Diversity Rules for Social

With the Facebook stock selling thing going down, thought I’d talk about why Facebook doesn’t do it.

How we got here

We got here because social came late.  Look at other parts of the Internet.  But you have to look carefully, you have to look at social types of activities.  Like email. Like instant messaging.

Other social services

If email hadn’t existed, it could’ve ended up like Facebook.  Instant Messaging did start out that way.  And it still is that way in many respects.  Used to be that the AOL instant messaging platform dominated.  That grew out of the AOL data service of yore.

When the Internet at-large became more important than the data service, people outside of the AOL bubble wanted to talk to AOL users, so AOL expanded to let others use their instant messaging service.  Before, though, AOL was a dominant force.

Used to be that lots of television adverts would give you their AOL keyword, just like lots of adverts now tell you to go look them up on Facebook.  There was also ICQ, and then MSN came out with an instant messaging deal (which came bundled with Microsoft Windows).  And there were some others.

These days, lots of folks use something like Pidgin which lets you throw multiple accounts into one application and use instant messaging on any of them.  But the networks are still fragmented.  Without one of these polyglot applications, you still have to use separate applications to get on different networks, and with one, you’re still talking to multiple services simultaneously.

Email is the gold standard, though.  Everyone can participate simply by knowing the address to send mail to.  But that’s a problem too, with SPAM.

To win, you must hold the most users’ attentions

But Facebook came along at a time when Social was still new, MySpace being dominant, and they won that race, were crowned the winner.  With a social service, without federation, the winner isn’t the technological superior, but the one that gets the most users.  However they do that, and it can include technological superiority, they win.

And as long as you can hold on to those users, you keep winning.  It’s a clear enough goal.  So you look at why users stay or how to bring them back.  And Facebook tries hard.

They try building out their platform, so now you can sign in to various sites and services using your Facebook login, which appeals because then you don’t have to sign up separately.  They add games, social games, where you can try to beat your friends and family.

They let their platform leak, so that people say the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong times.  Drama is a great motivator for behavior.  It keeps people coming back to the old Globe Theater.

But the main hook is that’s where the people are.  Back in old times, people went at night to the place of lights.  Usually that was the local tavern or inn.  Sometimes it was the church.  They tend to follow the voices, especially the familiar voices.

Alternatives require incentives

If you walk the same route to and from work everyday, you’re probably not going to deviate much.  If suddenly there’s a detour for construction, it might make you late.  Or maybe you like walking past the bakery, being hit with that breeze of warm, moist bread air.

It’s difficult to establish an alternative, unless you first have a draw for some folks.  Maybe it’s because they’re college kids who want to do their own college thing.  Or it’s based on some existing college tradition, and you’re making it digital.

Maybe they want to go there because they can get laid, or because of who isn’t there.

The question is, what can a diverse social system deliver?

Specialization

One of the big things Facebook can’t do is specialize.  If there’s a great feature that will help teachers interact, but won’t help everyone, Facebook won’t add it.  It would be dead weight to them.

Moreover, while Facebook can scale a lot, specialized providers can scale better.  The cache mechanisms involved with having a niche userbase versus a general userbase means that the IT side of the equation gets easier.  Facebook has to plan for all of its users all the time, but if there’s an annual event for a specific group, the specialized provider can ramp up for that and pull back the rest of the year.

School kids have usage drop off during the summer.  Facebook probably doesn’t lose a bunch of servers during the summer, but they probably could stand to.  A specialized provider or specialized providers could handle that better.

Competition

Even where the features are general purpose, the implementations can have varying success.  Monoliths try to inject competition via what’s called Split Testing.  It’s just a regular experiment, though.  You give one group nothing, the other group something, and see if something does anything.

But a federated system is better at stoking evolution of a service.  When one provider finds a new, great feature, others have to match or exceed it.  Sometimes the latecomers do it better, or find some more essential reality of that feature.  They are fresh eyeballs to the problem, which monoliths like Facebook don’t have.

Diversity is best

There are a lot of reasons why diversity is a great thing.  It reduces the potential for provider abuse, including the scenario where you’re excluded from the only game in town.  It means that if the social game changes suddenly, you don’t have a mammoth Facebook trying to turn on a dime, flinging millions of pokes overboard, wiping out all the packetfish swimming nearby.

It also means that the social game can change suddenly.  With Facebook, there’s little chance they will introduce disruptive changes that threaten their model, where a smaller provider might.  Hell, even when Facebook changes something mostly innocuous they already get a lot of backlash from their users.

And if the social web starts to wither, small providers can change to other services a lot more easily than Facebook can change become a different service.

If Facebook is going to thrive for more than a decade, it will need to branch out sooner than later.  It will need to prepare for an inevitable change where social becomes federated.  If they are really smart, they’ll see it coming and help it happen, so as to maximize customer loyalty.

Their alternative is likely to end up like Yahoo!.  Actually, worse than Yahoo!.

Yahoo!’s only real problem has been a chronic inability to reinvent itself.  It’s still got a lot of good people doing good things.  It’s just not had that true resurgence it’s needed for years now.

Facebook is in a position that Yahoo! was in back some ten or fifteen years ago.  They’re doing great, but it’s not clear what their future will look like given the ability for a Google to come along.  For that matter, Facebook itself already did to MySpace what will happen to Facebook if they don’t find a better model in the meantime.

The only real question is whether the next champion will be another monolith, or if the distributed social system will finally kick in.