Monday, May 19, 2008

The Social Network has little Value in a World of Flow

Fred Wilson recently wrote a post about how the flow of data is important versus the data itself. Primarily in response to the ongoing bushfire in the blogsphere about Facebook and Google Friend Connect and the larger context of data portability.

The conceptual point of flow versus data is important one to highlight.

It is very easy to confuse the two. To an extent this is an artifact of our language which emphasises objects (nouns) over flow (verbs). But it is also influenced by trying to use an existing frame-of-reference to discuss a new frame-of-reference that is only just beginning to come into focus. This is always going to make everything more difficult.

The web is moving into uncharted territory. Up to now we have been dealing with the conversion of existing real-world into an online equivalent. Now the web has reached the point that it is moving beyond the confines of being a real-world analogy. This is creating vast new opportunities, few of which are known to us now. Data portability discussion exits within this new framework.

To make headway understanding this new framework, we need to converse using language that properly describes this new framework. The language of flow will help us frame problems and hold conversations that enable solutions and new opportunities.

In Wither Social Networks, Arise Communities I pointed out that social networks are glorified contact books. A better way to look at social networks is that the merely describe a connection between two people. They are the pipes, wave-guides, tubes along which guide the flow. What happens at the end points is not part of the social network.

In addition to the guides, we have process points. The process points are where points along a flow something happens to the flow. Whether its received (such as email), or processed (such as Wesabe). A process point is not necessarily where the flow stops, merely where it undergoes some sort of processing.

Facebook's aim is to become the primary process point. They know (or suspect) that merely having a description of a flow network is not enough. They have to be a processing point, but here is their dilemma: Facebook was never designed with being a processing point in mind, merely a description of a flow network. So their strategy is to try and control of the description of flow networks by restricting access while they shift to being a processing point, Facebook Connect being an example.

Bear in mind that the flow network description has little intrinsic value. It is the flows along the network where the value lies. In this Robert Scoble is wrong. It is not the flow network where the value lies but flow along the guides that is important.

So is Facebook right or is Google right? How about neither? Facebook's move is entirely about trying provide themselves with time to become a processing point and less of a pure flow network. Google's aim is to get access to the flow network in order to get access to the processing points. Google looses out if it doesn't know about the processing points. Neither are taking the positions they are merely out of moral indignation. I do find Google's behaviour less obnoxious than Facebook as Google's move is about access where as Facebook's is about control. Not really surprising given Facebook's past behaviour and in the words Umair, evilness.

Ultimately, it is a meaningless argument. The web is shifting so fast that both companies actions will soon be lost in the momentum in the move to flow. The flow based web even looks like it will overtake the Data Portability movement. Rendering the broader discussion irrelevant as well.

Tags: Social Networks, Facebook, Data Portability, Google, Web Next, Web 2.0, Fred Wilson, Robert Scoble, Umair Haque, Web Services