Looking at the man who created an addiction I have recently recovered from, whose product I have read and thought about way too much, I was conflicted.
I mean how many layers of information/identity/experience etc can one person process in a split second, right? Facebook has been useful, work enhancing, fun, valuable, diverting, strange, compelling, addictive, aggravating, blundering, wasteful, alienating.
In terms of where it ranks in the social software services I use (for a host of reasons), that depends, but today I rank the top ten thus: Flickr, Drupal, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Upcoming, Linked In, Delicious, MediaWiki, Bloglines.
I might rank these differently tomorrow, or if you ask me a specific question about my purpose, but that’s the broad order right now (sad how my RSS reader has dropped down the list, huh?) .
So I adopted my “industrial (floor) era” reporter stance and took copious notes at the SXSW Interactive keynote interview with 23-year-old Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Lurking in the shadows, I also drank coffee and ate a superzised muffin. I was coping ;-)
Zuckerberg was keen to stress the neutrality of the platform, stating over and over that they just want to “help people communicate more effectively and efficiently”. While the case studies he raised of how FB has been used to co-ordinate politically in Colombia and Lebanon could both (naturally) be interpreted as politically skewed, and he flagged up the fight against global poverty, Mark saw social facilitation via technology – not ideology – as the philosophy driving Facebook.
“We’re just trying to build an infrastructure on top of which people can operate.”
Myface or Ourspace?
But this impartial view that Facebook simply lowers the barriers to communication and activity was muddied somewhat when seconds later he remarked:
“People should be able to be heard without any large organisation of millions of people. The world is an increasingly complex place and we need something – an infrastructure – on top of which people can communicate and do it [organise] from the bottom-up.”
Isn’t that an (albeit bland) endorsement of decentralised activity? So bland that it’s in fact very slick. Zuckerberg comin’ on like a talkshow equivalent of Clay Shirky. But lest we forget while caught in the swoon of emergent online communities, centralised political activity abides.
New ecosystem of value-creation a closed book?
So, it’s grassroots activity FB is (apparently) facilitating: the organic, the makeshift social milieu… hmm. Perhaps Zuckerberg should steer clear of sociological points, but the folksy grassrootness was blurred in the context of later comments he made:
“We see the company as a collection of social services,” he said, adding that opening up the developer platform allows people outside to make these services too and they’re “an increasingly important part of the ecosystem”.
“Revenue is a trailing indicator of the non-revenue value you are building,” he observed further into the interview, mid-way through an exploration of Beacon, spammy apps, and the Microsoft / IPO debate.
Beware the quicksand…
Facebook as a brand is rightly a mighty force, whether as a closed system (and open source hate object) or gradually opening space. Speaking of news community aggregator Newsvine, The Guardian’s Charles Arthur recently summed up the power of the Web 2.0 brand:
“[it] is a brand, buoyed by its community of users; without the users it would be nothing, but without the brand, the users would just be people milling around on the web, looking for a forum in which to post their thoughts and be heard.”
…but we’ve seen how easily media (oops, “platform”) brand allegiance can shift, and how heckishly difficult it is to create revenue.
Concurring with Lacy’s point that Facebook considers itself a technology company and not a media company like Myspace, Zuckerberg said: “Yes, and we hire senior people with a technical background, this makes it pervasive in our culture – to be a platform that enables other people to build businesses [that's anyone from Coke to your 16-year-old neice of course] and build things.”
Ah, a pure marketplace, got it. Oh, but what’s this? Some libertarianism with your platform sir? With some baked-in diversity, vanilla flavour.
All kinds of everything… [*]
“In terms of community we consider it to be a very personal thing. People aren’t being forced into any community, it’s more about allowing them to communicate more and keep in touch with people.”
Egad, Zuckerberg posits Facebook as platform for mass diversity shocker! And yet it’s not so clear-cut. Maybe Mark’s been reading Jaron Lanier? Or perhaps his advisors have been. In turn, spare me the conspiracy schtick; I think it’s a whole lot more confusing and interesting than that. In my book (sic), as both a creature and driver of the complex world, the Facebook story is not over yet – whether you consider it evil, benign or a panacea for all ills.
It’s been an interesting year now social media’s gone mainstream. We’ve lived it, and learnt a few lessons. The gist of it all? Like the SXSW interview, it’s been messy.
[* Dana’s #URL correction# 1970 Eurovision winner says it all]
The other Pandora’s Box point to emerge from his interview I’ll leave to a later post. Suffice to say it relates to the whole privacy-identity-openness debate.