Social networking: going towards an oligopolistic closed-shop system?
Be honest: when did you last use your del.icio.us account? You just use Twitter, right?
Social networking, which was in its infancy when I started using it in 2006, has matured. Three years ago, a vast number of start-ups were competing in the field, and few people other than geeks actually bothered to use them. Today the sector is much more concentrated, meaning it makes sense not to use every social network in existence1.
Back in 2006, Facebook was still a closed shop, reserved for students with .edu email addresses, while Twitter had barely launched. Digg and del.icio.us were regarded as the hottest sites on the Internet. I suspect many people over fourteen nowadays have never even heard of Digg, let alone had an account there, while an impressive number of my friends are now active on Facebook and Twitter, which emerged last year as the two main social websites on the Net. Over that three-year period, Twitter was launched as a way of telling anyone who followed your updates — which, in those days, meant mainly people who knew you — what you had
been doing. Over the past two years or so, it has gradually evolved into something completely different: a way of sharing information, mainly in the form of links. Digg and del.icio.us, whose original business was link sharing, have gradually moved away from the centre of things as the whole online information sharing sector changed. Another striking fact is that Yahoo and Google, despite having both tried to penetrate this segment of the web, have dismally failed to do so.
So while not as extreme as Michael Arrington who recently announced he had retired Digg, Friendfeed, Google Reader, iPhone and more from his daily use, I believe social networks have now consolidated sufficiently that — outside of this blog, of course — it is best to keep things simple and mainly rely on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr for my web presence.
Why Digg and del.icio.us fell between two stools: Twitter has turned out to better at spreading news items, while Google is still your best bet for searching for information
Digg is dead: as CNET rather elegantly put it, Twitter killed it and Google helped bury the corpse:
I had been forcing myself to use Digg until last year, because I liked the idea of a site where tech stories could be shared and voted on. But as it had become a closed shop controlled by fourteen-year-old nerds with limited judgement, there didn’t seem any point in pretending I was continuing to use it.
del.icio.us suffered much the same fate. Probably the link-sharing service with the best-designed interface, I attribute its decline to its inflexibility: it’s very good at sharing and — more importantly — referencing links for future use; but nowadays, 95% of what people want to link with will be rapidly obsolete: so the best way of sharing it is via a service that allows you to append a short comment (which you can’t with del.icio.us) and that can be customized so that you know about any new subject as soon as possible, something Google isn’t actually very good at because by the time it crawls the information it will no longer be hot news. Twitter meets both the above criteria, and the fact that it isn’t very good at storing its users’ old tweets is of little importance to them. Practically all of them will still turn to a boring but effective Google search if they want to find information not related to current affairs. In that sense, Twitter and Google perfectly complement each other.
Sharing with no one, friends or everyone? Social norms have changed, but not as much as Mark Zuckerberg claims
As social networking gained wider acceptance, people gradually realised — often the hard way — the importance of being quite clear with whom they wished to share that information. This has gradually matured over time:
Mark Zuckerberg, who two years ago was quoted as saying that that privacy controls are the
vectors around which Facebook operates, now seems to have taken this view — basically a sound one — a stretch too far. He recently caused a storm of protest when he said that people were more willing than they had been in the past to share information:
There are basically three types of information you will want to store online:
- information of no interest to others or that you want to keep private (an article about the first-recorded modern-era instance of wearing mitres by Anglican prelates, for instance, or photographs of you and your ex-wife on honeymoon);
- information that you feel comfortable sharing with your friends (typically, your contact details, or those photographs of the party you all went to in the summer);
- information you’re ready, indeed desirous, to share with everyone: this blog post, for instance, or your carefully-worded Twitter updates.
The first type of information — that which I am just storing for future reference — I keep on Evernote. You can have a pubic folder on Evernote, but that isn’t its main purpose in my case. It’ll store links, documents, photographs, practically anything and has an in-built, powerful word-recognition and search capability.
RSS feeds are a case apart. RSS readers are an incredibly convenient way of keeping track of current affairs and new items on sites we find interesting. The ability to share those links (via Shared Items2), if desired, is a useful feature of Google Reader, whose server-client type structure means I can keep my items in sync and access them from the web, from a desktop client (NetNewsWire) and from my iPhone (using MobileRSS).
Facebook and privacy: the good, the bad and the ugly
The issue has clearly arisen mainly because Facebook — mistakenly, in my view — sees itself as competing with Twitter:
But that is missing the point. Although Twitter can be made private (by
protecting one’s updates) and, conversely, Facebook profiles can be made entirely public, that’s not the reason for which the overwhelming majority of users resort to them. The whole point of having a Twitter account is because you want to share information with everyone, including people whom you are happy to have following your updates without having any interest in reciprocating. On the other hand, you have a Facebook profile — under your real-life name, don’t forget — because it’s a social network that was designed from the start to share information with people who were mutual friends: the people, by and large, that you know in real life. Facebook’s half-hearted (and little-publicised) backtracking on the privacy of friend lists is not enough; even in non-extreme situations where making your details
publicly available isn’t potentially life-threatening, as it is in Iran, making photographs and pages of which one is a fan public will only make people more reluctant to use the service.
Less widely publicised than the privacy outrage is the way in which Facebook is becoming more of a closed shop, forcing its users to share content that they don’t want to share and preventing them from importing content from outside that they want to share with their friends. The whole point of the social web is that it allows interaction. My blog, which is the public face of my online identity, incorporates content from my Flickr, Twitter and Google Reader accounts; I obviously want Facebook to make it easy to do the same on my Facebook profile, which is my private online identity, because I know my Facebook friends (well, some of them, hopefully) will want to look at my photographs, read my blog posts and/or tweets, etc. Yet Facebook has been surreptitiously making this increasingly difficult, largely as a consequence of its misguided cold war with Twitter:
- the official Twitter application won’t feed tweets to profile feeds and user complaints about this bug have gone unheeded for months;
- services such as Flickr or Google Reader, which Facebook supposedly allows you to have imported into your feed automatically, will do so on an on-and-off basis and currently only if you manually force an update;
- Facebook has been discouraging applications from allowing users to display content on their wall page, forcing them to use tabs instead.
So Facebook doesn’t seem to understand what makes it special — the fact it is the only mainstream social network where you can share content with friends that you don’t necessarily want to share with everyone. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop using it if the constraints on my privacy and the new closed-shop type approach — both of which, in my opinion, go against Facebook’s own interests by reducing its usefulness — go no further. But now that the consolidation of the social networking sector is finally upon us, I hope the convenience it has brought us isn’t going to be wrecked by misunderstanding of privacy issues and a step back into an oligopolistic closed-shop system.
It does serve a purpose, though, to have accounts with a social network even if you don’t plan to use it: this means that if you change your mind — as I have on several occasions — the user name you reserved will still be available and that you can maintain some consistency between your various online identities. It also makes it less likely that someone will steal your identity by passing themselves off as you on a social network on which you are inactive. ↩︎
Google Shared Items, as well as Google Reader, were discontinued on 1st July, 2013. ↩︎