Facebook, Google, and the Future of the Online 'Commons'

As part of digesting the meaning of the Era of the Facebook IPO, please check out an essay today by Dave Winer, which builds on one yesterday by John Battelle, which itself was a response to one the previous day by Keith Woolcock. All are worth reading, and all concern the way Facebook's rise is changing -- and distorting -- the overall shape of the internet.

In brief they argue:

 - Google's business success depended on a worldwide internet structure as open, untrammeled, and transparent as possible. Therefore most of what Google did for its own corporate interest also advanced those aims -- or at least did not impede them.

- Facebook's business success depends on an internet structure that is increasingly "gated" and segregated into proprietary realms. Therefore most of what Facebook has done is to induce maximum sharing of personal information within its propriety sphere, while erecting barriers to the flow of information from one realm to another.

- The shift of business advantage from the "public" to the "private" model means more than a different subset of people becoming zillionaires. It will also affect the fundamental structure of the Internet and its value to the 99.999% of us who are neither Google nor Facebook IPO-beneficiaries. Already its effects are being seen, as all these pieces argue, with Google's promotion of its "G+" and social-search features. Facebook's ascent leaves Google with no choice but to compete on those terms.

Or as Battelle puts it:

1. The "old" Internet is shrinking, and being replaced by walled gardens over which Google's crawlers can't climb. Sure, Google can crawl Facebook's "public pages," but those represent a tiny fraction of the "pages" on Facebook, and are not informed by the crucial signals of identity and relationship which give those pages meaning. Similarly, Google can crawl the "public pages" of Apple's iTunes store on the web, but all the value creation in the mobile iOS appworld is behind the walls of Fortress Apple. Google can't see that information, can't crawl it, and can't "make it universally available." Same for Amazon with its Kindle universe, Microsoft's Xbox and mobile worlds, and many others.

2. Google's business model depends on the web remaining open, and given #1 above, that model is imperiled.

It's not just a battle between companies. (And, for later discussion, Google's* challenge is managing three struggles-for-survival at the same time: against Facebook on the "social" side, against Amazon on the e-commerce side, and against Apple and others in the mobile market.) It's also a battle with important "externality" effects on the rest of us. For instance: Google's success has depended on people spending as much time within its online ecosystem as possible. Thus it had an incentive to offer, free, services like Google Earth, whose commercial predecessors charged subscribers thousands of dollars per year. Or Google Maps, which is expensive to maintain. Facebook's success mainly depends on having users share more and more of their personal information within the Facebook environment. Its business logic leads to fewer "public goods."

To wax geostrategic for a moment, this argument over the Internet "commons" is very much like debates through the post-World War II era about the conflict between relatively open and relatively closed political and economic systems. Ie, the more a closed or beggar-thy-neighbor regime prospers, the worse behavior it evokes -- for survival reasons -- from all other participants.

More on that later -- and, as soon as I can, more on how I have come to peace-of-mind about Google's new privacy settings. Hint if you want to do research on your own: sign in to Gmail or one of your other Google-related accounts (YouTube, Google docs, Blogger etc). Then, while signed in, go to google.com/dashboard. You will be interested in what you see, and the changes you can make. First, read these three pieces. Update: Andrew Keen today on CNN also worth reading.
* Routine for-the-record disclosure, which at some point I'll have given so often that I can dispense with it: I have no financial involvement (alas!) with any of these companies. But I have many friends, and now a family member, working at Google.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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