Don't be (evil) stupid

>> Sunday, April 05, 2009

In February, you may recall, I wrote about the Facebook kerfuffle. What had happened was that Facebook attempted to abruptly change their terms of service (TOS) in a way that arguably gave the website an irrevocable and universal license to any content posted on or linked to the website. This change wasn't well-received, and was notably different from the TOS agreements offered by other social networking, sharing and blogging sites, and ultimately Facebook reversed itself and reverted to their original TOS, but not before losing a number of users.

The reason I mention it is that on April Fools' Day, Edmund Lee posted an article at Slate's sister-site, The Big Money titled "Why Facebook Can't Succeed" that misses the real point of the Facebook kerfuffle so breathtakingly that one wonders if the article wasn't meant as an extraordinarily-dry April Fools' prank. Mr. Lee writes:

Facebook, the world's largest social network, suffered under the tyranny of its own users in early February after the company rewrote its long-standing terms of service. Many members interpreted the revised rules to mean that the company would own every bit of uploaded ephemera, resulting in closed accounts and a rash of anti-Facebook groups—on Facebook. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg clarified the company's position, but users wouldn't budge, many commenting with the same four words: "Delete my account, please." After three days, Facebook reinstated the original terms.

What does this signify other than the usual digital shriek so often found on Web sites everywhere? Just this: Social networks are doomed to fail. At least Facebook is, so long as it continues on its current path. By heeding to the objections of its grumbling users, Facebook has essentially painted itself into a revenue corner.

Uhm. Okay.

I have no idea whether Mr. Lee's conclusion is correct or not: that is, I don't know whether any of the social networks or sharing sites can monetize themselves enough to become profitable businesses. Mr. Lee may be correct that Facebook and MySpace (and perhaps Picasa and Flickr and Blogger et al.) are doomed to failure. But if they are, it's not because they pay attention to the "grumbling users."

The core problem with Mr. Lee's analysis ought to be obvious: with all of these sites, the "grumbling users" are the content being provided. Facebook without profiles is... well, actually, it isn't. It simply doesn't exist. (It's Microsoft's Windows Live Spaces--rimshot, thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week, don't forget to tip your waitress.) It's one thing to take a "you can't please everybody" approach when you're offering your own content--film studios and television networks are examples of content-providing industries where the entire game is pleasing enough people to remain profitable (i.e. the critics may loathe your Adam Sandler movie, but so what if it has good box office?). But Facebook and its kindred sites aren't really content-providers, they're actually content-hosts, and if the actual providers pull out the hosts end up with bupkis. Try monetizing your site when nobody's visiting it.

Given that Facebook's users are also Facebook's content providers, and that Facebook has no content without a stable and loyal user base, the company's mistake clearly wasn't listening to those providers and responding when the providers threatened to effectively gut the site; the problem was they violated the real Google rule.

Google famously has one primary and fundamental rule: "Don't be evil." As much as I like this rule, let's face the truth that the rule doesn't actually mean what it says: Google, after all, is a company that has cooperated with Chinese censorship and invaded privacy, among other things.1 What Google really seems to mean by "don't be evil" is "don't be stupid," and this is a notion they've managed to hew to pretty well even when they've been, well, kinda-sorta evil or at least allowed themselves to be used by evil. Google's cooperation with the People's Republic Of China may be, at the very least, evilish, but nobody can really complain about the terms of service offered for Blogger or Picasa, at least not in the way people could legitimately complain about what Facebook positioned itself to do. What Facebook did with their revised TOS probably wasn't evil--or at least not deliberately so--but it was very, very stupid. Meanwhile the breaches of privacy and security poised by Google Maps may have Orwellian implications--but who doesn't love Google Maps? Google Maps is awesome.2

I don't know if there's a way to turn social networking into gold. There doesn't seem to be a way to turn online pet supplies into gold, and one would have thought crazy homebound cat ladies with internet connections would have guaranteed profitability within six months. But if there is a way to do it, it involves not being stupid as a central guiding principle. And that includes not doing things to antagonize your users, like threatening to steal their intellectual property and the intellectual property of any third party they link to. This doesn't mean always surrendering to users--Mr. Lee may be correct that Facebook users will have to eventually suck it up and see banner ads on their pages (it may happen to all of us--Blogger isn't making ads mandatory, but Google did start pushing "monetize your blog" hard on the Blogger Dashboard a few weeks ago). But it does mean that if you're going to make changes, they need to be smart changes: Facebook erred not by revising their TOS, but by revising their TOS badly; in a similar vein, just as Facebook would have done better to "borrow" their TOS revisions from Google, MySpace, et al., any introduction of advertising or other changes might be handled the way Blogger seems to be doing it--a gradual phase-in with (for now, at least) opt-outs.

Be evil if you must, Machiavelli 2.0 might write, but don't be a dumbass.

1I find some of the offenses listed under the Wikipedia entry "Criticism of Google" to be more legitimate than others--e.g. I found the "Doodles" issue to be no more than narcissistic posturing by American right-wing pundits who apparently think Google users in foreign countries ought to care about our holidays, or that shallow, vacuous-yet-showy displays of nationalism (bumper sticker patriotism) are all that stand between our brave Republic and a dark age of Islamocommieatheism. Still, the Wikipedia entry is a simpler place to point the reader than pulling old articles form across the web via... Google.

Also, while we're down here: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets is, of course, hosted by Google's Blogger service but is in no way actually affiliated with Google, I don't know those people, they don't know me from Bob, etc., etc.

2Like nearly everybody else, I periodically check Google Maps to see if my neighborhood has been updated. And, probably like nearly everybody else, I'm disappointed whenever the images are a few months old--this despite the fact that--like nearly everybody else--my first instinct when I think of total strangers spying on my home at odd hours is to feel a little creeped out. Fifty years ago, somebody slowly driving past your home with a camera stuck out the window would be a sinister scene in a Hitchcock film; now it just means they're updating Street View. Times do change.


MWT Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 3:40:00 PM EDT  

Facebook users already see ads on all the pages, though they aren't banner ads. (I wasn't sure if you were trying to make that distinction or not.)

My take on Google's "don't be evil" is "don't do what Microsoft did to make everybody use our stuff." We use it because their products are good, not because they're engaging in underhanded licensing deals with (in Google's case) the browser makers. And I see nothing inherently evil in respecting the wishes (laws) of a country in which they want to do business.

Livejournal has already done the enforced monetizing thing. All free accounts have ads*, some of the non-free accounts also have ads, and I've heard some thirdhand stories about accounts that aren't supposed to have ads having ads and not being able to get rid of them through complaints to customer support.

(*The ads on free accounts are only visible if you're logged out, which effectively hides them from the users. I have no idea how long they were there before I noticed.)

The difference between Blogger and LJ is that on Blogger, the blog owners get some of the ad revenue. On LJ it all goes to LJ. And I'm not seeing that Google is pushing Adsense particularly moreso than they were before. They just keep rearranging where they put the buttons.

Eric Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 4:12:00 PM EDT  

Good points, and thank you for the information. Not being a Facebook user, I was basing my comments on what Facebook might do by way of making money for themselves on the Big Money piece.

I think the point you're making about Google goes back to something I probably didn't articulate very well: part of Google's non-stupidity/non-evil is that they do provide useful services that are sufficient to outweigh the creepiness of what they're doing. That is, if you think about what Google Maps or Google's Search Engine or Picasa are actually up to, they (and other services) can be thought of as kinda scary: Google collects vast amounts of information about everything and everyone in a way that would be terrifying comprehensive if Google were the KGB or the government of Oceania under Big Brother. But we don't think of Google that way because, dammit, they're really damn useful and handy to have around. I don't think of Google Search as being a terrifying aggregation of data as much as I think of it as the first place I go when I'm trying to learn something. Google has actually gotten me to like the fact that they've virtually eliminated privacy to a large degree.

Similarly, Google has made advertising attractive to people who loathe it simply by splitting the proceeds. One may hate ads with a passion and yet be tempted to include them on one's own website simply because Google's willing to share the evil.

A lot of what Microsoft has attempted over the years has actually been far less intrusive--but it's been stupidly executed. (The most evil things Microsoft has done over the years have ironically been the least-criticized.) A classic example is the bundling of IE with Windows that resulted in the U.S. government's antitrust suit: spend five minutes with KDE's Konqueror filesystem/internet browser, and you can see the elegance and utility in binding the two things together. So how did Microsoft fail? It wasn't what they were doing, it was the clumsy and closed-off way they did it, which provoked Netscape into taking legal action that got the Feds involved.

MWT Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 12:24:00 AM EDT  

Well, Google's advertising strategy is actually pretty brilliant, in my opinion. Google provides the platform upon which people can put content. We, the average users, put our content there, because we love having a free place to put content. Then the advertisers have content that they can put their ads next to (but only with our (the content providers') permission). We content providers get our share from the advertisers because it's our content that makes it all happen, and Google gets their share for providing the platform and being the middleman. The advertisers sell their stuff. Everybody wins. :)

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