Our biggest on-line threat might be the power of scale

In my previous post I spoke about the presentation Charlene Li gave about the future of Social Networks. I ended up analyzing what it would mean for advertisement. But the thought of everything being connected into one big social network, or social graph, remained in the back of my thoughts. I asked myself if this “everything gets connected” thing is something a user wants or something an advertiser needs.  And then this morning I realized what has been bugging me about this. It’s the scale of it.

Imagine the scale of a social network (which may easily be overlaying several different services) that interlinks the entire Internet population. Imagine the scale of the social graph that comes along with it. Try to imagine the enormous amounts of interactions that will take place in such a network. Add the number of user actions to that equation. And then try to think about the data that is being stored and analyzed by those that want to get to us commercially.

The scale of such a network would be almost unthinkably large.  It is like discovering the nearest galaxy with the largest possible telescope, only to realize that there are many new ones behind that.

In my opinion the scale of such a network would create a number of problems. Lets get rid of the technical issues first. We aren’t very good at designing and implementing scalable solutions so there are bound to be technical issues with such a large scale solution. I’ll park that one aside, but will get back to it in a short while.

On the service provider side there will be a competition issue. If we are talking global scale here, not just physical, but also in terms of population, then most service providers may just as well stop trying to become the next hit. There is really only one company even remotely capable of running such an incredible infrastructure and that would be Google. Not just because they have incredible expertise on handling large amounts of data. Not just because their whole identity is based on handling the unthinkable amount of data (hence the name Google). Not just because they dare think and act this large which is thoroughly embedded in their identity. Not just because they are already acting in every possible relevant market ranging from search, social network, e-mail, office apps, location, maps, and mobile. Besides all of that, think about the way Google has been thinking about infrastructure. They own data warehouses all around the world, they invest in fiber, they are by far the largest global infrastructure owner worldwide. There probably isn’t much data traveling around that doesn’t pass over the Google infrastructure. I don’t see anyone else thinking about infrastructure on a scale that Google does?

While this has benefited the general Internet population enormously and set free incredible innovations, it will become a hurdle that will provide us with a lot of trouble. Google will own the single biggest walled garden, spanning the entire Internet. And that can’t be good. Even the enormous scale that both MySpace and Facebook are operating upon shrink to tiny size when comparing that to the infrastructure Google holds and will further develop. If one company will own that much infrastructure and data traveling around it, there will be hardly any competition possible.

Who can take on such a giant? Who can compete against the sheer power of owning almost the entire Internet. Who can scale to such a level that they can even remotely compete on numbers? Already Google has taken more than 75% of the search market. Now people dare think they can move up to 90%. If that is the case, then effectively there will be no more competition out there. And that will be the death of innovation.

On the advertisers side, having one large social graph and all the data to analyze this might sound like the Marketeers wet dream. People would be profiled in unprecedented ways. Any cross-section can be made. You could target any thinkable set of characteristics you want. But there is one thing you can’t target. It’s called human behavior. People might show certain patterns on-line, show certain behavior that profiles them in some way. Might have friends that seem similar through some set of characteristics. But human nature isn’t all about patterns. There is always the wild card of the unexpected. Just because you mightbe able to map me in some chart, doesn’t mean your commercial message will hit me between the eyes. You might know a lot about me, but unless you will provide me with value I won’t be listening to you.

What would happen to the user in such a global scale network. With the transaction cost of finding and interacting with people around the world dropping to zero we will probably all have enormous amounts of on-line friends in our social graph. There would not be a single thing unnoticed on-line. Every step we take is being watched by a Big Brother. We can scream out our message to the entire world only to find out that no one is listening anymore. We could have millions of friends, only to realize we really don’t know any of them anymore. By joining the network consisting of the entire population we will have reached something we thought we got rid of, anonymity. There will still be the influential, and no-influential. The haves and have nots.

At the same time we will find that it is almost impossible to have a life without this network. Most of the needs we have will be supported in this on-line network. Most of our identity has moved on-line. We probably can do anything on-line. Besides some basic stuff we really need to do in the physical world (eat, drink), most of our dealings that are needed to make a living, run our finances, obtain services are moving  on-line. Here comes the danger of reliability I talked about earlier. What if we have a universal identity on-line that we use for all our on-line activities. From social interaction to professional services. What if, due to some technical malfunctioning, our on-line profile wouldn’t be available? We wouldn’t be able to participate or interact in this global network. We wouldn’t exist, even if it was for only a short while. A scary thought really.

Is this really what we want when we talk about the need for openness, for data portability, for lowering the walled gardens? The consequence of it might be that one of them takes it all.  I sure do not want one single company to have that much power and control over the biggest influence of the lives of coming generations.

But there is always hope. It’s called human nature.  If we can learn one thing from history it is that when things go up, they will come down again too (simple matter of gravity I suppose). There isn’t a single empire build in history that was strong enough to last for ever. If the trend is that the entire population will be connected in one super social graph, then there are bound to be people that refuse to join such a future. They will find ways to travel around this network without being seen by the owner of that network. They will find ways to communicate and interact without Big Brother watching them. They won’t feel the need to be always connected. They don’t want to be mapped, to be labeled, to follow a specific predicted pattern. They don’t want to be part of something, but instead be a unique individual. And they will be perfectly happy knowing that at one point people will want only one thing, freedom.

What do you think? Will a scenario like the one above be likely to happen? Or am I overestimating the strength Google has (or underestimating the power of possible competitors)? Will Google hit an Innovators dilemma at one point and overtaken by something new? I’m interested to hear what you think of the possible consequences of a global network that connects us all.

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This entry was posted in Charlene Li, Forrester Research, future, Google, human behavior, infrastructure, search, social networks, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Our biggest on-line threat might be the power of scale

  1. Fatu Simmayeck says:

    I asked myself if this “everything gets connected” thing is something a user wants or something an advertiser needs.

    Nice thought. However… I think in fact it is something the user wants AND the advertiser needs. Therefore it is working quite well. The user don’t care about their information (I mean… there is no conciousness that they are actually “selling” something) and the advertiser don’t mind to pay some money for a platform cause on the other hand they can earn money.

    And I am not so sure that Social Networks support anonymity. Yes, you might be right with your suggestion that a (theoretical) net of all people in the world wouldn´t be more “personal” than the real world is. It is possible that even the net of friends would be less personal than the concept “friends” means today for you. But I think it would be less personal anyway, also without Social Community Networks. The world has changed through globalization and is changing… even faster than before. 20 years ago, people were not travelling like today, they were not talking via mobile like today, they had less friends living in a distance of more than 200km. Technical “advances” like the internet, cheap (intercontinental) flights, international exchange programs, poltics of national mobility changed the meaning of geographic distance for personal contacts.
    Did the post service make personal contacts less personal. Of course it did. But at the same time it created also the facility of being in contact. SNC are today one of the base condition for being able to “stay in contact”. If time´s getting short you have to find a new possibility to handle with the things you want to do.

    I wouldn´t say it´s a positive development. Actually I don´t know.I only know that SNCs are transforming our reality, but they are at the same time also a product of a transformation that had been there before.

    Thank´s for the nice article.

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