Yesterday John Furrier and Robert Scoble dominated tech discussions when they wrote about the possibility of Microsoft buying Facebook and then locking Google out of part of the web (the Facebook Walhalla that is). It seems like a possible scenario. Facebook has an incredible amount of users and is one of the largest walled gardens in the world (MySpace would be the other and bigger one). Microsoft can’t beat Google in advertisement or search, but they really want to be a serious competitor. That is why Microsoft wants to buy (part) of Yahoo now. And if they were to buy Facebook they could possibly have access to a holy grail with 100Mln users and their interactions with their friends (e.g the Facebook social graph). They could then build search on that social graph and possibly become the “next-generation” Google. That is a search and advertisement giant on social networks. These take-over rumors have already been denied by Facebook but that really doesn’t matter much. I’m not interested in such a deal, but I am interested in the thought that some might be delusional enough to think they can lock down millions of users and confine them to a small part of the web.
There are some serious flaws in such a scheme. I named the most obvious and important one already yesterday and it’s that human nature doesn’t like to be confined (within a specific area of the web). We don’t like walled gardens and we are bound to find a way out. The argument against this (Facebook is a walled garden and has already 100Mln users) is weak as there currently isn’t a viable alternative. But there will be one once the web is divided into an open and a closed section.
But underlying this customer freedom there is another big issue at hand. The current fight between the big Web companies isn’t really about users or web. You might think its data, but that is only a trigger for something else. The fight is about control. Most web 2.0 company, with the social networks leading the pack, think they can control part of the web (and therefore part of the revenues) if they can control the data that flows through it. That is the main reason for building walled gardens, its about control.
Facebook now controls the data of 100Mln people. With that control they can decide who gets a share in the pie and who doesn’t. Scraping attempt (e.g. data removal from Facebook) gets the penalty of removal. The argument provided is that the user’s privacy is at risk, but that is a ridiculous argument. They might even believe it a bit, but underneath that argument is always the fear of loss of control.
There isn’t a single web 2.0 company that can guard the user’s privacy. It just doesn’t fit the business model they are executing (unless your main product is privacy, but then you don’t need the web 2.0 FREE business model. You can get users to pay for it the old fashioned way). In the end there can be only one responsible for data and privacy, and that is the user.
The ability to control data is highly overrated by social networks. Every network hogs the data of its users as if it were pure gold, but the real value of a social network doesn’t lie in the data. You can’t map me into a profile by hogging my data. On the web you only get to see a fraction of the real me, a public persiflage. I might even have multi facet identities, or a different identities for different things. If you are going to map advertisement to me it won’t take into account my mood of today, the things I experienced yesterday, the things that interest me right now. You could take away my data from me, but how are you going to take away my interactions? Do you think that if I’m banned from your service or a network I can’t interact with my friends any more? There isn’t any control, just an illusion of it.
That is why a User Centric Web will be more valuable. In a User Centric Web the roles are switched. In a User Centric Web the user controls his data and the service provider does what it needs to do, provide service. No battles over data, users, social graphs, networks or walled gardens. Only battle over what matters most, user value. The service provider that provides the best service will win.
Can you feel the power of such a paradigm switch? Put the user in control means letting go of the false illusion that you as a service provider had control in the first place. It forces any service provider to think about user value, about how to be more attractive to the user than any competitor ever could be. The paradigm switch would immediately break down walled gardens and create an open space where the user can travel anywhere he wants to and take his friends and data with him.
And the great thing about it is that you really don’t need all that data to service me in the best possible way. You can provide me value without controlling my data. If you provide me value I will even hand you the data that is needed for you to provide me value. You don’t have to guess what I’m about, I’ll tell you if it helps you to help me. Does that mean that having data has no value. Of course not. But hogging data from users and trying to control the user through that data doesn’t make sense. Context, interactions, actions, needs, emotions, experience. They are all much more important than data. I like what Fred Wilson says about this.
Social web services need not fear data portability. They need to fear others providing a better experience. Because when others do that, the flow of data moves and they aren’t in the middle anymore. They might still have your data but they won’t have you. And that’s where the value is.
And remember, just when you think you have control, a new generation of users arise and they’ll want revolution. Dear Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook. You don’t have to control my data to provide me value.
Bruce Schneier just wrote a really good essay on the issue of data and privacy. Ties in nicely with this post.