[originally entitled: Blogtalk 2010: Notes And Thoughts On The Social Future]
Galway is a lovely place, and I have always wanted to see where ‘the hills sweep down to the sea,’ so Blogtalk 2010 was fun. I saw old friends, and made some new ones. But this get-together reinforced a few thoughts, which wound up in my keynote, as well.
The era of blogging is over: its impact as a goad, a competitive force on print media has been felt, and deeply internalized. Meanwhile, most of the failures of 20th century journalism remain: notably, failing to create open social discourse, and becoming entrapped in the liturgy of journalism while failing to debunk lies and expose injustice. But print media have adopted the trappings of blogging, and have co-opted much of the heat — if any — of the blogosphere.
This has been relatively quick, partly because blogging is really ‘personal publishing’ — low-cost publishing, and lines up pretty well with the one-to-many dynamics of mass publishing. Comments and backlinks are pretty weak sauce when considered in the light of ‘social media’. Blogging, in the final analysis, ten years later, isn’t particularly social. Especially contrasted with social networks and other tools.
Facebook is the new AOL.
Blogtalk was filled with talk about social networks. A representative of Facebook spoke, and was almost orgasming as he related how great all the newest features were. Facebook and Twitter’s growth rates were repeated like kabalistic incantations throughout the event, and the unstoppability of Facebook in particular — its manifest destiny as the basis of all things social on the web — was generally taken as a given.
But social networks as realized today by Facebook and others are closed worlds, silos in which vastly different user experiences are managed. I heard presentations on a variety of approaches to federated and/or open identity management schemes, which could potentially support open and/or distributed social networking models, but these are only of theoretical interest to actual users.
I believe that Facebook represents the high water mark of social networking, as we understand it today, a time dominated by social networking applications, as if our social interaction is something best managed in a single enormous database, whose rows and tables are designed by a small group of developers in one company.
Facebook is the new AOL.
Facebook is managing the chaos of social interaction on the web, normalizing it and standardizing it for us, just as AOL made the web neat and tidy. That seemed a winning proposition in the late ’90s, which led to astonishing valuations for AOL. They acquired Time-Warner using that wealth, and in 2002 Time-Warner wrote off $600M as AOL started to fall. Now, AOL has been spun out, and has no central role in our experience of the web. 10 years is a long time. Time-Warner is now the second largest entertainment company in the world.
The moral of this story is that you can make a business out of simplifying what is chaotic and confusing, but only at the outset. As people become habituated to what at first was scary and headache-inducing, they will move away from controlled experience to more personally managed negotiation of the world.
‘But, all my friends are on Facebook!’ That was true in 1999 about AOL, too. All my friends had AIM accounts, so it was the best place for instant messaging. Until Yahoo and MSN offered audio and then video, and blogging broke loose. And then everything changed with broadband.
And what is going to be the equivalent of broadband for sociality online? What is going to come along to destabilize the Facebook stranglehold on our ‘social graphs’? Simple: sociality has turned out to be the most interesting thing to emerge from the past decade of the web. It’s not all the servers, the cloud computing, the data, or even the explosion of materials online: its the social dimension, and the tools we have built to explore that.
At the same time, we are witnessing an almost unprecedented era of invention around new devices, form factors, and operational premises for computing and communications. Smartphones, tablets, app stores, and the emergence of activities like geolocation, massively parallel gaming, social TV, and so on. These are leading to a deep rethinking of the operating environments we rely on, in our PCs, mobile and gaming devices, and formerly internet-deaf devices like TVs and appliances.
The next generation of operating environments will be social at their core. Our current operating environments are based on standard understanding of things that programmers care about, like files, directories, and access controls. The average person could care less.
We will see social operating systems where following people’s activities, or creating likes, or publishing profiles will all be built-in. These will not be features of apps, or managed as metadata in walled silos. The primitives that structure our social connections will be built into the fabric of the next generation of operating environments, just like file systems, URLs, and HTTP are well-integrated into today’s.
As a result, actors like Google, Apple, the Linux community, and Microsoft — as well as upstarts that don’t even exist yet — will be the implementers of the next generation of social web, with social interaction built into its DNA.
Imagine that I will turn on my next generation iPad, a few years hence, and I’ll be presented with various applications that show views over the streams of information finding their way to me based on my social relationships. But those relationships are not based on application managed information, but related to my device connecting to the web, like getting an IP address today. I would get a social IP, and ping out to all the other entities online, so that information from those that I follow would find me, just as email is routed to me today independently of what email application I choose to use.
There will still be a place for applications to present and augment the basics of social interaction, but they will not be what Facebook is today: a huge social scene whose rules and regulations are managed by the owners of the application, for their own interests.
Clearly, The New York Times, ABC and Apple don’t want to hand the future of our social connection over to Facebook, or any other cabal of software companies. The answer is not in copying Facebook, which seems to be the goal of Google’s Me project. Inevitably, the way ahead is to take the social dimension — at least the core features that have emerged in the social web to date — down into the operating platforms. Actions like following, liking, posting, and reposting have become the core of our social existence. And these core activities should be core to the platforms, not peripheral.
Based on common protocols, vendors of different platforms could still compete based on how they manage these new social primitives along with the other things that devices must do. But just like today’s files — which can move from Mac, to Windows, to Linux, to GameBoy — we would have the ability to network effectively; although in this case, to network socially.
It remains to be seen how quickly or smoothly this transition will be. And in the meantime the dominance of Facebook will make billions for investors. However, the fastest growing segment on Facebook is the 55+ crowd, which suggests that the young and the hipsters will start to defect to alternatives, just like they fled MySpace when the phonies and fogies came in.
Social music and social TV are the two areas that suggest the greatest pressure for a solution at a fundamental — not application, or application framework level.
Facebook’s management may be aware of this, as well. Imagine the scenario where Facebook’s valuation is so high, and the prospects seem so grand, that Facebook acquires an apparently fading Microsoft, and works to fuse Facebook into some version of Windows. Like the AOL Time-Warner merger, I bet it this would lead to smoke but no bang.
Meanwhile, the world will lurch chaotically forward. If cable and entertainment companies develop standards around social TV, and allow experimentation by entrepreneurs to develop social apps that augment TV, we will see some real interesting stuff arise, and the defection of viewers from non-social TV will slow, and reverse. Facebook will see its numbers falling as people start watching basketball, reality shows, or movies with friends online. Likewise, Apple could lead to similar experimentation around social music by exposing social APIs in a future socialized version of iTunes.
This will take years, if not decades, to roll forward. But I maintain this will happen, and that, as a result, Facebook is not the future, but just a very temporary present.