Is a Single Social Graph Healthy?

Facebook-connect-intro Facebook has made a few very important announcements this week.  It is now clear that they see themselves as a part of the software backbone of the Internet, with a increasingly-dominant sign-on and authorization ability, the new, atomized "like" button, and promising ambitions in the location and payments areas.

And, as Albert Wenger points out, they have executed very well on this very ambitious path, continuing to innocate at scale.

However, there's something I find disturbing in the dominance of any one company, at the core of the internet, which itself, has so far avoided this type of dependence, maybe except in the case of google.  However, Google, in its most dominant search and advertising verticals, does not constitute a single breaking point for the internet.  Take away Google Search, and Yahoo or Microsoft have products that work almost as well.  Take away Google Ads, and… well, nothing maybe.  Probably a massive drop in traffic to many sites and a commercial problem, but the internet works just as well, perhaps better, in providing us with the utility we expect from it.

Conversely, today, nobody else has the social graph data that we now rely on Facebook to provide for us as a web service.  And now many new services are being built on this layer.

If you read this blog, you know that I find the social graph extremely valuable.  I suspect that the single company domination of the social graph is dangerous and may have a stifling effect on the development of value-added services on top of the identity layer.  The strength of the internet has so far been its openness.  Had it been a Microsoft net or an AT&T net, no matter how innovatively executed, the internet would have fallen way short of what it enables today.

What would the alternative be?  If Sun had made the move to own the social graph, it would have been more authentically open. So far, Facebook has been somewhat open, but there are commercial pressures around Facebook that will strongly motivate it to misbehave in its shepherding of the social graph.  I hope that does not happen.

PS. Albert also declares he does not believe in a single social graph.  I actually do. I think the problem he points out is one that can be solved with intelligent search/find and filtering.

Google Buzz: Email Powered Social Graph

Google_logo Buzz-lightyearHere comes my mandatory Google Buzz post.

I have been writing for a while the enormous value of the social graph that resides within email.  Finally, Google has made a very significant step to capitalize on this.  Frankly, I was expecting Yahoo to beat Google in this race, primarily since Yahoo has to do something bold at this stage and the gigantic installed base of Yahoo Mail users.  I suspect they still might but Google looks like the early bird this time around. 

Gene Volovich commented about the walled garden aspect of Gmail.  I agree with him.  However, Google is learning to be open.  In fact, anyone looking at Twitter would understand that it was its openness that led to Twitter's growth.  The only way for Buzz to fulfill its destiny is to be open.  I have no doubt Google would know this.

For me, the bottom line is, for a gmail user, the amount of social insight residing in gmail far exceeds facebook.  This may not be true for users who split up email usage for personal and professional communications.  However, Gmail usage brings habits with it and if you deal with your professonal email through the Gmail interface, the conversation threads are very natural.  And the status updats/tweets context is identical to the conversation thread. In a funny way, the Gmail model, when established, already laid the foundation for Buzz, way before Facebook statuses or Twitter.

I see Google Buzz as a very important step (and experiment)  in social communications, and a strong move by Google in the race to own the identity layer of the internet.

Facebook Eliminates One Rival in the Race for Social Graph Ownership

Rocky_victory Today's announcement that Yahoo is integrating into Facebook Connect must have been accompanied with the sound of champagne bottles popping over at Facebook's headquarters.  It's a big victory for Facebook as it advances towards ownership of the identity layer of the internet.

To be honest, I am a bit puzzled at the early concession by Yahoo.  I am fuly convinced that by now Yahoo sees itself as a media company.  It's obvious with its concentration on content.  But, it also has an enormous amount of data on users and, through Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Groups, a nice chunk of the social graph.  And I would have expected Yahoo to try to extract some value out of that.

What's weird is that Mashable is calling this:

"…a no-brainer for Yahoo, who has been trying for years to make its services more social on its own. Now, they’ll start to see some of the benefits that smaller publishers have seen from Facebook Connect (more comments, extra traffic from Facebook, etc.) on a massive scale."

That is ridiculous.  Yahoo is not a small publisher.  It's one of the first and greatest destinations on the internet.  It's got as much traffic as Facebook and more members (500m vs Facebook's 350m).  Why is Yahoo doing this?  And isn't it ironic that the announcement is coming from Jim Stoneham, who's responsible for Yahoo communities?

Om agrees with me and sees Facebook as the big winner and Yahoo as the big loser here, and compares this move to Yahoo's deal with Google in terms of magnitude.  I think this is actually a bigger deal. In search, Yahoo lost to Google's technology.  It did not have much chance against Google.  Whereas in this case, Yahoo's still got a ton of data (groups data, mail-related social graph, hotjobs-driven professional information, flickr's social graph, etc.) to be a contender in the identity layer game.

I expect the next move from Google.  Facebook's got a lot of momentum and Google can not watch this passively. I'd predicted Twitter being bought in 2009.  It was not.  2010 maybe?

Twitter a Utility?

Bo Peabody recently had an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Times (via PEHub), titled "Twitter.Org?", where he suggested:

I launched the social networking site Tripod in 1995. By 1998, it was
the eighth-largest site on the Web. But Tripod was never a successful
business. Social networks aren't great places to advertise. You can't
charge users for their services. And they never gain enough momentum to
survive in the stock market. Indeed, no social network has ever made it
as a public company.

Instead of expecting profits that won't materialize, the
entrepreneurial community should instead operate social networks as
not-for-profit organizations. Wikipedia has grown phenomenally with a
not-for-profit business model, and while Wikipedia has its problems,
its fate is in the collective hands of its users rather than in the
hands of media companies or the stock market. Facebook and Twitter
should enjoy the same comfort.

Bo Peabody is a social media veteran and the article is a personal one.  It's explicitly rooted in his experience.  His point can be valid if you take social networks and user-generated content from a media perspective.  So I would agree with him in the case of the likes of MySpace or Bebo.

However, he points out Twitter and Facebook specifically, and there, I disagree with him.  This blog has always seen Twitter and Facebook as attempts at owning the identity layer of the internet.  Until Facebook, there was no meta data on the identites of internet users.  That's been changing rapidly over the last couple of years, and especially last year, Twitter has emerged as a contender in the identity layer – one that perhaps has a thinner layer of data on the users, but can grow even faster due to its simplicity.

I also find the notion of a not-for-profit, or utility-like, Facebook or Twitter very interesting and worthwhile. However, my reasoning would not be due to their limited profit generating ability, as proposed by Peabody, but the idea that something as powerful as the identity layer of the internet perhaps ought to be a public-domain asset, just like the internet itself.