Sunday, February 5, 2012

Facebook - Heil to our new Data Overloard

As the Facebook train rumbles towards its potentially record-breaking IPO, I decided to play 'the boy who cried wolf' (all puns intended) and point out the danger that Facebook presents to the World Wide Web.

First, a little background.  Since the dawn of civilization, people have known that information is power.  Thus, throughout history, the folks in power have tried to limit dissemination of information in order to maintain or enhance their positions of importance.  Then, in the early 90's, a little thing called the World Wide Web came into existence and, with it, the possibility of ubiquitous access to the world's information.  As more and more data came online, companies that helped us find it flourished - the most successful of which, of course, being Google.  Google crawled the WWW, indexed all the information it was allowed to access using massive server farms so that when we entered our queries, it would instantaneously be able to point us to the web pages containing the desired information.  As the underlined statement suggests, there have always been "dark pools" of information - stuff which companies kept hidden behind firewalls or in proprietary databases.  But, by and large, the WWW was beginning to deliver on its promise of delivering data to everyone.

That is until the various "social network" companies came into being, chief among them Facebook.  These companies are accessed through the World Wide Web, but they represent the antithesis of the idea behind the Web.  The information in Facebook is not accessible to everyone.  Search engines cannot access it - unless you're logged into Facebook, you can't search for the pithy post a friend put up last week regarding your boss; you can't find that awesome picture you uploaded only a month ago for everyone to see.  Facebook is creating a gigantic "dark pool" of information.  It's balkanizing the Web.  On purpose.

Facebook and its ilk ask us to accept a devil's bargain: in return for letting us easily "share" our information with our friends, it asks us to give up sharing it with the rest of the world.  The reader's response might be: "What's the big deal? After all, everyone can get an account on Facebook."  That's certainly true.  But even a Facebook user doesn't have access to all user posted information - you have to be "friends" with someone to share information with them.  With 800million users, I'm reasonably certain that there's lots of interesting information on Facebook that I might find interesting/useful, but which I will never see - simply because the author wasn't a friend.  And, in most cases, the author - had he cared to think about it - probably wouldn't even have minded if it were shared with the world.

Is that what we really want?  To be beholden to Facebook for all the precious information you upload to it?  Are the alternatives to Facebook any better?  To be honest, I don't know.  Google recently started their own social site, Google+.  It has a nice user interface.  But not many of my friends & relatives have gone on it - pretty much for the reasons Facebook had hoped all along: they've already made a heavy investment in Facebook by uploading content there and all their friends are on Facebook doing the same thing.  But suppose Google+ could overcome this problem (they're trying really hard by integrating Google+ with their other services) - wouldn't they just become our new Data Overlord?  I suppose it depends on their policy toward the data you upload there. Google is already integrating Google+ information in its searches.  Will it allow other companies to search for the same data?  I have a feeling they would!  Not because I'm a big Google fan, but because they're asking other social network companies to let them search their databases - it would make sense for them to do the same thing.

But I have no doubt that Facebook would never share its data with Google.  It needs to keep this data to itself so it can maximize its ability to monetize on it.  After all, if the data were accessible to Google and other search engines, advertisers might send their dollars to them rather than to Facebook!

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