Globalising the mainstream

A high number of users is nice, but what are they actually doing?

I very humbly admit to be very conservative when evaluating a company. If I cannot figure out the business model, I don’t see a bright future for the company. You can certainly run a company without any business model if you keep slicing parts of it and feeding it to prospective buyers, so long as you can have the media on your side.

As long as people are happy with a mainstream product, and that it has a successful business model, it’s not important if the product/service is “useful” at all. TV is perhaps the best example. Being mainstream means also lowering expectations. MySpace’s success was based on the theory that most people might like to share pictures and videos with friends on a website, but had absolutely no skill to create a web page or even a blog. MySpace allowed them to create it very easily. Facebook just added three important changes to the concept:

  1. Don’t allow visual creativity. Stick to a simple, uniform interface. Stifling creativity means less ugly pages (like MySpace!) and this strategy has proven to be far more wise.
  2. Embed applications, and allow anyone to create applications to embed. This allows “pages”or “profiles” to do things previously unheard of on a social networking website, and it still remains very simple for the mainstream user to use. Nothing could be simpler then playing a game on Facebook!
  3. At least 20% of all users are just interested in one thing: sex. (The remaining 80% are probably lying if they say “no”). True to its origins, Zuckerberg correctly identified that the biggest problem with the dating sites out there is, well, that people lie so much about themselves. By forcing users to create accounts with their real identities, and displaying as much personal information as possible (including GPS-based physical location), it becomes a much more attractive environment for searching for potential sexual partners.

Nowadays, specially on point 3, we like to shrug it off and explain that there is another category that is also interested in “real life” information — besides profiling companies and marketing agencies, of course. It’s the professional user — specially the one that relies on credentials (e.g. diplomas) and not on reputation. Professionals with low self-esteem need to show off their credentials, and a social networking site which encourages presenting as much personal information as possible are welcomed by them. It’s ironical that people like Bill Gates or Steven Jobs never finished their degrees, and their previous work experience was between negligible (definitely not enough to be hired as CEOs for any of the top ten largest companies in the world!) and non-existent. This is not to say that credentials are not important — they are, and they are mandatory for a lot of job applications — but reputation and actual experience are far more important. Nevertheless it cannot hurt to show off your credentials publicly even if you have a good reputation and a lot of experience!

I have no idea how many “professionals” actually use Facebook that way, but I can imagine there are far more than LinkedIn or Plaxo users (where the focus on publishing real credentials is even stronger). Perhaps they’re also 20% of all Facebook users. The rest, well, they are part of a different mindset, which is more deeply disturbing: by publishing their information, they feel they’ve got an audience, and the reality shows on TV show us how eager everybody is to become famous. The Internet gives everybody an ersatz fame, by showing off to how many cool people you’re connected, and by how many interesting videos about pets you share. Everybody likes to show off.

This false sense of “fame” is very perverse. It falls neatly into an overall political strategy where people think they’re empowered, because they are able to post their ideas and opinions online “where the world can see them”. In fact, they’re simply ignored. While everybody produces a continuous flow of data about their opinions all the time, and all of it gets indexed by Google and Bing, the truth is that nobody will even remotely care about what you do or say — and the more date is fed into the endless void of the Internet, the less relevant it becomes. This is an excellent example of perverting the whole “freedom of speech” paradigm — you are free to say whatever you please because nobody will listen to you anyway. And anyone following thousands of “friends” on Facebook will not manage to keep up with the constant stream of meaningless rambling, unless, as many do, they spend 24h/day on it. As said, my journalist friends do exactly that, and label it as “work” — keeping in touch with what others say.

Where all of this becomes dangerous is when naive governments all of a sudden think that this is the future of online presence — a vast walled garden, ruled by Zuckerberg, where everybody is connected to their friends and colleagues, and is constantly pouring out gigabytes of data. Surely that means a “paradigm shift” — citizens were unable to communicate that much and so frequently as ever before. Thus, some countries think that it might be a good idea that relationships between citizens and their government ought to be done inside proprietary websites like Facebook. Australia is one example where court orders have been served by Facebook, while the European Parliament is toying with the suggestion of making laws if a million EU citizens “like” a page, and this the trend will probably continue, as the younger generations admit that they don’t read email but are keen on sending Facebook messages or tweets to each other.

This has been labelled as merely governments being “modern” and thus using technological tools that are popular. The hidden catch is that those organisations are not under the scrutiny of the citizens. Just suppose that, on the Australian example above, for some reason Zuckerberg decided to cancel the user’s account after the court order has been served, but before it has been read. The Facebook Terms of Service, like pretty much every other online service, allows immediate termination of any account without prior notice. Was this a successful notification? The Australian police might think so (since they would have seen the message being delivered), but the offending party might claim never to have seen it, and complain that they have no control over what the Facebook owners are doing. And on minor things this might be true as well. How can the Australian government, as users of the Facebook service, make sure that it complies to Australian laws and protects Australian citizens under their constitution? The trouble is, they can’t. They can try to “forbid” Facebook to offer services to Australian citizens — similar cases exist for online gambling, for example — but it’s pretty much impossible to refuse people to access whatever sites they wish on the Internet (as China is slowly figuring out). If countries like China or Iran or even Saudi Arabia are unable to control what their citizens do or don’t do with the Internet, how much can democratic governments actually do? The answer is, of course, “very little”.

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