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The problem with Facebook

Walled gardens. Remember them? During the early-90’s internet boom, content owners in particular were really keen on walled gardens – the principle of creating protected, proprietary niches online which users couldn’t get out of.

In the early 2000’s, they became the prime modus operandi of mobile phone companies, which wanted you to pay to access a limited set of web sites from your phone – sites which they would charge the owners of if they wanted to be allowed inside the preserve.

Although he doesn’t mention walled gardens, this is effectively what Dave Winer is describing in his post on “Why Facebook sucks“. Dave correctly points out that Facebook is, for contact information, a one-way street:

“I mean, I understand why they want me to tell them everyone I know, but how about letting me download a copy [of my contacts] to my computer, so I can back it up, use it on my iPhone or Blackberry, bequeath it to my heirs, write a book about it, or give a copy to Google or Netflix or Yahoo, or you get the idea.

It’s the last thing they don’t want me to do, give a copy to a competitor of theirs. And they hope I won’t notice that I’m doing all this work and not insisting on at least being their equal when it comes to my data.”

Of course, Facebook has applications: but you can’t take the data from Facebook, your list of contacts and relationships, and download them to do what you want with them. As with many other kinds of social software, as Dave correctly surmises, the users are creating the important data – but they’re not getting the profits from it.

And this is the crux of the question which hangs over the future of social networks. Social networks depend entirely on the network effect, that is they become more valuable to individuals because of the mass of connections and data which users put into them. Without the users contributing data, connections and content, they are of zero value – something which has only ever been recognised by Jason Calacanis when he paid the top contributors to Netscape.

An application like Facebook, which is a one-way walled garden, is worse than useless. Not only is it leveraging the time and skill of thousands of users to add value to something which, without them, would be valueless, it is depriving them of the opportunity to take their content – information which they, not Facebook, own – and move it elsewhere.

The 800lbs gorilla hiding in the corner of the room is, of course, Google:

“Sometime in November Google is rumored to be revealing their answer to Facebook. Whatever it is it will surely have an API, and will allow Google apps to share the info, and it will, if it hopes to compete with Facebook, provide some access to this data to app developers. But the true measure of their gravitas will be whether they give full control of the user’s data to the user. If they do that, no matter what’s missing from their software, it won’t suck.”

It will be interesting to see what approach Google takes. My own hunch is that it’s going to be an almost-pure RSS play, simply tying together existing services like Orkut, Gmail, Picasa, Google Notebooks and Google Shared Stuff. The big API will be something based around Gmail contacts, which can already be synced and accessed using third party products like Plaxo. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that it won’t be the kind of one-way walled garden which Facebook appears to want to tie us to.

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  • http://www.ts0.com Thom Shannon

    All of Googles recent applications are built on their BigTable system which can be queried over the GData API. It’s basically RESTful ATOM. Quite flexible and powerful.

    Be interesting to see how they try to get market share though. I wonder if they’ll go for simply buying it like they’re doing with checkout.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ianbetteridge/ Ian Betteridge

    Do they need to go after market share? After all, they already many millions of Gmail users… it would be easy to see how they can create what would amount to a stealth social network which can be accessed through all of their services to a different degree – thus letting them entice users in quickly and easily.

  • balf

    twitter actually has a use. You have set me thinking…

  • http://blog.rebang.com csven

    Glad someone else feels the same way about Facebook. (ref: http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1370 ). I saw a report Friday(?) that indicated Facebook is already in decline. That may or may not be accurate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. Of course if Facebook were to get in on some music action, and word is they will, we might see an interesting head-to-head with MySpace. And with Universal’s push to compete with Apple, we may see an interesting set of partnerships forming.

  • http://twopointouch.com Ian Delaney

    There’s Outsync, created unofficially by a MS employee:

    http://www.melsam.com/outsync/

    However, I seem to recall the creators of a similar product for Macs being served legal papers. I wonder if Facebook is ready to treat MS in the same way…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ianbetteridge/ Ian Betteridge

    FacebookSync (the Mac application you’re referring to) is still around, although – apparently – in a more limited form than it was. Clearly, Facebook are being very careful about who they allow to access their information.