Social Networking in the Wild

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Venkatesh Rao, Contributor

August 11, 2009

10 Min Read

Yesterday, I did something that suggested to me that we are at an important tipping point in the psychology of Web 2.0 adoption. Within an hour of hearing the news of Facebook acquiring Friendfeed, I signed up for the latter, using my Facebook login info. I'd known for a year that Friendfeed is a great dashboard service that integrates your social media presence, but I had not joined. Apparently I wasn't alone. Friendfeed was at one point described by TechCrunch (I think) as 'a great service nobody will ever use.' So how do you interpret actions like mine?The New Adoption ThresholdMy actions (which I suspect were pretty common for yesterday) show that the biggest barriers to adoption these days arise from two questions we ask:

a) Whether the marginal value of a service is greater than the startup-costs of registering and integrating it into your routine and...

b) Whether you think the thing will survive long enough to be worth learning.

Keep in mind that for a), supporting open registration models (OpenID, Facebook, Google, Twitter) is not enough: the startup costs of using a service go beyond merely creating and remembering new login info. You must additionally do something nobody can automate for you: integrate the new beast into your routine.The Friendfeed acquisition and my response to it suggests that a lot of people will react like me: only believing in a site's survivability (even if it is VERY good), if it integrates into a larger, more stable ecosystem. In a similar piece of news yesterday, the URL shortener announced that it was going out of business. Twitter, which accounts for most shortened URL use, picked as their official shortener a while back, and after that it was only a matter of time before the mass extinction event began. Another victim of the era of standardization.What both these incidents show is that "social networking in the wild" (SNITW) is finally starting to take off. You could interpret it equally as "domestication of the Web 2.0 wilderness."Acronym of the Day: SNITWWhat is SNITW? It means your identity following you around wherever you go, as opposed to just inside a silo site like Facebook. Think of it as single-logon on steroids, and spanning your entire life as opposed to just your work life.For example, if you go to popular techie blog ReadWriteWeb and try to post a comment, you will see options to post via Twitter and Facebook, 2 of the bigger "in the wild" identity suppliers. Your in-the-wild activity can also feed right back into your in-the-sandbox activity via services like Friendfeed which pick up and re-domesticate all your wild wanderings.Other contenders: your Google ID (which is part of Google's open social model), Gravatar by Automattic (the folks behind, OpenID (a distributed model where you can be your own identity provider, centralizing your life around your blog for instance) and Disqus (which centralizes your commenting life). It's been a long journey. Remember Microsoft Passport?So here's what your social-virtual life will look like in the coming years:

  • Source: You will establish 2-3 "base camp" identities via services like Facebook and Google (on average, we consumers are not very trusting, and the B2B world naturally resists monopolists, so it isn't going to be just one)

  • Process: Using these 2-3 base-camp identities, you will use services all over the Web (mostly social, non-financial). Many sites will support all major base-camp identity suppliers, but a few will have gaps, which is a technical reason you'll need more than one base-camp. Sort of like those places that don't accept American Express, so you will always need a Visa.

  • Sink: Using re-integration services like FriendFeed, you will put your Humpty-Dumpty life together again. If you want to. If the source base-camps represent the "theory" of your life, the sink systems represent the logs of experimental data.

In this scheme, services which do NOT offer open registration models will need 2x-3x the value add to reach same penetration levels.The interesting thing here is data-sharing. Apparently a random new service will lose their most valuable resource: customer data. Not quite. The major base-camp identity providers will need to meet their own set of customer expectations (both business and 3rd party provider), namely involving open API access. Apple is learning this the hard way right now. So the balance of power among providers is shifting quite a bit, but not as radically as it might appear. Advertisers still need the high eyeball-surface-area provided by a large number of services, which gives these services enough collective bargaining power to rein in excess by the base-camp or sink providers.Closing the LoopAnother interesting point is this: the Facebook acquisition signals a "close the loop" event, since a major "source" base-camp now owns a major "sink" re-integration service. But in general, I don't think the 2 will converge neatly. Both consumers and 3rd party services will hesitate about putting all their eggs in one basket, and one of the most powerful ways to resist data monopolization is to keep source and sink ecosystems somewhat separate. Kinda like after Enron the SEC created mechanisms to ensure corporations, banks and auditors weren't all in bed together. Another reason is technical: some kinds of stuff just don't feed back nicely into the structure of something like Facebook. The last reason is social-psychological. Facebook is my "social resume" and LinkedIn is my "work resume." There is no particularly good reason either should be the home of my "comment posting" persona.So the re-integration ecosystem will organize itself around patterns of social activity, where the source base-camp providers will specialize in terms of social identity.The New OrderWhat are the pluses/minuses of this?

  • Pluses: life gets simpler for you and me, worst-case security thresholds start rising as the base-camp identity providers start imposing minimum security standards, anonymity starts to fade somewhat (if you've seen these SNITW sites, you'll see things like people's real names and pictures showing up automatically).

  • Minuses: The whole system has far fewer points of failure. Successful security breaches can cause much more damage as a result, and will be harder to contain. Like the electric grid, the co-dependencies between major services can cause cascading failures (we saw a preview of that with the Facebook 2nd order consequences of the Twitter denial of service attack), anonymity starts to fade somewhat.

Some consequences that aren't pluses or minuses for you and me directly, but still interesting. With all the focus on real-time search challenging Google, we seem to forget that the identity wars are creating an even bigger blindspot for Google than real-time: Facebook for instance, cannot be indexed well by Google (by design). So search is an example of an infrastructure service that might get balkanized as the source/sink identity providers leverage their capabilities into search. Tellingly, Facebook just revealed a big search play today, and Friendfeed is also known for having a great search component.What about Financial Identity?The big thing that's missing in this picture is integration between unified social identities and unified financial identities. On the latter front, services like PayPal and Google Checkout and Amazon Payments are slowly creating a parallel payments ecosystem. The cutting edge is services like which attempt to do to your financial life what Friendfeed does to your social life.But these 2 universes don't talk to each other. And perhaps they shouldn't.And Enterprise/Work Identity?This is where there may be unpleasant news in store for Enterprise 2.0 vendors. As job-hopping and free-agent lifestyle trends increase, individuals will be increasingly reluctant to maintain a whole separate inside-the-firewall identity. I (and I imagine you) would rather fill out a special "private/corporate" section of my LinkedIn profile, were I to join a new company, than go sign-up for and populate a whole new internal system. In fact, the ability to centralize my work life around me, rather than my employer, could well become a major factor in decisions made by prospective employees between competing job offers.The math is unforgiving. If a new employee expects to stay in a job for only 2 years, and the company, in the worst case, has a god-awful paper forms/triplicate signoff based system to get yourself into major databases for various purposes, and you estimate it might take 3 months of annoying paperwork at the beginning and end, that's 6 months, or 25% of your work-time, spent with annoying bureaucratic process headaches bogging you down. I might choose a job with maybe a 20% pay cut rather than accept that I'll spend that much time in hell.The Holy Grail: Healthcare IdentityYou may have noticed, but we've worked our way down the Maslow pyramid. Google Health is the thin end of the wedge. If the current attempt at healthcare reform actually creates portable health insurance, the trifecta will be complete.Once you've got all 3 into one broader architecture that is individual-centric, great powers and terrors could be unleashed. By controlling finely-graduated access to my 3-ring identity circus (outermost: social, second: financial, innermost: health), I could potentially eliminate 90% of the huge burden of paperwork "living" today entails. I expect that translates to about 15-20% in core, intrinsic productivity gains (not "economic" productivity as in GDP divided by population).The flip side: I am my own single point of failure.And no, let's stop here. No global physical+digital passports and Facebook-managed systems of visas for international travel. That I think is not going to happen within our lifetimes. The irresistable force that is Web 2.0 will finally meet its immovable object when it runs up against national borders and the biggest "old" organization of all: the international system of nation-states.Social Cash?A friend made a point once in a conversation about the nature of money: the anonymous paper-currency economy, besides being a favorite of mobsters, serves as a check and balance against the tyranny of any information-based governance system. The more a tax regime is viewed as unfair, the more money moves out of the trackable economy and into the cash economy. Mess with money supply through over-free printing of money or lowering of interest rates below inflation, and wealth migrates further from cash to gold.With all this identity unification fun, a similar check and balance is needed. We need social cash. True, anonymous, paper-currency-like cash. Cory Doctorow's Whuffie will not do, since it is personally identifiable. There is a real need for somebody to invent a system whereby I can take some of my online social capital (earned through my blog's rankings for instance) and converting it into an anonymous trust currency. Imagine being able to post a one word comment, "bullshit" as an anonymous comment on a blog and actually be listened to. Today such a comment would be ignored as noise (since it has neither the credibility of known identity, nor the credibility of intrinsic content). But if I could associate with such a comment 1 million reputation dollars say, that I've earned elsewhere, the comment would get taken seriously, the way anonymous donors to foundations are taken seriously.Isolation, Interdependence, or Unification?When you consider other major technologies that have gone through a Wild-West youth, followed by an era of standardization and integration (such as railroads, container shipping, credit cards, ACH-driven banking), you realize that there are two major tradeoffs that drive the dynamics. The first is the consumer's trade-off between making life more simple and trusting any one infrastructure system too much. The second is the exact same dynamic at the B2B level. In various historical cases, we've seen outcomes ranging from pretty much complete unification (such as railroad gauges) to oligopolies (the top 2-3 credit card companies, metric and FPS systems) to continued anarchy (English isn't going to be the universal language/human-brain-OS anytime soon).For Web identities, I think the future is going to be "interdependence." A small set of interlocked and co-dependent identity services, which are coupled enough to function well together (and take each other down in crises, but able to recover individually).(p.s. I've had to withdraw from being a regular contributor here, thanks to relentlessly increasing demands at work, but a "Hi there!" to everybody I've had the pleasure to get to know through this site).Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

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