any consistency.
Also just because content is not good, doesn’t mean it isn’t personally meaningful.
For example, I care more what my child (theoretical child of course) posts to FB than the most important journalist in all the world says on CNN.
But please don’t confuse my dispassionate assessment of the issue as pleasure or happiness at the demise of mainstream media though.
I am simply stating the facts because without understanding those we can’t begin to change them (if that’s what the media world decided to do).
In terms of making a judgement of those facts, I think that curators who weave and summarize a broader narrative in the form of ‘reporting’ are critical for an informed citizenship and a functional democracy. I believe in it so much that I have dedicate my life to helping mainstream media companies staying relevant and co-writing things like this: http://aboutecho.com/2010/08/18/essay-real-time-storytelling/
But I also believe that mainstream mass media broke an ancient (and by ancient, I mean as old as rudimentary human communication) pattern of people telling each other personal stories vs. getting all their stories/news from editorialized mass broadcasts.
The Internet may just be restoring the balance. The result is some massive restructuring of inflated budgets, processes, offices, costs etc. While we’re in the middle of that restructuring, it looks like a media apocalypse. Until it settles down and a new equilibrium is found.
The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation — from couch potato to self-expression. Writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook page, editing photos, uploading videos, and making music are options made possible by new technologies.
The same people who never question why someone would sit on a couch and watch TV for eight hours straight can’t understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues — great and small — that interest them. For free. They don’t understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, who maintain their own blogs for free, who tweet for free, who constantly refresh and update their Facebook pages for free, and who want to help tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities… for free.
Free content — shared by people who want to connect, share their passions, and have their opinions heard — fuels much of what appears on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Flickr, and YouTube. As John Hrvatska, a commenter on the New York Times, wrote of the Tasini suit, “So, does this mean when YouTube was sold to Google that all the people who posted videos on YouTube should have been compensated?” (And Mr. Hrvatska no doubt contributed that original and well-reasoned thought without any expectation he’d be paid for it. He just wanted to weigh in.)
We’re living in a recycled generation. Think about it. Much of what we do in the 21st century is recycling what has gone before.
Sure there are the obvious examples – positive examples – such as recycling paper and plastic. But I am talking about the recycling of ideas and culture.
There is now far more emphasis on people recycling (Retweeting, Reposting, Repeating) news than creating it. Social media makes us each story tellers, but a large percentage of the story we’re telling is someone else’s.
Movies are also being recycled. I’m going to go see Tron today. A recycled idea from 1982. In fact many of the movies that come out these days are adaptions, remakes, sequels or prequels. Recycled ideas.
I suspect that much of it has to do with information overload. In a world where there is so much information, two of the most powerful and interrelated mechanisms for getting Attention is social proximity and nostalgia.
Social networks use both to encourage us to read and share each other’s status updates by feeding off our social bonds and our ego driven need to participate in a form of real-time nostalgia. How many of us have thought ‘this is going to be awesome when I go back and read it in the future’.
The same is true for Movies. Movie studios have realized the surest way to get an audience into the theater is to bet on the older generation’s nostalgic memory of the past and the younger generation’s cult like respect for it.
I am not necessarily judging this as a negative phenomenon. I am just observing that it is one.
I worry though, will this generation be remembered for anything great of its own – especially when it comes to movies? Can you think of the last great original movie you saw that would last the test of time?
For whatever reason, a new project called Diaspora is getting a lot of attention at the moment. They are four young guys who have managed to crowd source $100k+ to build an open, privacy respecting, peer-to-peer social network.
A number of people have asked me what I think, so instead of repeating myself over and over I thought I would write it down in one place.
First, I don’t think Diaspora is going to be the ‘thing’ that solves the problem. There are too many moving parts and too many factors (mainly political) to have any single group solve the problem by themselves.
Second, I don’t think that’s any reason to disparage or discourage them.
When we launched the DataPortability project, we didn’t claim we would solve the issue, but rather create a blueprint for how others might implement interoperable parts of the whole. We soon learned that task was impractical to say the least. The pieces were not mature enough and the politics was far too dense.
Instead, we have settled for providing a rolling commentary and context on the situation and promoting the efforts of those that are making strides in the right direction. We also play the important role of highlighting problems with closed or even anticompetitive behaviors of the larger players.
The problem with the DataPortability project, though, was not its ambition or even it’s failure to meet those ambitions, but rather the way the ‘old guard’ of the standards community reacted to it.
The fact of the matter is that the people who used to be independent open advocates were actually quite closed and cliquey. They didn’t want ‘new kids on the block’ telling them how to tell their story or promote their efforts. Instead of embracing a new catalyzing force in their midst, they set about ignoring, undermining and even actively derailing it at every opportunity.
Despite my skepticism about Diaspora, though, I don’t want to fall into the same trap. I admire and encourage the enthusiasm of this group to chase their dream of a peer-to-peer social network.
Do I think they will succeed with this current incarnation? No. Do I think they should stop trying? No.
While this project might not work their effort and energy will not go to waste.
I think we need more fresh, independent voices generating hype and attention for the idea that an open alternative to Facebook can and must exist. Their success in capturing people’s imagination only shows that there is an appetite for such a thing.
What they might do, however, is strongly consider how their work might stitch together existing open standards efforts rather than inventing any new formats or protocols. The technologies are getting very close to baked and are finding their way into the web at every turn.
We all need to do our part to embed them into every project we’re working on so that peer-to-peer, interoperable social networking will become a reality.
Welcome to the party Diaspora team, don’t let the old guard (who have largely left for BigCo’s anyway) scare you off.
To summarize that post, it’s clear that Facebook is making a play to create, aggregate and own not only identity on the web, but everything that hangs off it. From Interests to Engagement – not just on their .com but across all sites. To do this they are giving publishers token value (analytics and traffic) to take over parts of the page with pieces of Facebook.com without giving them complete access to the user , their data or the user experience (all at the exclusion of any other player). In addition, they are building a semantic map of the Internet that will broker interests and data on a scale never before seen anywhere.
In the face of such huge momentum and stunningly effective execution (kudos to them!), aiming for (or using the word) Open is no longer enough. The web community needs to up it’s game.
The same is true for data portability – the group and the idea. Data portability is no longer enough. We must raise the bar and start to aim for Interoperable Data Portability.
Interoperability means that things work together without an engineer first having to figure out what’s on the other end of an API call.
When you request ‘http://blog.areyoupayingattention.com’ it isn’t enough that the data is there, or that that its ‘open’ or ‘accessible’. No. The reason the web works is because the browser knows exactly how to request the data (HTTP) and how the data will be returned (HTML/CSS/JS). This is an interoperable transaction.
Anyone could write a web server, create a web page, or develop a web browser and it just works. Point the browser somewhere else, and it continues to work.
Now map this to the social web. Anyone could (should be able to) build an open graph, create some graph data, and point a social widget to it and it just works. Point the social widget somewhere else, and it continues to work.
As you can see from the mapping above, the interaction between a social widget and it’s social graph should be the same as that of a browser and a web-server. Not just open, but interoperable, interchangeable and standardized.
The same kind of innovation we get when we have cutting edge web servers competing to be the best damned web server they can be (IIS vs. Apache), and cutting edge websites (Yahoo vs. MSN vs. Google vs. Every other site on the Internet) and cutting edge browsers (Netscape vs. IE vs. Safari vs. Chrome). These products were able to compete for their part in the stack.
Imagine if we got stuck with IIS, Netscape and Altavista locking down the web with their own proprietary communication channels. The web would have been no better than every closed communication platform before it. Slow, stale and obsolete.
How do we become interoperable? It’s hard. Really hard. Those of us who manage products at scale know its easy to make closed decisions. You don’t have to be an evil mastermind – you just have to be lazy. Fight against being lazy. Think before you design, develop or promote your products – try harder. I don’t say this just to you, I say it to myself as well. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else out there developing product. We must all try harder.
Open standards are a start, but open protocols are better. Transactions that, from start to finish, provide for Discoverability, Connectivity and Exchange of data using well known patterns.
The standards groups have done a lot of work, but standards alone don’t solve the problem. It requires product teams to implement the standards and this is an area I am far more interested in these days. How do we implement these patterns at scale.
Customers (i.e. Publishers) must also demand interoperable products. Products that not just connect them to Facebook or Twitter but rather make them first class nodes on the social web.
Like we said on the DataPortability blog:
In order for true interoperable, peer-to-peer data portability to win, serious publishers and other sites must be vigilant to choose cross-platform alternatives that leverage multiple networks rather than just relying on Facebook exclusively.
In this way they become first-class nodes on the social web rather than spokes on Facebook’s hub.
But this is just the start. This just stems the tide by handing the keys to more than one player so that no one player kills us while the full transition to a true peer-to-peer model takes place.
If the web is to truly stay open and interoperable, we need to think bigger and better than just which big company (s) we want to hand our identities to.
Just like every site on the web today can have its own web server, every site should also have the choice to host (or pick) its own social server. Every site should become a fully featured peer on the social web. There is no reason why CNN can not be just as functional, powerful, effective and interchangeable as Facebook.com.
If we don’t, we will be stuck with the IIS, IE and Netscape’s of the social web and innovation will die.
MG Siegler over on Techcrunch yesterday wrote a story about how the AP is tweeting links to its stories. Those links, however, are not to its website. Instead those twitter links lead to Facebook copies of their stories!
Here’s a snippet of his post:
The AP is using their Twitter feed to tweet out their stories — nothing new there, obviously — but every single one of them links to the story on their Facebook Notes page. It’s not clear how long they’ve been doing this, but Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan noted the oddness of this, and how annoying it is, tonight. The AP obviously has a ton of media partners, and they could easily link to any of those, or even the story hosted on their own site. But no, instead they’re copying all these stories to their Facebook page and linking there for no apparent reason.
As Sullivan notes in a follow-up tweet, “i really miss when people had web sites they owned and pointed at. why lease your soul to facebook. or buzz. or whatever. master your domain.”
To me this isn’t unusual at all. In fact it’s common practice amongst ‘social media experts’. Many of us use/used tools like FriendFeed, Buzz, Facebook etc not just to share links, but to actually host original content. We actively send all our traffic to these sites rather than using them as draws back to our own open blog/publishing platforms.
I completely agree with MG. Sending your audience to a closed destination site which provides you no brand control, monetization or cross-sell capability shows a profound misunderstanding of the economics of publishing.
Some will argue that the content should find the audience, and they should be free to read it wherever they like. Sure, I won’t disagree with that, but actively generating it in a non-monetizable place and actively sending people there seems like a missed opportunity to me. Why not generate it on your blog and then simply share the links in other places. If those users choose to chat over there, that’s fine, but the first, best place to view the content and observe the conversation should always be at the source, at YOUR source. YOUR site.
Some will argue that those platforms generate more engagement than a regular blog/site. They generate engagement because your blog is not looked after. You’re using inferior plugins and have not taken the time to consider how your blog can become a first class social platform. You’re willing to use tools that cannibalize your audience rather than attract them. You’re willing to use your blog as a traffic funnel back to other destination sites by replacing big chunks of it with FriendFeed streams rather than hosting your own LifeStream like Louis Gray and Leo Laporte have done.
Some will argue (or not, because they don’t realize or don’t want to say it out loud) that they are not journalists, they are personalities, and they go wherever their audience is. They don’t monetize their content, they monetize the fact that they HAVE an audience by getting paying jobs that enable them to evangelize through any channel that they choose. Those people (and there are very few of them) have less incentive to consolidate their content sources (although there are still reasons to do so). Unfortunately, though, media properties sometimes get confused and think they can do the same thing.
The list of reasons why publishing stuff on Buzz or FriendFeed or Facebook as a source rather than an aggregator goes on and on, so I will just stop here.
I’m glad MG has picked up on it and written about it on Techcrunch.
Update: Steve Rubel is agreeing with the AP’s approach. Using all sorts of fancy words like Attention Spirals, Curating and Relationships Steve is justifying APs ritual suicide of their destination site in favor of adding value, engagement and traffic to Facebook. Sorry Steve, but giving Facebook all your content and your traffic and not getting anything in return is called giving away the house.
Again, I’m not advocating that you lock content away behind paywalls, I’m simply saying that you need to own the source and make your site a first-class citizen on the social web. Not make Facebook the only game in town by handing it your audience.