You need to use social services to understand them

I don’t know if Malcolm Gladwell is right when he claims “the revolution will not be tweeted,” but I can say with certainty that the Twitter he describes is not the Twitter I know. Gladwell’s central argument is that Twitter creates weak ties but social movements require strong ties. I’ve made more strong ties through Twitter (and blogging) than I have through any communications medium I’ve ever used before. The relationships start off weak – a retweet, @ reply, or blog comment – but often strengthen through further discussions and eventually become new friendships and business relationships.

I can see why Gladwell gets this wrong – he doesn’t seem to really use Twitter (he does blog occasionally). I barely tweeted or blogged for a long time too. I read blogs basically since their advent, but social services are fundamentally participatory: reading blogs/tweets is to social services as watching TV is to a real life conversations. I finally relented at the insistence of Caterina, who had the foresight to insist that everyone at Hunch blog, tweet, contribute to open source projects, etc. I now get some of my best ideas from responses to tweets and blog posts, and have developed dozens of strong relationships through the experience.

I made some jokes on Twitter the past few days about Kleiner Perkins’ new social fund.  These were meant to be lighthearted: I only know one person at KP and from everything I’ve seen they seem to be smart, friendly people. But underneath the jokes lies a real issue: the partners there don’t seem to really participate in social services (something they only underscored by announcing their new fund at a press conference that targeted traditional media outlets).

I’d love to engage in a debate with smart people like Gladwell about the impact of the social web on culture, politics, activism and so on. I also think it’s great to see savvy investors like KP allocate significant resources to the next wave of social web innovation. But it’s hard for me to take them seriously when they don’t seem to take their subject matter seriously.

Web services should be both federated and extensible

One of the most important developments of the web 2.0 era is the proliferation of full featured, bidirectional APIs.  APIs provide a way to “federate” web services from a single website to a distributed network of 3rd party sites. Another important web 2.0 development is the proliferation of web Apps (e.g. Facebook Apps). Apps provide a way to make websites “extensible.”

The next step in this evolution is to create web services that are both federated (APIs) and extensible (Apps).

In my ideal world, the social graph would not be controlled by a private company. That said, Facebook, to its credit, has aggressively promoted a fairly open API through Facebook Connect. Facebook has also been a leader in promoting Apps. For Facebook, creating extensible, federated services would mean providing a framework for Facebook Connect Apps – apps that extend Facebook functionality but reside on non-Facebook.com websites.

Consider the following scenario.  Imagine that in the future a geolocation data/algorithm provider like SimpleGeo takes Facebook Places check-in data and, using algorithms and non-Facebook data, produces new data sets, for example: map directions, venue recommendations, and location-based coupons. The combination of Facebook’s data (social graph and check-ins) and SimpleGeo data/algorithms would create much more advanced feature possibilities than either service acting alone.

With today’s APIs, if, say, Gowalla wanted to integrate Facebook plus SimpleGeo into their app*, they would basically have 3 choices:

1) Embed Facebook widgets in Gowalla.  These are simple iframes (effectively separate little websites) that don’t interact with SimpleGeo.  Gowalla would just have to sit and wait and hope that Facebook decided to bake in SimpleGeo-like functionality.

2) Pre-import SimpleGeo data. This significantly limits the size and dynamism of the SimpleGeo data sets and doesn’t incorporate SimpleGeo algorithms, thus severely limiting functionality.

3) Host an instance of SimpleGeo’s servers internally.  This requires heavy technical integration, undermining the main benefit of APIs.

In a world of extensible APIs (or “API Apps”), Gowalla could instead send Facebook data back to SimpleGeo.  The data flow would look something like this:

(Note how there are three parties involved – @peretti calls this a “data threesome”). This configuration is much simpler to integrate – and potentially much more powerful and dynamic – than the other configurations listed above.  You could implement this today, but it would create user experience challenges.  For example, Gowalla would be sending Facebook data to a 3rd party (step 3), which might (depending on the data sent) require explicit user opt-in. Things become more onerous if SimpleGeo wanted to share its own user data with Gowalla. That would require an additional oAuth to SimpleGeo (authorizing step 4).

Allowing websites to be federated and extensible will open up a whole new wave of innovation.  Ideally some spec like oAuth could include the multiple authorizations in a single authorization screen.  Facebook could also do this by allowing 3rd parties to be part of the Facebook Connect authorization process.  Inasmuch as Facebook’s seems to be trying to embed their social graph as deeply as possible into the core experiences of other websites, allowing extensible APIs would seem to be a smart move.

* I have no connection to any of these companies (Facebook, Gowalla, SimpleGeo) and have no knowledge of their product plans beyond their public websites.  I am imagining functionality that Gowalla and SimpleGeo might include someday but for all I know they have no interest in these features – I just picked them somewhat arbitrarily as examples.

Graphs

It has become customary to use “graph” to refer to the underlying data structures at social networks like Facebook. (Computer scientists call the study of graphs “network theory,” but on the web the word “network” is used to refer to the websites themselves).

A graph consists of a set of nodes connected by edges. The original internet graph is the web itself, where webpages are nodes and links are edges. In social graphs, the nodes are people and the edges friendship. Edges are what mathematicians call relations. Two important properties that relations can either have or not have are symmetry (if A ~ B then B ~ A) and transitivity (if A ~ B and B ~ C then A ~ C).

Facebook’s social graph is symmetric (if I am friends with you then you are friends with me) but not transitive (I can be friends with you without being friends with your friend).  You could say friendship is probabilistically transitive in the sense that I am more likely to like someone who is a friend’s friend then I am a user chosen at random. This is basis of Facebook’s friend recommendations.

Twitter’s graph is probably best thought of as an interest graph. One of Twitter’s central innovations was to discard symmetry: you can follow someone without them following you. This allowed Twitter to evolve into an extremely useful publishing platform, replacing RSS for many people. The Twitter graph isn’t transitive but one of its most powerful uses is retweeting, which gives the Twitter graph what might be called curated transitivity.

Graphs can be implicitly or explicitly created by users. Facebook and Twitter’s graphs were explicitly created by users (although Twitter’s Suggested User List made much of the graph de facto implicit). Google Buzz attempted to create a social graph implicitly from users’ emailing patterns, which didn’t seem to work very well.

Over the next few years we’ll see the rising importance of other types of graphs. Some examples:

Taste: At Hunch we’ve created what we call the taste graph. We created this implicitly from questions answered by users and other data sources. Our thesis is that for many activities – for example deciding what movie to see or blouse to buy – it’s more useful to have the neighbors on your graph be people with similar tastes versus people who are your friends.

Financial Trust: Social payment startups like Square and Venmo are creating financial graphs – the nodes are people and institutions and the relations are financial trust. These graphs are useful for preventing fraud, streamlining transactions, and lowering the barrier to accepting non-cash payments.

Endorsement: An endorsement graph is one in which people endorse institutions, products, services or other people for a particular skill or activity. LinkedIn created a successful professional graph and a less successful endorsement graph. Facebook seems to be trying to layer an endorsement graph on its social graph with its Like feature. A general endorsement graph could be useful for purchasing decisions and hence highly monetizable.

Local: Location-based startups like Foursquare let users create social graphs (which might evolve into better social graphs than what Facebook has since users seem to be more selective friending people in local apps). But probably more interesting are the people and venue graphs created by the check-in patterns. These local graphs could be useful for, among other things, recommendations, coupons, and advertising.

Besides creating graphs, Facebook and Twitter (via Facebook Connect and OAuth) created identity systems that are extremely useful for the creation of 3rd party graphs. I expect we’ll look back on the next few years as the golden age of graph innovation.

The tradeoff between open and closed

When having the “open vs closed” debate regarding a technology platform, a number of distinctions need to be made. First, what exactly is meant by “open.” Here’s a great chart from a paper by Harvard professor Tom Eisenmann (et al).:

(Eisenmann acknlowledges the iPhone isn’t fully open to the end user – in the US you need to use AT&T, etc.  I would argue the iPhone is semi-open to the app developer and mobile app development was effectively closed prior to the iPhone. But the main point here is that platforms can be open & closed in many different ways, at different levels, etc.)

The next important distinction is whose interest you are considering when asking what and when to open or close things.  I think there are at least 3 interesting perspectives:

The company: Lots of people have written about this topic (Clay Christensen, Joel Spolsky, more Eisenmann here).   In a nutshell, there are times when a company, acting solely in its self-interest, should close things and other times they should open things.  As a rule of thumb, a company should close their core assets and open/commoditize complementary assets. Google’s search engine is their core asset and therefore Google should want to keep it closed, whereas the operating system is a complement that they should commoditize (my full analysis of what Google should want to own vs commoditize is here). Facebook’s social graph is their core asset so it’s optimal to close it and not interoperate with other graphs, whereas marking up web pages to be more social-network friendly (open graph protocol) is complementary hence optimal for FB to open.  (With respect to social graphs interoperating (e.g. Open Social), it’s generally in the interest of smaller graphs to interoperate and larger ones not to – the same is true of IM networks).  Note that I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with Google and Facebook or any other company keeping closed or trying to open things according to their own best interests.

The industry: When I say “what is good for the industry” I mean what ultimately creates the most aggregate industry-wide shareholder value.  I assume (hope?) this also yields the maximum innovation.  As an active tech entrepreneur and investor I think my personal interests and the tech industry’s interests are mostly aligned (hence you could argue I’m talking my book).  Unfortunately it’s much easier to study open vs. closed strategies at the level of the firm than at the level of an industry, because there are far more “split test” cases to study.  What would the world be like if email (SMTP) were controlled by a single company?  I would tend to think a far less innovative and wealthy one. There are a number of multibillion dollar industries built on email: email clients, webmail systems, email marketing, anti-spam, etc.  The downside of openness is that it’s very hard to upgrade SMTP since you need to get so many parties to agree and coordinate.  So, for example, it has taken forever to add basic anti-spam authentication features to SMTP.  Twitter on the other hand can unilaterally add useful new things like their recent annotations feature.

Here’s what Professor Eisenmann said when I asked him to summarize the state of economic thinking on the topic:

With respect to your question about the impact of open vs closed on the economy, the hard-core economists cited in my book chapter have a lot to say, but it all boils down to “it depends.” Closed platform provides more incentive for innovation because platform owner can collect and redistribute more rent and can ensure that there’s a manageable level of competition in any given application category. Open platform harnesses strong network effects, attracting more application developers, and  thus stimulates lots of competition. There’s some interesting recent work that suggests that markets may evolve in directions that favor the presence of one strong closed player plus one strong open player (consider: Windows + Linux; iPhone + Android). In this scenario, society/economy gets best of both approaches.

Society:  I tend to think what is good for the tech industry is generally good for society.  But others certainly have different views.  Advocates of openness are often accused of being socialist hippies.  Maybe some are.  I am not.  I care about the tech industry.  I think it’s reasonable to question whether moves by large industry players are good or bad for the industry.  Unfortunately most of the debate I’ve seen so far seems driven by ideology and name calling.

Twitter and third-party Twitter developers

I can’t remember the last time the tech world was so interesting. First, innovation is at an all time high.  Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter and even Microsoft (in the non-monopoly divisions) are making truly exciting products. Second, since the battles are between platforms, the strategic issues are complex, involving complementary network effects.

Twitter’s moves this week were particular interesting.  A lot of third-party developers were unhappy. I think this is mainly a result of Twitter having sent mixed signals over the past few years. Twitter’s move into complementary areas was entirely predictable – it happens with every platform provider. The real problem is that somehow Twitter had convinced the world they were going to “let a thousand flowers bloom” – as if they were a non-profit out to save the world, or that they would invent some fantastic new business model that didn’t encroach on third-party developers. This week Twitter finally started acting like what it is: a well-financed company run by smart capitalists.

This mixed signaling has been exacerbated by the fact that Twitter has yet to figure out a business model (they sold data to Microsoft & Google but this is likely just one-time R&D purchases). Maybe Twitter thinks they know what their business model is and maybe they’ll even announce it soon. But whatever they think or announce will only truly be their business model when and if it delivers on their multi-billion dollar aspirations. It will likely be at least a year or two before that happens.

Normally, when third parties try to predict whether their products will be subsumed by a platform, the question boils down to whether their products will be strategic to the platform. When the platform has an established business model, this analysis is fairly straightforward (for example, here is my strategic analysis of Google’s platform).  If you make games for the iPhone, you are pretty certain Apple will take their 30% cut and leave you alone. Similarly, if you are a content website relying on SEO and Google Adsense you can be pretty confident Google will leave you alone. Until Twitter has a successful business model, they can’t have a consistent strategy and third parties should expect erratic behavior and even complete and sudden shifts in strategy.

So what might Twitter’s business model eventually be?  I expect that Twitter search will monetize poorly because most searches on Twitter don’t have purchasing intent.  Twitter’s move into mobile clients and hints about a more engaging website suggest they may be trying to mimic Facebook’s display ad model. (Facebook’s ad growth is being driven largely by companies like Zynga who are in turn monetizing users with social games and virtual goods.  Hence it’s no surprise that a Twitter investor is suggesting that developers create social games instead of “filling holes” with URL shorteners etc.) Facebook’s model depends on owning “eyeballs,” which is entirely contradictory to the pure API model Twitter has promoted thus far.  So if Twitter continues in this direction expect a lot of angst among third-party developers.

Hopefully Twitter “fills holes” through acquisitions instead of internal development. Twitter was a hugely clever invention and has grown its user base at a staggering rate, but on the product development front has been underwhelming.  Buying Tweetie seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement of this weakness and an attempt to rectify it. Acquisitions also have the benefit of sending a positive signal to developers since least some of them are embraced and not just replaced.

What’s Facebook doing during all of this?  Last year, Facebook seemed to be frantically copying Twitter – defaulting a lot of information to public, creating a canonical namespace, etc. Now that Twitter seems to be mimicing Facebook, Facebook’s best move is probably just to sit back and watch the Twitter ecosystem fight amongst itself.  As Facebooker Ivan Kirigin tweeted yesterday: “I suppose when your competition is making huge mistakes, you should just stfu.”

Disclosure: As with everything I write, I have a ton of conflicts of interest, some of which are listed here.