Social networking: going towards an oligopolistic closed-shop system?

 11th January, 2010

Be honest: when did you last use your 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 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, 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 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:

The idea behind Digg is a simple one: to use a community of Web users to find the best, funniest or most interesting stories. A voting system makes the process more democratic than a search engine, and weighting systems and anti-gaming precautions mean honest participation is encouraged over spam.

When it was started by Kevin Rose in 2004, social networking was in its infancy and search results were significantly less useful than they are today. There was no Facebook, no Twitter and Yahoo was still a catastrophically unusable Web portal. […] The top 100 Digg users are responsible for more than half of the content that reaches the Digg front page. […] The site is, basically, just a more modern version of portals such as Yahoo or Facebook, Twitter and Google all have the potential to feed you news relevant to your interests, and with far fewer inane comments — unless all your friends are idiots. […] The likes of Wil Wheaton, Stephen Fry and Jason Calacanis aren’t on Digg.

Morris, Ian . Digg is dead: Twitter killed it and Google helped bury the corpse. CNET, 5 Mar. 2010

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. 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 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:

To hear a cross-section of privacy and data-protection pundits tell it, they have — and such changes are symptomatic of a fundamental shift away from the caution that characterized earlier social-networking interactions. The ultimate beneficiary of this: society as a whole.

Only recently have the academic, legal and privacy communities started to acknowledge a social benefit to data sharing of the magnitude seen on social-networking sites. While most caution that quantifying the benefit remains impossible, they believe that individuals who frequent those sites do gain personally and professionally.

Peppers, Don and Rogers, Martha . The Societal Benefits of Data Sharing. 1to1media, 20 Jan. 2009

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:

When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?

And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that’s evolved over time.

Kamer, Foster . Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Your Erased Privacy: These are the Social Norms, Now.. Gawker, 1 Oct. 2010

There are basically three types of information you will want to store online:

  1. 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);
  2. 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);
  3. 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

Facebook’s unwelcome privacy policy change in December 2009 has been sufficiently discussed elsewhere for us not to have to go over it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation actually covered the positive, negative and unacceptable aspects of the change very fully in an article appropriately entitled Facebook’s New Privacy Changes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly which is well worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

The issue has clearly arisen mainly because Facebook — mistakenly, in my view — sees itself as competing with Twitter:

Right now, most people don’t share their content using the ‘everyone’ option that Facebook introduced last summer. If Facebook pushes users to start using that, it could have a better stream of content to go against Twitter in the real-time search race. But Facebook has something to lose by promoting {{* quote }}everyone{{ /quote *}} updates: given the long-standing private nature of Facebook, they could lead to a massive privacy fiasco as users inadvertently share more than they mean to.

Kinkaid, Jason . Facebook To Roll Out New Privacy Controls To Its 350 Million Users, Kills Regional Networks. TechCrunch, 1 Dec. 2009

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:

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.

  1. 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. ↩︎

  2. Google Shared Items, as well as Google Reader, were discontinued on 1st July, 2013. ↩︎