Foundations of the Social Web (or, Fake Tales of Menlo Park)

All spin aside, Facebook's mission is to extend, deeper into the 21st Century, the viability of advertising as a force of commerce, using the very technologies that ought instead to be destroying advertising.

Within the business section of Facebook's SEC filing Wednesday, there's a subsection titled, "Foundations of the Social Web." According to this discussion, there are three elements of the social web:

  • authentic identity;
  • the social graph; and
  • social distribution.

Sounds like a useful framework. In Facebook's hands, however, at least two of the elements are perverted and re-channeled to serve Facebook's regressive mission.

Let's start with authentic identity.

I think there are good arguments to be made for asking users to be accountable for their online personas. But the version of authentic identity expressed by Facebook is flat and reductive - not something one would expect from, say, anyone with a liberal arts education:

"Representing yourself with your authentic identity online encourages you to behave with the same norms that foster trust and respect in your daily life offline. Authentic identity is core to the Facebook experience, and we believe that it is central to the future of the web. Our terms of service require you to use your real name and we encourage you to be your true self online . . . ."

Skipping ahead a few pages in the prospectus, you come to a subsection titled, "How We Create Value for Advertisers and Marketers." Here, the true purpose - or payoff - for the reductive kind of authenticity Facebook requires is laid out without sanctimony:

"Because authentic identity is core to the user experience on Facebook and users generally share information that reflects their real interests and demographics, we are able to deliver ads that reach the intended audience with higher accuracy rates compared to online industry averages."

Emphasis added.

And it's not just that ads are better targeted. It's a step beyond that, and potentially several steps beyond that. "Genuine" user relationships are available to the advertiser, who, for a fee (paid to Facebook and not to the users) can intervene in those relationships:

"Social Ads. We offer tools to advertisers to display social context alongside their ads. As a result, advertisers are able to differentiate their products and complement their marketing messages with trusted recommendations from users’ friends. A recent Nielsen study of 79 advertising campaigns on Facebook demonstrated a greater than 50% increase in ad recall for Facebook ads with social context as compared to Facebook ads that did not have social context."

Social distribution, another of the three elements of the social web, is also compromised. This is because advertisers can alter the way organic social content by "authentic" users is organized and prioritized. The tool to leapfrog genuine engagement and get to the front of the line is the same as that used by interest groups to get Congress to pass legislation: money.

"Sponsored Stories. Sponsored stories enable marketers to amplify the distribution of stories that users have already shared that are relevant to their marketing efforts. For example, when a user posts on Facebook that he or she has 'checked in' to a Starbucks store, this check-in creates a story that can be shown in the user’s friends’ News Feeds. Although all of a user’s friends may be eligible to view this check-in story, only a fraction of the user’s friends will typically see it (based on factors such as when the user’s friends check their News Feeds and our ranking of all the content that is available to show to each of the user’s friends). Starbucks can purchase sponsored stories to significantly increase the reach, frequency of distribution, and prominence of this story to the user’s friends."

Emphasis added.

The S-1 discloses that Erskine Bowles recently joined Facebook's board of directors. In addition to being the co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission and having served as a White House chief of staff, he was also once the President of the University of North Carolina. Is it too much to think that Mr. Bowles as an educator might mentor and counsel Mr. Zuckerberg to go back to school and study art, music, history, sociology, theoretical physics, pure math, something other than whatever he learned that made his world view so pedestrian, in order to inculcate a sense of the human or the spiritual that is possible with engineering and design?

What Facebook is doing is cynical. Worse than that, its mission lacks imagination and ambition for the social graph and social distribution.


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