Posts tagged ‘Facebook’

Too Little Too Late

By , 19 November, 2010, No Comment

Regulators in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada and the European Commission are finally getting serious about privacy. First, there’s the bevy of cases and crackdowns recently introduced against Google’s Street View. Secondly, there’s the EC’s new privacy proposal, mandating that in the future companies ask such consent for all the data they take, and (more radically) make it possible for users to have it deleted at any time. They’re calling this the ‘right to be forgotten.’ [A direct response to Eben Moglen, perhaps?]

This is comforting news for those of us who have been talking about data and digital rights for some time, to be sure. But I am wondering it’s ultimately too little too late.

See, most of the major holders of user data online are–or are close to becoming–monopolies within their niche: Google in search and advertising, Facebook in social, etc. And it seems to me that the history of monopolies is that once they get in place, it’s very difficult, legally, to break them up and almost impossible to muster the political will for radically restricting their business practices when a massive majority of the populace are their customers. [Can you see I've been reading Tim Wu?] That’s one reason that I’ve been arguing for two years that the way to best Google on privacy was to take it to task on antitrust issues early on, before it became unbeatable.

But given we haven’t done that, it now seems to me that the best possible scenario is [and I can't believe I'm saying this] NOT to sue Google’s more offensive services out of existence, or to try and take it apart, but to essentially acknowledge it as a legitimate monopoly, and then slap it with a huge list of monopolist’s burdens: forbid it from further M&A activity, say, forbid them from collecting things like payload data, and mandate that all data-collecting services become voluntary, not at the individual level, because that’s now untenable, but at the municipal level. If the majority of a town’s population votes to be mapped, Google can photograph in the town. I think the municipal level is basically the smallest level that is still feasible, and the largest level that is still democratic. Is this a crazy idea?

As for the right to be forgotten, I regard it as pretty sound when I think of individuals and companies like Google or Facebook, but I am less convinced about how it might extend to other types of websites. Jeff Jarvis has correctly pointed out that a very broad reading of such a clause could lead to the idea that people can demand takedowns of news stories about them. Which is something that doesn’t make any sense to me, not least because news coverage is NOT something you consent to have written about you. It is not data YOU give away (and therefore own) but data which we as a society have decided can be collected involuntarily so long as you have the right to correct the record, and to extract a pound of flesh when the journalist is wrong. I’m inclined to say that the right to be forgotten should apply to everything except IRS and other federally mandated disclosures, and stories about you in the press. But I must admit that my sense of surety about these issues has declined the more I learn about them, so, please, sound off.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

By , 16 September, 2009, No Comment

Mixed results today of my recent bets on the future of media.

1. BusinessWeek’s potential buyers have turned in their bids, and BW’s own media writer Jon Fine is on the story. It looks like vanity buyers (aka Wasserstein) have pulled out, and real media companies (aka Bloomberg) are back in the lead, but the LBO firms are hanging on. When I blogged about this earlier in the summer, I said I was rooting for Bloomberg over the LBO folks, so, so far, I’m winning.

BW staffers appear to be grieving for Wasserstein because they believe a vanity buyer would be a more patient investor than even a media firm; I disagree–the example of Sam Zell suggests that vanity buyers behave more like LBO firms in trying to squeeze fast profits, not because they need the money, but because the vanity buyer psychology works something like “Oooh I want a shiny media gem to wear in my crown. If I buy a rusted media gem I must make it shiny.” Wasserstein figured out BW wouldn’t be shiny (ie a gold mine) anytime soon, and walked away.

BW staffers also appear weary of Bloomberg in particular because they think he will be unfriendly to BW’s newer ventures into social media, basically creating networks for managers to discuss their industry and trends. While I think this a cool feature, I think the best thing BW has to offer isn’t that; it’s their investigative unit and wide angle coverage; Bloomberg is a luxury outfit that has shown willingness to spend a lot of money on reporting. That can only be to BW’s benefit. Moreover, BW’s focus on news managers can use will serve as a complement, not a competitor, to Bloomberg’s focus on use investors can use.

Fingers crossed that this works out.

2. Mark Zuckerberg blogs that Facebook now has positive free cash flow. That means it’s taking in more cash than it’s paying out, but it doesn’t mean the company is profitable yet, since there are lots of non-cash expenses like debt that FCF won’t reflect. That doesn’t quite erase my suspicions about their Ponzi-ness (Ponzi schemes, by definition, have lots of positive FCF when they are growing), but it does give me pause about writing off their potential to develop a real business. I’ll think this one over again and be back.

3. Google announces FastFlip, a platform that basically lets you read media pages in their designed form. That makes it easier for publications to give you the user experience of reading an old fashioned glossy mag, and yes, the feature looks pretty damn cool, but it also means that Google can sell ads not only against content on its pages, or on the pages of its partners, but over, above and outside whole websites that may have their own ads. It’s meta-advertising, and supports my long-standing conviction that Google’s macromarket strategy precludes any publishers’ attempts to figure out an ad strategy for content sites.

I Told Ya So

By , 31 August, 2009, No Comment

Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times Magazine is one of the highlights of my weekend. It might be because she writes so wittily; it might be because I read the magazine on the treadmill and her column, which appears within the first ten pages, is often the last thing I read before I become too sweaty and tired to think straight.

But I digress.

Her column this week is about the Facebook Exodus, the impending backlash of users fleeing the site because they are frustrated with its increased busy-ness and diminished privacy. On the one hand, I think she nailed the trend. On the other hand, I’m a wee bit bitter since I’ve been saying as much on this blog and elsewhere for awhile, and I’m not alone.

What do you think? Can the Facebook bubble burst?

The FaceFeed Ponzi Scheme

By , 14 August, 2009, 1 Comment

So I’ve been a bit swamped this week with several projects I want to blog about soon. As I result, I missed out on the chance to join the wave of insta-hype surrounding Facebook’s big move to buy FriendFeed. Late to the party as I am, I have a few thoughts.

The conventional wisdom that has formed around the deal is that Facebook is trying to get through FriendFeed some of the ‘live’ features it now lacks and at which insurgent Twitter excels. In particular, as Jason Kincaid points out, FriendFeed shows at the top of a page the most recent items commented on, not just the most recent items posted.

To be honest, I’m not sure this is something I’d want to see on Facebook. Effectively, this would mean turning each comment into its own status update in the News Feed. Given that well over half of the updates in my News Feed are uninteresting or irrelevant (no offense, friends, but the photos of your lunch food are just not ‘news.’), the likelihood that I care what others have to say about them (‘Hey, that’s tasty-looking? Where did you get it?’) are slim-to-none.

The reason it is valuable to Facebook is because it wants to keep enticing corporate and brand users of the site–people who set up a FB to get fans, not friends–and those people are interested in having their updates go viral. Keeping them at the top of fans’ feeds for multiple days, a FriendFeed-style system would certainly help. (In Twitter’s system, every ‘retweet’ or reply to a post is treated as a separate post.)

Even if Twitter is better at this kind of broadcasting than Facebook, neither site has a method in place to monetize the free marketing it’s giving to companies yet. Twitter has no ads; Facebook has tons of them–often really annoying ones promising me services I can’t type on a PG-13 blog– but no profits. There are more users who ignore the ads that ones that click through and advertisers aren’t going to pay much for real estate on a page that delivers poor click-through results.

The promise social networks keep making to the venture capitalist backers is that one day, the profits from advertisers will come, so they should keep investing in growing the user base. The promise social networks make to advertisers, meanwhile, is that one day, an infinitely large user base will make their ad dollars worth it. This deal takes my skepticism to a new level: the VCs have been convinced to let Facebook, a money-loser, spend money to buy FriendFeed, another money-loser, in order to get those future users and future ad dollars that will pay back everyone on the chain.

In other words, social networks promise each audience–VCs and advertisers–future returns based on investment collected from the other group, and pay out returns to neither. Instead, they sustain and rollover those promises over multiple years, increasing the amount of money invested and the number of layers of investment over time. Last I checked, that strategy was called a Ponzi scheme.

Round in Circles

By , 12 June, 2009, 2 Comments

My first story as a Fortune reporter is up, and predictably, it’s about social networks. In particular it’s about Facebook’s new offer to give users custom urls/usernames the way other networks do. I wrote a little about social media during my time at Forbes, but not nearly as much as I did at BusinessWeek or as an undergraduate newspaper columnist, so this is a bit of a homecoming. Plus ca change…

Experience Does Matter

By , 23 October, 2008, 1 Comment

The people want change, yes, but not for its own sake. Knowing how to make change rationally? Well, that comes with experience. No, I’m not resurrecting the Democratic primary. I’m talking about Yahoo! and Facebook.

The Facebookers made it big by showing up straight from Harvard with a lot of intuitive genius about marketing, but little-to-no experience with the nitty-gritty of graphic design. When they started out, they had so few features that it didn’t matter where and how they placed them. The page was sleek and clean because it had to be. As they’ve added more and more elements, however, Facebook has grown cluttered and this is not the first time I’ve complained about it.

In an attempt to deal with clutter, Facebook issued a major redesign this summer but it’s not going over well. From their business/product-oriented perspective, the new page makes sense–it effectively merges all the features [new friends acquired, new wall posts, new photos] into one information flow and therefore should make everyone happy. But it doesn’t look very appealing, and doesn’t recognize that most users don’t see all Facebook activity as equal. The Facebookers, it turns out, are very smart marketers and managers, but they’re not great designers because they have zero experience with design.

By contrast, the folks at Yahoo! have been running and designing websites for eons. So when it came time to spruce up the Yahoo! homepage, they knew how to implement a design:

The Internet Police

By , 29 April, 2008, No Comment

Throughout the Web revolution of the past decade, pundits and journalists have angsted endlessly about the implications of new technologies on privacy and the capacity for unwanted “Big Brother” surveillance or dangerous identity theft. Counter-arguments from tech-geeks have mainly centered on the entertainment potential of Google Earth or Facebook-stalking. Breaking the impasse means proving that the new technologies are more than a toy, but a useful and socially constructive tool.

The proof has arrived. Facebook and Google are putting their surveillance and information capacities to work fighting crime. A new Facebook list of suspected war criminals encourages users around the world to post information about sightings. A new Google Earth map marks crime scenes and likely locations.

How effective this will be, however, is still an open question. After all, criminals have computers too and it can’t help to tell them where we think they are. Not to mention that the Facebook lists wanted felons rather than simply suspects: due process dictates the individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Hopefully, the officials in charge will follow the law books over the Facebook.

On the other hand, there are interesting principles behind this technology: crowdsourcing, global technologies as a form of international law/world governance, linking virtual networks back to the physical world. As imperfect as this particular project is, these are the general contours of the coming era. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Facebook and Google would be the first to sign up.