Who Owns Facebook?

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Was Facebook right or wrong to cave to the army of irate users who decried its Twitter-like redesign? Last week, Dare Obasanjo attracted a lot of attention by arguing that Facebook's redesign reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of its purpose.

The expectations around how user relationships were created on Twitter are totally different from how they were on Facebook. On Twitter, users explicitly decide as part of following someone that they want all of the person's tweets in their stream. In fact, this is the only feature of the relationship on Twitter. On Facebook, you have relationships with people that attempt to mirror your real life so you have your boss, coworkers, school friends and acquaintances all trying to be part of your social graph because FB is really a kind of "rolodex" in the sky. ...

Somewhere along the line, it seems the folks at Facebook didn't internalize this fundamental difference in the social context that differentiates user to user relationships on Twitter versus Facebook. This to me is a big mistake.

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, stirring the pot as always, blasted Facebook for not sticking to its guns.

Facebook has always pushed the envelope with users, and those users always hate it (the original News Feed was hated, now people are up in arms to keep it from changing). In an interview last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked with me about how users are willing to accept change over time, and that Facebook would continue to push things along. Suddenly, though, they surrender because a few users have a belly ache over a redesign. ...

Someday, if they're not careful, someone is going to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace, who in turn did it to Friendster. Making users happy is a suckers game. Pushing the envelope is what makes you a winner.

Interestingly, both Obasanjo and Arrington consider themselves partisans of "disruptive innovation," and disruptive innovations are invariably resisted by consumers. Yet Obasanjo was convinced that the best kind of disruptive innovation is founded on a superior understanding of what it is consumers really want and need, rather than devotion to fashion. One concern that Obasanjo hints at, and that Tim O'Reilly referenced in a series of Tweets. First,

FB redesign also shows the danger of paying too much attention to competition, instead of thinking more deeply what you are about. It's hard

And then:

Further thought: FB following the path of Yahoo! Trying to be Google, Y! redefined itself from leader in own market to also-ran in Google's

And of course Arrington's conclusion suggests that he thinks something similar is on the horizon, i.e., that Facebook, which only recently surpassed MySpace in number of users, will soon find itself eclipsed.

A few months ago, I talked to a Facebook insider who was struck by how uncompetitive the social networking landscape seemed. Rather than panic about the emergence of new competitors, my interlocutor found the lack of real innovation depressing. We've seen iterative improvements, but the Facebook News Feed was arguably the last real breakthrough in this space. If we do see a real disruptive innovator take on Facebook in a serious way, what might it look like? I imagine a more open, noncommercial alternative that serves as a kludge of other products and services. But that wouldn't represent a breakthrough. Some have suggested that Facebook is too dry and database-like, and that a true Facebook-killer would enable a greater range of self-expression. I've always found Facebook's tight aesthetic discipline to be at the heart of its charm, but who knows?

The chatter over Facebook's redesign also raises interesting questions about the place of democracy in this kind of consumer technology. There is a great deal of enthusiasm over the notion of open-source design that incorporates power users. But my sense is that this wave is salient only to true niche products, where you have customers who are highly informed, highly engaged, and deeply invested, figuratively and literally. In short, the customers I'm talking about are affluent nerds. But Facebook reaches a much broader slice of the population, and its users really do feel ownership of the product. The rebellion over Facebook Beacon, spearheaded by members of MoveOn.org in an early civil-society campaign by a group that had been associated exclusively with political activism, suggested that many of us think of Facebook as a kind of public utility. Indeed, I often wonder if that is the next logical, if not desirable, step -- if not the nationalization of Facebook, perhaps the emergence of a public version that we'll all join to access critical information and resources.

This probably sounds absurd, and it is. But I also find the idea of a national ID card absurd, and the idea is far more popular than it should be.

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Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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