First published February 14, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Last week I forecast that Facebook would become irrelevant. Some of you disagreed. Ron Stitt called Facebook the “public square” or “crossroads” of social connection.
Andre Szykier pointed out a very real challenge with the successful socialization of online: “The problem is connecting the content from my social walled gardens into a virtual cloud point. Google+ is going about it a different way. They keep expanding their walled garden with search, mail, video, chat services along with social and app services that they provide, hoping you eventually will find their garden big and rich enough so everybody will migrate. While it helps them be the CyBorg of data, it makes people more uneasier (sic) to have all of that in one garden than spread across many. Time will tell which model will thrive.”
Thank you, SI readers. As you so often do, you challenged me to give this idea a little more thought. I still inherently believe that Facebook is being marginalized on the social periphery, but both Ron and Andre have nailed a fundamental concept here that I believe merits further discussion. What does the connection point between ourselves and online (I extend this beyond social alone) evolve into?
The problem, I believe, comes with control. Who controls the connection? Understandably, Facebook, Google, and a host of others want to control this critical territory. It’s an online land grab; they offer us destinations, and we go to them. In return, because the connection happens on their turf, they get to monetize that turf. It’s like an online Monopoly game, with everyone scrambling to own Park Place so they can put more hotels on it.
The problem is that to effectively monetize, all these destinations ask us to invest in letting them know who we are. This creates the problem of profiles – so many profiles to maintain, so little time. If I move to another square, I have to start all over again.
All this profile information is used to create a “meta” representation of us. It’s the online data handshake that enables successful connection. The issue is that Facebook, Google and all the others want us to build the profile, but for them to own it. This means we have to build multiple “meta” profiles of ourselves. It’s terribly inefficient and requires us to do most of the heavy lifting. Also, as Andre points out, it raises an important question – why should Google (or anyone else) own the meta version of me? I think that’s something I should own.
This dynamic introduces another problem: In order to reduce the heavy lifting, these destinations use our own activity to help build the profile. The more we do, the more they can learn about us. This is fine, as long as the best way to do any of these things is the option offered by the destination that’s trying to build the profile. But even with the vast resources available to a Google or Facebook, it’s almost impossible for them to stay ahead of the constant evolution of online innovation. Sooner or later, there will be a better way to do something somewhere else. At this point, we’re faced with a dilemma: Do we stick with the original destination, where we’ve invested in building a rich meta version of ourselves, or do we trade that for the better functionality offered by the new alternative, knowing that we have to start building yet again another meta-me?
Google and Facebook, as Ron and Andre point out, have both gone down the road of building a support platform for other innovators, hoping to at least share a significant slice of the territory with new alternatives. This allows us to use that version of our profile in more ways. But it’s still a territorial analogy, and ultimately, that creates a sustainable vulnerability in an environment as dynamic as online. It’s very difficult to successfully hold territory in our ever-expanding online world.
To me, there’s only one eventual answer. We have to own our own meta-selves. Our online profile must be rich and completely portable. When we choose a new destination, our meta-me immediately unlocks the full potential of the destination, tailored specifically for us. There are challenges to be overcome — primarily around issues of privacy — but this is the only sustainable path.
Up to now, the Internet has been all about who owns what territory. This is not surprising — it’s a natural extension of our existing worldview, one formed in a physical environment. Our minds need time to grapple and assimilate abstract concepts. Up to now, we’ve “gone” to places online. But the evolved functionality of the Internet has expanded beyond this parochial mental scaffolding. It’s time to reimagine the possibilities, using our own concepts of consciousness as a new framework. We will live at the center, we define who we are and what we want — and the Internet will be a vast extension of our mental potential that we can call at will, without our having to “go” anywhere. We’ve seen hints of this in search already, conceptually fleshing out Wegner’s transactive memory.
Daunting? Yes. Kurzweilian (with all the negative and positive connotations that implies)? Probably. Inevitable? I believe so.