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The Point Of Social Leverage Is Mobile?

I see that my old friend, Keith Teare, has written a guest post at Techcrunch, making the case that Facebook and Google have inherent ‘structural’ problems in the way they manage information sharing which have become starkly apparent with Google’s new privacy policy and Facebook’s endless privacy issues.

Keith Teare, Google, Facebook, Privacy — And You

There is a big structural problem for both Google and Facebook as they contemplate the product consequences of consumer reactions to their product roadmap. In a centralized platform it is incredibly hard to create easy-to-understand controls that give each user the ability to control, at a granular level, what they share and who with. Grand policy shifts, like that which came out of F8 and which we are now seeing from Google, tend to assume all users are the same and will want the same thing.

In reality, users are more complex. I might want to save a private video to a personal storage space one moment, share something with a select group of friends another moment, and broadcast something to the world five minutes later. The web services infrastructure that both Facebook and Google are based on does not easily permit such fine grained control for users without also imposing serious effort. As we all know, that leads users to stick with the default settings most of the time.

So, despite good intent by the teams at both companies, one-size-fits-all decisions are the norm.

Mobile to the rescue?

Structural problems usually require structural solutions. What it seems consumers are asking for is a world in which we all know what we are sharing and who with — but where we don’t have to do a huge amount of work to achieve that. Google Circles seems to be a nod in this direction as are Facebook’s groups. But neither is really easy enough or sufficiently integrated into the flow of the products to really solve the problem. Both require a huge management overhead.

As I argued earlier this week in “Google, Look Out Behind You!“, the spread of smartphones may be part of the solution here. Hundreds of millions of consumers are now carrying around connected still and video cameras with lists of contacts in the address book, often already organized into meaningful groups. Decentralized decision-making is very easy when there are decentralized software clients under the unique control of each user. The ability to be private one moment, selectively share the next and then publicly broadcast a few minutes later is easy to achieve in this decentralized software architecture. And service providers can never become bad actors — simply because they do not own our information or the full social graph. The cloud becomes a means of delivering messages to the phones and the place where we store our media. But it’s not the place we need to trust to make decisions about what gets shared and who with.

So, Keith broadly paints a picture — users being forced into an oversimplified social architecture by Google and Facebook in which groups (or circles, which are a slightly different take on groups) are the mechanism of sharing — and hints that the problem is intractable for web-based social tools.

The answer is smartphones, he suggests: our personal devices, which we already use in myriad ways to connect with and share with others. He must believe — without saying so explicitly — that the solution lies in observing what we share and with who on our smartphones, and to refine that natural body of information into a bottom-up determination of who’s who in our world.

Imagine a Venn diagram of dozens — or hundreds — of sets of friends, where any friend could be in zero to all the sets, and all the sets are constantly in flux. And without us having to create all the scaffolding for it to work.

Obviously, Teare is not content to wave his hand at this: he’s started a company to actually build the solution:

Keith Teare, Seed and Series A Funding is a new architecture built on top of the mobile, and particularly the smartphone, ecosystem. It doesn’t take the web as its starting point, it takes the highly personal and ever-present mobile Internet as its starting point. As such it is focused on defining a new consumer software experience, not replacing an existing one. It is also focused on the freedom that comes from placing social tools on a device the consumer fully controls, and not building a big cloud service that owns or acts on the consumers data. We don’t know all of the questions this gives rise to yet, never mind all of the answers. But we are really excited about building on this new ecosystem and learning with users as we go.

I’ve been suggesting that the next wave for social networks is the social operating system — where exactly the problems that Teare is talking about are solved by building social primitives into the foundation of our online experience — but Teare is pushing at a transitional step, based on the mobile device as the logical point of leverage in the transition to the next generation of social tools.

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