Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Against Facebook SOS - the danger with analogies

The number of conversations around social operating systems has been increasing lately. Ben Elowitz even argues that Facebook has "boldly annexed the web" and become the central social operating (SOS) system of the social web (here).

I have written myself about social and corporate operating systems (here and here), and I am quite worried about what I see appearing. There are three reasons why I am worried:

  • To begin with, analogies are useful as explanation tools, but they carry with them an empoverishment of meaning. That implies responsibility from anyone using an analogy;
  • Secondly, considering Facebook (or any other social platform, for that matter) as a SOS demands that you ask some tough questions about resources, applications, hardware, users and, most importantly, ownership and meaning;
  • And finally, there is the corporate wave of social technology adoption. One of its impacts is the generalisation of "generally accepted social usages" (GASU) within corporate firewalls. A corporation may master these GASU without any need for deep reinvention. The corporate OS is just an OS, such as the SOS is just an SOS. It will certainly give corporations unheard of power. The question about meaning and intent again needs to be asked.
What can you do when given acces to a powerful OS ? So many wonderful things and the more powerful the OS, the more astounding your achievements. But there are no intrinsic ethics in achievement. And therefore the key issue is responsibility, both corporate and personal. In this post, I will concentrate on the social sphere and will write about corporate OS in a future post.

What does it mean for Facebook or any other to be a social OS ?

What does the OS provide its users with ?

  • Easy access to ressources - in this case, ressources are Facebook algorythms and our own personal data - welcome Timeline !
  • The possibility to build applications that accelerate the leverage of these ressources,
  • The potential to achieve the user's goals (personal or profesional) faster and deeper.

Now, who are the users ? Obviously, ourselves, anyone who has a Facebook account and plans to use it to make Facebook friends, share information with friends and family, keep track of relatives whereabouts, and engage in new social interactions. Keep in mind the potential of the system to develop new social interactions as an effect of developers creativity ...

There are other users : organizations, and today these are mainly marketing, media and PR companies as well as the members of Facebook business ecosystem.

Who is the owner of this system ? Facebook. What is Facebook ? A joint-stock, limited liability corporation. What is its goal ? To make a profit from serving its clients. Who are its clients ? Well, Facebook clients are the second category of users : Marketers. PR firms. New media ventures. Application developers.

These firms will pay Facebook for the right to use our data to better serve us. Us, the final beneficiaries of the whole system. This is just a business relationship, governed by the principles that have brought us where we are in terms of wealth, but also in terms of risks. And, given the sheer size of Facebook, and the amazing and growing speed with which the whole business ecosystem operates, it is key to loudly ask the tough question : where is the regulation that ensures that no entrepreneur turns to the dark side ? That no firm uses data patterns and intrusive technology to steer our consumption habits, play with ingrained fears or wants, in short, make a profit out of an unbalanced relationship ?

We are entering a whole new social dimension, and we come from a time when corporations (or the capitalist system, you might say) has been able to transform almost all human activities into economic activities. Lack of farsighted regulation has got us into financial trouble these days. I would argue this is nothing compared with the potential for trouble now building in front of us.

Facebook is a social utility, or at least it goes by that denomination. There are other utilities : transportation companies, water companies, ... They manage some of our key natural or urban ressources. Facebook manages part of what will become one of our key ressources in the future, the data and the knowledge that results from our interactions.

I do not question Facebook ethics nor its right to pursue its own corporate objectives. But i think it trades in a ressource which will prove key in building the future of our relationships, of the products and services we develop and consume, of the collective knowledge and intelligence we produce.

Its potential for profit being what it is, this is too important a business field to be left to the "invisible hand" to govern.  

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