Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Facing Facebook

If you are big into social networking, you have already altered the web, as well as yourself. I had my own rants and analysis on this, but Tuesday's Financial Times did it better. Along with my commentary, I'll cite:
Goody Goody Note: The FT has a new policy about online reading. You get five accesses for free. Then if you give them an email and password, you can read up to 30 a month for free. Ah.

This is part two of computing past and future follows. Part one was a ramble (in both senses) down Memory Lane.

Step into the stickiness of Facebook. In the past year alone, its members have started spending over 22% more time on the site.

Well, ka-ching! Advertisers notice and their pitches will be on a screen in front of your face immediately. This is my sole shun the frumious Bandersnatch message. It is the newest money guys' way of hitting on you and as Lenny Bruce was fond of noting, "Reality is what is. What should be is a dirty lie."

Somehow serving up ads based on what you clicked (behavioral) is supposedly worse than digesting what you post about yourself and plastering your screen with targeted ads. Actually, the honest view of it as a more efficient way of pulling into the purchasing pit came from MySpace's CTO Adam Bain. He told the FT that the previous model was a “guess, based on somebody being interested in something, based on where they surf. We don’t need to guess [what people like]. We know because they are telling us what they are passionate about”.

Facebook will be tracking its members' purchases on third-party sites. Together, these seem intrusive and cynical. Yet, many of, particularly the 20-something and teens, who are avid social networkers are out there and don't seem to care who knows a lot about them. They are in these networks precisely because they want others to know about them. If ads appear, they seem to think, they can click or ignore them.

Elbowing for Dollars

From my view, the other side of this trend is that there is money to be made from it. More advertisers mean more revenue for some of the sites. This is like to filter down to blogs and such as advertisers track where their potential customers go. That's bad for MSM who don't own popular sites, but good for the general health of the web as a medium beyond just information.

The more important trend that the FT explores is a shift from portals to platforms. The portals most of us use as our browsers' home pages — MSN, Yahoo or Google — will change substantially.

The portal folk are buying, investing in, or stealing ideas from the social networks. We should probably watch Google most closely for the near and mid future. It has incorporated numerous companies, many who share the trait of having applications that Google can incorporate. It's anything for a buck and everything for everyone from one honking white page.

The two selling points of the platforms and even their portal older siblings are traffic and stickiness. When they offer popular features, that feeds on itself, more people come. Moreover, the social network side means that users are sticky, they stay on that site for long periods, minutes or even hours instead of seconds. Advertisers love both many potential customers and those whose eyes are exposed for long selling periods.

Yahoo's network division executive VP, Jeff Weiner sees the platform approach as right for the times. He told the FT:
“People want to control the media – they want to publish their own media,” he says. This requires new tools to let them organise and recombine information from around the internet in their own ways, whether it is professionally produced or user-generated.
As if to illustrate the point, Google teamed with Facebook to launch OpenSocial last week. It fundamentally is an open standard to let various social networks share. That's going to be hard for some of them to accept in this increasingly competitive end of the web, but Google certainly stands to profit from yet more apps to draw in more sticky customers. You can be certain that the social networks will not let themselves be fenced out of features their users want, even sharing buddy lists and messages among each other.

Not the Destination

More deeply, the power of social nets to transform the web is a fad, but not yet a long-term driver. The cautious view on this comes best from Google CEO Eric Schmidt. He admitted that the social netowrking "phenomenon (is) very real." However, he added that we could not yet predict "whether this would influence the underlying 'information structure' of the internet, as users start to organise and access more information through the prism of their social connections," wrote Waters.

So, there we have it, or not. Short term, there's no question that many, particularly junior high through first and second job folk and beyond are doing social networking. There's no question that advertisers are trailing them with tongues hanging out, and changing their offerings to match. There's no question that we'll see our portals morph, largely with additions and options.

I like that this diverts many from the mindlessness of cable and network TV. However, I remain to be convinced that self-absorbed social networking will in the end be better for them or society.

My geek self says that the shift from portals to platforms is no solution or final stop on a journey. The Net train is moving though.

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