Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tidal Waves Do Stop Propagating

I am not a friend in Facebook with my car dealer, nor am I with my financial advisor. I got snail mail birthday cards from both of them. I wish they had saved on the postage and with their other customers too. I'd rather get a little better deal the next time around. I wonder if others feel the same way.

It's not quite the same in Facebook where you "choose" your friends, though the choice is likely reflexive rather carefully considered. Viral growth doesn't go hand in hand with careful consideration. I was glad to hear from most of the people who gave me well wishes on my birthday. Connecting with them adds some flavor to my life. Even then, some are juggling so many other things that the message they send to me is mundane. Others who are more time abundant nonetheless send messages that hardly communicate, the equivalent to "have a nice day" which seems to punctuate many of the emails I get these days. Can this sort of communication be what is serving as the basis for the Facebook craze?

Last spring and early summer, where there was so much excitement about the consequences of the election in Iran and where Twitter seemed a very powerful way to get real news out of that country, I was very upbeat about the empowering effects of the technology to enable direct democracy. There remains a latent potential that the technology will be used this way in the future. The more common use, however, based on what I see on my Facebook News page is for people to give voice to the most ordinary aspects of their lives, presumably operating under the premise that if they do this and their friends do likewise then they "stay in touch."

Indeed, Facebook may be more about a virtual form of touching than it is about verbal communication. The growth of my own emotional intelligence leaning more to the stunted side, perhaps I'm more likely to give short shrift to the value of this sort of use. With that, however, I will now echo what the guys who care about network security always say about Facebook (and about Google too). Users are not the customers. Users (mainly their eyeballs) are what Facebook provides to the the customers. Informed users then need to ask whether this is in accord with their interests, orthogonal to their interests, or against their interests.

If the information that is being provided is mainly blather, I'd conclude that this is orthogonal to their interests. When there is more substance to the communication, there's a better chance that the practice is pernicious, pretty much for the same reason that others object to the data mining Google does with Gmail. Facebook is now asking users to utilize their new profile tool and include additional information (some of which looks to me like they want to take on LinkedIn in the same way that many years ago Internet Explorer took on Netscape). I know they say the new profile is there so users can exercise better control via their privacy settings. And to the extent that Facebook wants to limit liability in this area, I'm sure that's true. However, I don't believe that's the real game being played but rather is camouflage for creating greater value for the customers.

Most users are probably oblivious to these concerns, so perhaps Facebook will continue to grow. Everyone wants to party and that's where the party seems to be. I really don't know. But I do know diffusion curves are S-shaped and you can't use growth before reaching the inflection point to predict growth thereafter. I'm guessing we're already past the inflection point but that the public, including Wall Street, hasn't realized it yet so if Facebook were publicly traded and if I did this sort of thing I'd sell them short. Neither of those being the case, I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

We are so into this notion of explosive growth and the next new thing that we lionize entertainment that embraces the new thing. That many are consider The Social Network as one of the best films of the year is emblematic. I didn't like it at all. I want my entertainment to have more human textures, such as the American Masters video about Jeff Bridges, The Dude Abides, which aired last night.

That's what I want from Facebook too. Is it too much to ask?

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