The unselfish social network

Google announce that it is seeking to hire a “Head of Social” to drive the company’s social strategy. The way for Google to come from behind and take the lead in social platforms is to do a better job at supporting users and partners than Facebook. There is a growing backlash against Facebook amongusers and partner sites for constantly, progressively putting its own interests ahead of others.

A successful platform provider needs to balance three interests: its own interest, the interests of users whose loyalty and flocking create the market lead, and the interest of partners that leverage the platform. A mostly selfish strategy works for a platform provider only if users are locked in. If there are other good choices, users and partners flee and the lead evaporates. Facebook’s selfishness gives Google an opportunity.

How can Google take the lead with a less selfish network?

  • Focus on social experience.
  • This may be the toughest thing for Google to grok. Google’s technology strategy focuses on developing clever algorithms to solve tough problems, but social experience is a lot more about letting people do subtle human things and less about automating social behavior and social choices.

    Google’s development culture thrives on “scratching its own itches” – on making cool tools that serve young engineers in a culturally homogenous environment. This focus led to the early privacy failures of Google Buzz. Six months of internal beta testing didn’t shake out the flaws in the Buzz design, which made one’s email correspondents public, because Google’s engineers had less diverse social needs than their customers – consultants whose client lists were confidential, or victims of domestic abuse whose exes could now harrass their correspondents.

  • Serve users desires to manage sharing
  • People aren’t just mad at Facebook for making it easier to share. People are mad at Facebook because their privacy policy changes and feature changes seem deceptive. Facebook has so much to gain from mining users’ information that changes that make it hard or impossible to control information sharing are best interpreted as bad faith. Google also has a tremendous amount to gain by making public information searchable. But in the long run, people will share information by choosing to share, rather than by being tricked into it.

  • Serve the desires of sites and apps to serve communities
  • Facebook’s tools for sites and apps, from Facebook Connect to the recent Like and “Instant Personalization”, serve Facebook’s interests at the expense of their partners. For example, the new “Like” feature consolidates data about user preferences through a proprietary API, rather than providing it in a way that can be crawled and recombined using the ActivityStreams format. Sites want to connect to Facebook, because that’s what enables their users to share with others. But sites and apps need to cede to Facebook control over communicating with users, how users communicate with each other, and policy over sharing customer data. Tools that gave sites more control and better revenue share would win loyalty.

    Frustration with facebook is catalyzing a lot of articles by people writing about their ideal social network. For example, Neil Gorenflo has an interesting blog post about the requirements for powerful community networks. A social network platform player doesn’t need to make every feature for every need. They need to provide a core service that provides basic needs, and the infrastructure that lets third parties go deep.

There is a famous classical Rabbinic quote – “If I don’t act in my own interest, who will act for me, but if I act only in my own interest, what am I, and if not now, when.” Now is the time for Google to serve its own interest by serving customers, applications and sites.

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