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.
Of course that isn’t really true. For one, any commenting system could force FB login. Two, users will troll with or without their name attached and, worse yet, many legitimate users won’t participate for any number of reasons if they can’t use a pseudonym. There are plenty of better ways to increase quality in your comments including participation from the content creators, game mechanics, community moderation and more.
The real debate, however, is about G+ trying to copy FB’s stance on Real Names. They are insisting all user accounts use them and are actively shutting down accounts that violate the policy. They are being so heavy handed about that even people who ARE using their real name are getting notices of violation – most notable Violet Blue.
I’m not really an expert on pseudonyms, shared contexts and anonymity so I’m going to stay out of this debate.
The real question for me, however, is what is Google’s strategic business reason for this policy. There must be a long term plan/reason for it otherwise they wouldn’t be insisting so hard.
My assumption is that it’s related to their intention to become a canonical people directory and identity provider on the internet to compete with FB in this space.
FB, after all, does not just get it’s power from news feeds and photo apps – it gets it from the deep roots it has laid down into the DNA of the internet as the provider of 1st class identity infrastructure and identity information.
In this sense, FB’s social contract has served them very well, and Google’s attempt to copy it is a hint that they understand FB is not just a .com feature set, but a powerful identity utility. They must (and in some cases seem to be) understand that strategy and it’s aggressiveness if they are to properly compete with the monopoly. My only hope, however, is that they are coming up with their own inspired counter strategy rather than just copying the moves they see on the surface – because that’s doomed to fail.
It’s certainly very slick, but it’s a few years behind FB.
I mean that not just in timing and network effects, but in the much more strategic sense of platform ambition. FB.com was the FB strategy 4 years ago. FB is now going for the rest of the web. It’s reach and role as an identity provider and social infrastructure player makes it much more important (and harder to beat) than launching a cool new service. So hopefully the Google+ team is thinking WAY beyond this as a destination site when they are thinking Google Social Strategy.
So far the broad ranging announcements from the +1 button to Google Analytics adding Social bode well for this being a company wide, product wide refresh. The key to success will be in thinking about the need to compete with FB beyond the walls and products of Google.
The key to that, of course, will be to get deep adoption by major sites.
Update: Upon thinking about it a little more. Google has once again missed an opportunity to play to their strengths. With the document web they played the role of aggregator and algorithmic signal detection system. With the social web, their ideal strategy would be to build the ultimate social inbox. A place where I can navigate, consume AND interact with Facebook + Twitter + Foursquare + Quora +++ in one place.
There is very little more I can say that Khris Loux has not already said so eloquently on stage at the #e2 launch event
When you work so hard and long on something (depending on how you look at it, StreamServer was either 15, 2.5 or 1 year in the making) its hard to sum it all up in one, 1 hour event.
But that’s what we tried to do.
We tried to thread the needle between a contemporary story about activity data, the existential change (read: opportunity or threat) occurring on the web as traffic and monetization flows to proprietary social networking platforms, the opportunity for every major node on the web to be just as powerful and innovative, the need for open standards and powerful cloud services as the basis of the the rebuttal and our deep desire to make this an industry wide effort. We tried to communicate the important role of aggregation and the pivotal job of mainstream media, e-commerce, entertainment, startup and agencies play in curating activity information for the masses.
We also tried to communicate that this was not just a pipe dream, but rather a commercial reality for major customers. A solution running at scale. A new distribution and monetization opportunity for 3rd party devs and a future ready piece of infrastructure for media companies.
I think we did the best job possible at threading all these stories, and doing it with a human, authentic voice through the lens of customer and partner experiences.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done so far, and the tireless efforts of the Echo team and our customer/partner devs.
And all of that being said, though, we are only at the beginning. We have just planted the first seed and I look forward to helping it grow.
So what is StreamServer in my words?
It is the real-time, social scale database that Twitter, Facebook, Quora, Foursquare and others built, delivered as an ec2 style cloud service. Turn it on, and forget about managing the data or scaling the infrastructure.
It is the first of its kind and it will hopefully form the basis of many new companies as they deliver many new, novel and innovative experiences to customers and end users everywhere.
And it’s a bet on the future of open standards, developer ecosystems, a heterogeneous web made up of first class social nodes.
Jeremiah and I wrote an analysis of the New Twitter vs. Current Facebook.
Here’s a snippet:
Situation: Twitter’s new redesign advances their user experience
Twitter has announced a new redesign today, yet by looking at the news, there hasn’t been a detailed breakdown of these two leading social networks. Overall, Twitters new features start to resemble some features of a traditional social network, beyond their simple messaging heritage. We took the key features from both social website and did a comparison and voted on the stronger player?
Our Verdict: Facebook Features Lead Over Twitter’s New Redesign
Facebook’s features offer a more robust user experience, and they have a longer history of developing the right relationships with media, developers, and their users. Twitter, a rapidly growing social network has launched a series of new features (described by the founder as “smooth like butter”) that provide users with a snappy experience and enhanced features.
We tallied the important features of this launch and to their overall expansion strategy and have concluded that Facebook’s features continue to hold dominance over Twitter, despite the noticeable improvements. While we don’t expect that Twitter wants to become ‘another Facebook’ they should play to their strengths and remaining nimble and lightweight yet allowing for developers and content producer to better integrate into their system.
Just wanted to share with you here that I wrote a guest post on Mashable last week about Facebook’s world view. Be sure to check it out here.
Are these blunders a series of accidental missteps (a combination of ambition, scale and hubris) or a calculated risk to force their world view on unsuspecting users (easier to ask for forgiveness)? Only the executives at Facebook can ever truly answer this question.
What’s clear, though, is that their platform is tightly coupled with countless other websites and applications across the web, and their financial success is aligned with many influential investors and actors. At this stage, and at this rate, their continued success is all but assured.
But so is the success of the rest of the web. Countless social applications emerge every day and the rest of the web is, and always will be, bigger than any proprietary platform. Through its action and inaction, Facebook offers opportunities for us all. And in the dance between their moves and the rest of the web’s, innovation can be found.
The only thing that can truly hurt the web is a monopoly on ideas, and the only ones who can let that happen are web users themselves.
I have published a guest post on RWW about Facebook’s recent privacy challenges and their claims about data portability.
“The lack of honesty and clarity from the company and its representatives … and the continued trend of taking established language – such as “open technology” or “data portability” – and corrupting it for its own marketing purposes, is far more disconcerting than the boundaries it’s pushing with its technology choices.”