The social layer – who benefits from silos?

Mark Zuckerberg is on record dismissing the idea of a social layer. He makes a good point that good social experiences need to be fostered with design, not simply tacked on. This is true but not but does not contradict the need for a “social layer.”

People want social experiences, and they don’t want those experiences to be tied to specific tools. Robert Scoble told the story very well when he described his needs for location-based services that drew on data and functionality from many different services. Robert wants to be able to discover people he knows in an area where he’s travelling, share recommendations, book restaurants and concert tickets and schedule meetings with his friends and colleagues, and more. The question is, should Facebook have a monopoly on defining friends, identity, and relationships.

There are two ways to integrate services – point to point integration with a market leader, and open standards that allow different services to be connected to each other, and allow custom services to be designed that integrate the data and services they need. Of course Facebook will advocate for the first position. They have the most to gain from being the chokepoint, the sole owner of the social graph. But that doesn’t mean that this position serves customers.

Think about Facebook Groups, for example. Facebook is rolling out an API for its new groups functionality, which lets developers write to a group’s stream, and invite users to groups. But Facebook group invitations, at least in its initial implementation, are opt-out only, and forever-like-death-and-taxes. If I use an application to invite people into the group, they are automatically joined whether they want to join or not, and if they unsubscribe, I can never re-invite them again. If Facebook gets to have a monopoly on defining groups for the rest of the internet, then this unpleasant social dynamic gets to affect a very large amount of human social activity.

Yes, good experiences will need to be enabled with design. It’s not enough to glom a single social feature across a variety of sites. But this doesn’t even work for Facebook. When I go to a news site these days, I see likes and comments from relatives and acquaintances who are Facebook friends, and who have very different takes on the news that I do. “Facebook friends” is not very useful there as a generic social layer. I’d rather have a community in the context of that news site, or that topic, and certainly not with Facebook’s opt-out-only group policy.

A monopoly on the social layer doesn’t serve customers, and it doesn’t serve marketers well either. A couple of weeks ago, there was a Read Write Web article arguing that the social layer may be useful in the enterprise, but it probably won’t serve consumers, or businesses who sell to consumers. This is wrong. A marketer wants to reach customers wherever they are. A marketer wants customers to be able to reach out to them at different times and places. A marketer benefits when they have access to the data about their customers. With a social silo, the marketer can only reach their customer, the customer can only reach the marketer, and the marketer can only get data about their interactions with customer, through a chokepoint intermediary.

Tom Foremski puts the analysis into financial terms – comparing Google and Facebook’s business model and profit, he concludes that “Clearly, there is more to be gained in trying to monetize the entire Internet rather than a subset of the Internet.” A strategy that enables experiences across multiple sites and services will be more powerful and more profitable.

The main beneficiary of a social silo is the owner of the silo. Everyone else benefits from a social layer that can be used to create social experiences across services, across the internet, intranet, or extranets.

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