Jason Calacanis is fed up with Facebook. (I’ll skip the part where I observe admiringly that Jason, who is Twittering more and blogging less this summer, knows that writing a Saturday-morning Dvorak troll post will tweak Facebook cultists into lighting-up his in-coming linkometer.) He says, among other things, “I can’t keep up with the friend requests, the requests to confirm how we know each other, the requests to tell you I like you, the requests to tell you I want your to tell me what movies you want to tell me about, etc.” In many ways, Jason’s complaint is a reiteration of the “age” debate — the fact that the DNA of Facebook’s culture is planted somewhere different than where Jason (and most people who, like, work) are today. (Fred Wilson suggests Jason not give up, yet, but he shares his pain.)
However, I believe the real problem with Facebook goes a bit deeper than the geek play that is taking place there this summer. Right now, for me, Facebook is just that: play. Facebook is a sandbox I’m playing in — but it has a long way to go before it can hope to be the world I live in.
In the search for the perfect, perfect next, next thing that will do everything and be everything and solve everything and be more valuable than Google, many in the crowd known as the Techcrunch 50,000*, are beginning to get that feeling — that wishful hope — that maybe, just maybe, in a few years, Facebook will be that thing they were using before everyone else decided they couldn’t live without it.
It should be noted, I am a fan of Facebook as I believe it is a great platform on which to experiment on a common platform many of the disparate tools and approaches to conversational media, identity, attention and community that I have spent the past decade trying to understand — by using them and, in some cases, living in them. But, as I’ve said before, unless we’re all willing to give up everything else we love about the nature of the Internet, then Facebook is not the golden fleece (or holy grail — but since this conversation was started by someone named Jason, I thought I’d head in the direction of that metaphor). Frankly, Facebook is not even close to being what will ultimately be that thing which alters fundamentally the way in which we relate and communicate. It may show us the way, but there are some important factors related to personal identity and social interaction that Facebook — or any platform that requires us to create community that is locked inside a wall — will not be able to overcome if it is to become the next be-all, end-all. As academics and others spend their entire careers exploring and explaining the phenomena I’ve just alluded to in the previous sentences, I won’t insult them by trying to use this post to trivialize the nature of identity and community. (When it comes to exploring the issues surrounding digital identity, a good place to start is Kim Cameron’s blog and his white paper called “Laws of Identity”.)
However, in a simplistic way to think of this, consider the telephone (an analogy I’ve used in the past). I have a couple of beige portable phones at home. I have no idea their brand. I have a black phone at work and we use a VoIP service, but I can’t remember the manufacturer of the equipment or the service vendor. I do remember the manufacturer and service provider of my cell-phone but anyone who reads this blog should know that.
That thing which makes the whole telephone-thing work is this: no matter what phone I use, I can reach pretty much anyone in the world who is hooked into the network — no matter what service they use or manufacturer or their equipment or the carrier or provider that provides them access to the network. No matter who the person(s) on the other end of the conversation, and no matter what the nature of our conversation, we can all connect with one another — usually in a matter of seconds — using a telephone.
It may seem strange, but back when the whole phone thing started, there was a notion that everyone should be using the same phone and the same system and the same network — and that if you had the need to talk with people on another network then, well, you should be required to get another system. If you can’t remember 125 years ago, back about 15 years ago, if you were on CompuServe and I was on AOL, then sorry, we couldn’t e-mail one-another until about 1995 or so. And if I was on CompuServe and I wanted to give you my email address, it was like long stream of numbers that no-one, even I, could remember.
Again, entire bodies of literature and academic careers have been devoted to understanding the development and evolution of standards and gauges and units of measurements necessary to enable breakthroughs — and how breakthroughs don’t occur until what works over there works with what works over here. So, I won’t attempt to recount the history of industrial design and engineering. However, those principles — laws, in some cases — are going to be in play with the development of the social web. Until my identity and network can be as transportable (some use the term “persistent”) and can follow me around from place to place and situation to situation and network to network, the “breakthrough” will not occur. Facebook may be a great sandbox to play in, but it won’t become the world I live in until my identity belongs to me, not them. My identity and network should be like an email address — it should work universally. And I should be able to take it with me.
Part of this issue may be solvable with future generations of initiatives like OpenID, which attempt to address the obvious problem we all have in repeatedly going through the process of registering on every new site we encounter.
But as it is today, the Facebook platform is not a solution. It’s just letting us play around until either they — or we — come up with the real deal.
If I ran the Internet (or Google), I would do the following: I would get with Microsoft, Yahoo! AOL and the Mozilla Foundation and Ning and People Aggregator — and every other player or wannabe player in the field of social networking, identity, attention, whatever — and agree on open standards for those things — based on the principle that they should be controlled by the user, not the silos.
(Note: To help make it more clear [and it's still not going to be for lots of people], I’ve edited the following paragraph.) I would start with the proposition that ways people manage their identity and social networks can be “branded” — and that the business part of social-networking should be about who provides the best user experience and the best solution for hosting and managing of identity and networks. In the same way that Google has solved “search” for most people, even they provide a means for me to export all of the “attention data” they collect, so, at least in theory, I can take it somewhere else if I want to, however I won’t as long as they provide the best platform on which I manage that aspect of my web use. In other words, the “platform” on which I manage my identity and networks can be up for competition, and I’ll probably continue to use Facebook as the central place to manage it: but I control the data that relates to it, myself, and if I want to use that data — and network — someplace else on the web, I should be able to do so. I don’t think Facebook would go along because, today, why should they: they own the network — they “own” the social graph or whatever they call it. Why should they facilitate others who could siphon off big chunks of their user-base? Why should they make it easy for me to transport my Facebook network and identity to another URL?
That, of course, is a rhetorical question. I know who could answer it however: I don’t know where they may be, but the folks at Compuserve will know the answer. (Translation for anyone who is not an online community geek: Compuserve, in this quip, represents a once-large ‘social network’ that no longer exists because they failed to understand the whole “universal” and “walled-off” nature of identity and community.)
Later: While in my post, I mentioned Ning and PeopleAggregator, I’ve received some email pointing me to Marc Canter’s post that provides some information about the need for interoperability of social networks. And that on September 7-8, a “Data Sharing Summit” is planned to explore open standards for social networking. And, yes, there’s even a Facebook group related to it. Also, here’s a post from Jason Kottke that in a tighter fashion, explains what I was trying to say with my AOL in 1994 comparison. Last thing (for now), Ning, does allow one to export data related to a network one creates. As I often say, I’m merely a user, not a developer, but that seems like at step in the direction of “interoperability” that people like Marc Canter (who is the creator of the PeopleAggregator) has long advocated. After an afternoon of learning a bit more on this topic — thanks to some commentors and email, I predict Marc Andreessen is the guy who can “bring everyone together” on this topic. He’s got the track-record, insight, clout, incentive and, well, if you’ve read his blog, the ability to communicate why interoperability is in the best interest of all players — and users.
And finally, I am a fan of Jason Calacanis and I was only calling a spade-a-spade with that remark about link-baiting — some people who have defended Jason have misinterpreted my snark for sneer.
*Techcrunch 50,000 is a term that was inspired by (while he used another number) Josh Kopelman’s post on the nature of geek-adopters vs. real-people adopters of new web stuff.