Facebook versus Tim Berners-Lee: do social networks threaten the web?

Posted by Rory on December 9th, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

Tim Berners-Lee: the threat posed by Facebook and other social networks to the web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently argued, in Long Live the Web:  A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, that the web is under threat from a variety of developments.  One of these is social-networking sites, which allegedly pose a two-fold danger. First,

“Social networking sites assemble. . . bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not.”

A second danger “is that one social-networking site . . . gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation.”

Are social networks silos?

Let’s start by looking at the first criticism, that social networks are silos that prevent you from using your data outside the site. The first thing to point out is that this is not always the case, or sometimes is only partially the case.  In some cases you can get at least some of your data out of social networking applications.  And new applications explicitly intended to be ‘open’ counterparts to ‘closed’ social applications are springing up, e.g. Diaspora, an open version of  Facebook.  Second, in many other cases social applications permit or encourage sharing of data with other social applications.  Facebook and Zynga is an example of this.  In these cases the ‘silos’ are more like the nodes between a series of connected tunnels.  You could argue that  the creation of the silos is an essential prerequisite to the creation of the tunnels, and so although in one sense they cut off exchange of data in another sense they extend the range in which data can be effectively exchanged.   And finally, the limits on moving data out of social applications, which certainly do exist — no denying that — has spawned it’s own corrective — the DataPortability Project.  This is supported by many of the largest social applications, including LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as Google, and is having an impact, albeit a gradual one, towards increased ability generally to get data out of social applications.

In sum I would say that the ‘ threat’ posed by social applications to the spread and portability of data, while it does exist, is greatly overstated by Sir Tim, and is tempered by a number of factors  including the self interest of the applications themselves and countervailing pressures, both commercial and public, towards openness.

Are social networks likely to become (and stay) monopolies?

What about the second danger alleged by Sir Tim, that one social-networking site (or search engine or browser) becomes so big that it becomes a monopoly, and results in limited innovation.  Yes, monopolies stifle innovation.  But I find it odd that Sir Tim cites search engines, browsers, and social networks as examples of this danger.  He should have more confidence in the robustness of the web he helped to create!   The evidence is that the web acts as a brilliant market whose dynamics act to prevent any emerging monopoly from getting too firm a grip.  On the contrary the emergence of each new wannabe monopolist stimulates a huge new wave of innovation which within a short period of time emerges to push it off the pedestal.

The rise of social apps is a classic instance of this pattern.  A few years ago, having perfected the search paradigm and dominated the search space, Google seemed poised to rule the web for decades.  Who was going to challenge Google? The only hope seemed to be from a combination of a monopolist from an earlier era — Microsoft — and an also ran which never quite made it to monopolist status — Yahoo. That combination fizzled out.

Where has the real challenge to Google come from? Not from these formerly dominant players, but rather  from new businesses developing a completely new paradigm — social.  These businesses emerged not as a result of government regulation of the dominant search paradigm, but rather in the messy, murky bottom of the pond, through trial and error and innovation. And when signs emerged that the new social apps were finding a positive reception in the marketplace, funding quickly became available to help them scale up, and in the space of a couple of years they have been so successful that they now appear invulnerable, just like Google did until they came along.  Search and its dominant player, Google, are being shoved aside by social, led by its dominant player, Facebook.  The power of the new paradigm is nowhere better exemplified than by Google’s own determined efforts to make itself an important player in the social space.

Does that mean that Facebook will in a year or two reach the dominant position that Google had a couple of years ago? That seems unlikely.  First, search evolved as an area where the emergence of single dominant monopolist was natural. Social seems different.  Already Facebook faces competition from other kinds of social applications, like Twitter, and finds it beneficial to serve as a platform for synergistic social applications like Zynga.  And looking ahead, some, like Mark Suster in  his recent post Social Networking: The Future, are arguing that a new generation of social apps focusing on specific verticals or communities of interest, like StockTwits for those interested in investing in the stock markets, are emerging to challenge Facebook.  Interestingly Facebook is supporting, not trying to suppress, the development of new social apps, as evidenced by its involvement in Kleiner Perkins’ sFund.

So it looks as if external forces, and Facebook itself, will act in such a way as to prevent Facebook  from emerging as a monopolist of the web during the ‘social’ era in the same way that Google briefly appeared to dominate the web during the ‘search’ era.  There will be no need to wait for a new paradigm to emerge to topple the dominant player, as happened with Google and search.  Instead the emerging web paradigm, social, may prove more robust than search in the sense that it allows for true competition within the paradigm.  If that proves true the social paradigm may prove longer lasting than the search paradigm, and there will be greater scope for innovation within the paradigm.  In any event the fundamental point is that the web once again is proving its mettle as a fantastic market which encourages competition and innovation, and prevents the emergence of lasting monopolists.

The verdict

Sir Tim pointed to a valid concern.  But for the reasons noted above I am not convinced by the implications he draws about the dangers of social applications. Reasons of self interest and public pressures are acting as natural correctives against the (early) tendencies of social applications to horde data and become independent silos, and in fact the creation of these temporary silos also has the countervailing effect of usefully extending the range in which data can be exchanged.  Moreover, the signs are that Facebook, the leading player in the social space, will never become a monopoly.  Rather, for reasons involving both self-interest and external factors, it (a) will be but one of a number of successful social apps, and (b) far from stifling innovation, will prove a key force in stimulating a major new wave of innovation.

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Why Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is not Google Wave — Scientists take note

Posted by Rory on November 24th, 2010 @ 11:47 am

Is Google ‘socially’ challenged?

A while back I wrote a post quoting Tom Coates, who said in an interview in Fortune,

“Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, email, and messaging . . .  But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

The Fortune article goes on to say, “Coates’s point is that you don’t have friends on Google, you have contacts and tasks.  These services reflect an engineering culture that is all about utility, but one that makes it hard for the company to create something that’s friendly and social.”

Google Wave — the exception that proves the rule

It’s ironic that one Google product which was designed to be social, Google Wave, got pulled.   Google Wave was/is “equal parts conversation and document, and allows people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.”  Why did Google Wave not survive?  The facts that it was too hard to understand and use, and  ahead of its time may go part of the way to explaining the reason.  But that’s true of lots of early versions of products which later evolve into killer apps.  And Google Wave had a fervent following among early adopters.  To my mind, a more compelling explanation (from the Brisbane Times‘ Digihead) is that Google Wave “didn’t tie in with our existing forms of communication – it was an entirely separate world trying to start from scratch“.   In any event, the pulling of Google Wave can be seen as another failure on Google’s part to be ‘social’, albeit that in this case it failed notwithstanding the social intentions Google had for it.

Facebook’s Modern Messaging System — destined to succeed where Google Wave failed

Digihead argues that unlike Google Wave, Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is likely to succeed because

“Hundreds of millions of Facebook users will be quick to embrace [Facebook’s messaging system] because it will presumably integrate tightly into the familiar Facebook user experience.  They won’t need to go out of their way to use it, or wonder whether or not their friends are using it. [The messaging system] will complement our existing communications habits and gradually become more central without requiring us to completely abandon our old ways.”

But Facebook’s messaging system is not Google Wave reincarnated

Facebook is being very explicit in comparing its new messaging system to Google Wave.  In this video interview, Joel Seligstein, the engineering manager in charge of the messaging system, talks about how the two relate.  He says that Facebook’s messaging system contains some of the same  features as Google Wave.   He also notes that Google Wave was focused on interactions, whereas the messaging system is focused on people.  As my colleague Leigh Gordon pointed out, Joel does not mention the fact that  interactions were the collaborative features of Google Wave where the innovative, cutting edge and exciting features were included, and none of these exist in Facebook’s messaging system!

Two different kinds of innovation

So Facebook’s messaging system is innovative in adding a better messaging capability to an existing social platform, whereas Wave was a brave — perhaps too brave — attempt to make available a  new and improved platform for real time collaboration by bringing improved an improved ability to communicate around interactions.

Why scientists still need what Wave promised

How is this of interest to scientists?  Google Wave generated a fair bit of buzz among tech-friendly scientists, for example  this post from Cameron Neylon on using the Wave in research.  Cameron saw Wave as bringing

“three key things; proper collaborative documents which will encourage referring rather than cutting and pasting; proper version control for documents; and document automation through easy access to webservices. Commenting, version control and provenance, and making a cut and paste operation actually a fully functional and intelligent embed are key to building a framework for a web-native lab notebook. Wave delivers on these.”

Is Facebook’s messaging system going to act as a replacement for Wave for scientists, or indeed others who are collaborating?  Not really.  As I have discussed previously, scientists don’t use Facebook for research, for a variety of reasons including the fact that it does not provide support for structuring research data, and security concerns. Facebook’s messaging system isn’t going to change that.  So for the time being people are still going to use ‘non-social’ things like wikis and Google Docs — which let you share but not communicate — in their research.   And gradually they will turn to electronic lab notebooks, which are beginning to add to the ability to record and share research data the ability to communicate about it with simple messaging systems.

What scientists ultimately need is something like Google Wave that is designed from the start to support both sharing and communication.  Something like Google Wave, but not Google Wave, because scientists need three things in a collaborative research tool that Google Wave lacked:

  • A simple interface
  • Intuitive usability
  • The ability to add structure to the research record
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Electronic lab notebooks: how ‘social’ should they be?

Posted by Rory on August 18th, 2010 @ 10:22 am

The web has gone social, with Facebook and Twitter leading the way.  And applications that were not designed with social networking as a core element are scrambling to add social features.  Often, however, that’s not as straightforward as it seems and can have unintended consequences, of which  Google Buzz is perhaps the highest profile example.  As Robin Wauters at Techcrunch pointed out, “Merging something designed for public broadcasting (Buzz) with something inherently private (Gmail) was just looking for trouble.”

The issue of how many and what kind of social features to include also faces developers of collaborative tools like electronic lab notebooks.  Although collaborative tools are designed to help people work together, they are not  necessarily ‘social’.   But how can something that is designed to help people collaborate not be ‘social’?   As a way into looking at that question, let’s examine what Tom Coates, until recently head of product at Yahoo’s Brickhouse lab, was getting at it when he was quoted in the August 16 issue of Fortune as saying,

“Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, email, and messaging . . .  But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

When I read that I thought, hang on a minute, what about Google Docs?  OK, Google Docs is not Google’s highest profile offering, but it is used by millions of people, so it surely must be included when considering Google’s ability or propensity to build ‘social’ products .  Document sharing is clearly a social activity, and the express purpose of Google Docs is to facilitate collaboration, so it must be the way that Google Docs is set up that, in Tom Coates’ view, excludes it from the ‘social’ category.

The Fortune article goes on to say, “Coates’s point is that you don’t have friends on Google, you have contacts and tasks.  These services reflect an engineering culture that is all about utility, but one that makes it hard for the company to create something that’s friendly and social.”   So in Fortune’s view in order to be ‘social’ it’s not enough to involve a group, in addition there needs to be an element of ‘friendliness’, and a focus on utility is implied to be anti-social.  Whether or not that is correct, it does constitute an explanation for Coates’s apparent oversight about Google Docs.  Google Docs is very much a utilitarian tool, and it is not designed to be particularly ‘friendly’.  So, even though Google Docs is intended to be used by groups of individuals, for these reasons it is not ‘social’.

Collaborative research tools, including electronic lab notebooks, are like Google Docs primarily designed for a utilitarian purpose — in the case of ELNs, to provide a platform for sharing and structuring experimental data and other information of interest to the research group.  On the Coates/Fortune view, this is at least one strike against their counting as ‘social’.  But since they are used by people not only to collaborate, but also to communicate, would they not benefit from being more ‘friendly’ and ‘social’?  Here are some capabilities, found in Facebook, that Fortune describes as the ‘social layer’.  Which of them would make an electronic lab notebook more ‘friendly’ (and useful!)?

What social features should an electronic lab notebook include?