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Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie

By - October 27, 2011

I recently joined Facebook. Have you heard of it?

I know, I know, that sounds crazy, given that I’m “an Internet guy.”  If you search for me on Google, say “John Battelle Facebook,” you see that I am already there, and that I have nearly 5000 “friends.” (The interplay between Google search and Facebook is worthy of an entire treatise, I’ll leave that for later). You’ll see I also have a fan page, which has about 5400 “fans” – I think that’s the terminology, though now I think Facebook has turned those fans to “Likes.”

But as many of you know from reading my past posts on the subject, I’ve been essentially “Facebook bankrupt” for years. The service has never been of much value to me, in the main because I made an early and fatal decision to accept any and all folks who asked to be my friend. (For details on that, see this post: I Blew It On Facebook.)

So this week, as both research for my next book and because I’ve been meaning to do it for more than two years, I re-joined Facebook under a slightly different name. I created a new account from scratch, and I promised myself I’d really curate this one so that it’d be meaningful to me personally.

It’s not turning out to be easy.

I’m sure this process will yield more posts, so consider this the first chapter. What I’ve experienced so far, however, only strengthens my belief that Facebook hasn’t even crawled out of the sea when it comes to understanding the nuances of how people communicate with each other. Sure, it’s an extraordinary service and platform, etc. etc. And I know and respect a ton of people who work there. But it’s a testament to how utterly thirsty we are to connect that Facebook, in five short years, has captured the attention of nearly everyone in the online world.

Because, let’s face it. The initial experience with Facebook is pretty bad, from a social point of view.

Here’s why I feel that way.

First is what I’ll call The Guilt of Not Connecting. When you sign up for the first time, Facebook bludgeons you relentlessly to connect to others. It’s beyond irritating – a newcomer to the system (like me) gets constant reminders to find friends before you even get a page going. And once you do, it continues, like an irritating beep in the background – all over your page. “People you may know” stare out at you on the right side of my page, forlorn, as if to ask “How could you NOT want to be my friend?!” Large ads at the top of my page, replete with beckoning profile pics, ask “Are They Your Friends Too?”

And you know what? These are certainly people I know. But being forced to chose if you care enough about them to add them as friends is an intrusion at this early point. I’m just figuring this thing out, Facebook. There’s gotta be more to it than just adding friends, right? Right?!

The second thing I’ve noticed that feels broken is The Forced Rudeness. When I set up my page, I did add a few friends – mostly family members. I added my wife, my kids (the ones who are on the service), and my Dad, who recently joined. Come to think of it, I think I started this whole process because my Dad joined and tried to “friend” my old account, the bankrupt one. I knew if I accepted his request, his voice would be lost in the cacophony that was my old identity.

I also searched for a few folks who came to mind – really close and true pals of mine. All in all, I think I sent out about ten “friend requests” under my new name (which is pretty much the same as my old name, I just added my middle initial). I’m pleased to report that everyone accepted my request pretty much on day one, which I kind of expected (I would have grounded my daughter if she refused, after all). But as soon as the first few folks added me as a friend, the Facebook friend machine went into overdrive, and all of a sudden, I began to get new friend requests. From people I know. But…not that well.

And here’s where Facebook utterly falls down. Because while I do know these people, and I even like them, I may not want to connect with them right now. I have my reasons as to why, and I’d sure like to explain myself to these folks.

But Facebook doesn’t really enable me to do this. In the email notification, I can’t even say no. It’s either “Confirm” or “See All Requests”, which forces me back to Facebook to manage my next steps. Since I don’t want to connect, I pick the second choice. On the site, I am given the choice of either accepting, or pushing a button that says “not now” or somesuch. I have *no idea* what that rejected friend on the other end of this transaction is told once I hit “not now.” And that’s a big problem – is the person notified that I’ve said no? How? If not, I’d like to know that – and ideally, before I see them in real life. These kind of nuanced signals are pretty much table stakes in a “real” relationship. But on Facebook, you get black or white. And that’s just not good enough.

Unlike with a real email request from a real person (not the service), or a phone call, or a face to face conversation,  there’s no simple way to respond to the friend request with a short note like “Hi (name) – Thanks for reaching out to connect with me. I’m restarting a new Facebook account, and for now, I’m limiting it to family and a very small group of really close pals. As I figure out how to navigate the service, I’ll be sure to add you. For now, I want to make sure I don’t overshare!”

Now, my messaging would change depending on the recipient. That one above might be for a business colleague who found me through my close friendship with someone who also happens to be in my industry. But I’d modify my message for the mother of my son’s high school pal. This is a person I see at school functions from time to time but who, to be utterly honest, isn’t someone with whom I’d otherwise spend much time (or share personal experiences with via an online platform). I’d wager she feels the same way about me (but I don’t know! It’d be nice if Facebook allowed her to explain why she’s friending me, but … it doesn’t!) We like each other, we’re cordial when we see each other, but why is Facebook forcing me to be rude to her by telling her “not now” (if, in fact, she’s even told – which I don’t know!).

This is going to make for a pretty awkward soccer party next month, I can tell you that.

Because, really, that’s what it feels like should I decide not to accept her request. It’s rude. So I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that Facebook seems to be counting on this fact to drive connections. And you know what? That’s a house of cards. It insures a lack of truly honest social instrumentation when it comes to building your “social graph,” and down the line, I’m going to predict that will come back to haunt Facebook, if it hasn’t already.

Now, I know many of you are snickering at this post, because most of these issues have been raised and settled, so to speak, over the past few years. Heck, I’ve even made similar points on this site from time to time. But through the fresh eyes of my recent experience, I sense something far deeper is at work. Most folks only take one run at crafting their digital identity on Facebook. I’d reckon most of us don’t want to spend hours going back to rejigger our “graph” once it’s created. That’d be way too much work.

But that graph is based on a extremely rudimentary set of social rules that break down over time, and will fail to reflect our true selves as we extend our identity online. And as Facebook moves to leverage that identity through the Open Graph to nearly every action we take online, I can’t help but think the brittleness of this system will be exposed. It then becomes a race – between Facebook’s ability to reverse engineer more nuanced social interaction back into its platform (and it is, I can see attempts in the interface already), and some new startup (or, OK, maybe Google) that allows us to do the same with far less work.

Of course, Facebook has what amounts to a “moat” around social platforms due to its network effects – as Sean Parker pointed out in our conversation at Web 2 last week. It’s really hard to leave, because you want to bring your “real friends” with you, and asking them to step over to a new service is too much of an imposition. If they leave, they will want to bring their friends, and now you have a real shampoo problem on your hands.

But I predict that we’re racing headlong into a cultural moment when we realize we need more control and nuance in our lives when it comes to what Facebook currently represents for us (if you think this isn’t related to #occupywallstreet, it is, in a really interesting way. That post is coming). Facebook works really well for folks who are just beginning to define who they are in the world, like my kids, or college kids just learning what it means to be out on their own. But those kids ultimately grow up, and become deeply refined social creatures. The question is, can Facebook?

I’m not sure. The DNA and core driving principles of the company have been set. The entire system seems driven by the maxim “only connect.” I wonder how our culture will interpret the first word of that phrase, and whether Facebook, as it’s set up today, has the capacity to redefine it.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m pushing two thousand words. Best to press “publish,” and hear from you.

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Who Am I, According to Google Ads? Who Am I, According to the Web? Who Do I Want to Be?

By - August 03, 2011

Over on Hacker News, I noticed this headline: See what Google knows about you. Now that’s a pretty compelling promise, so I clicked. It took me to this page:

Goog Ad pref main.png

Ah, the Google ad preferences page. It’s been a while since I’ve visited this place. It gives you a limited but nonetheless interesting overview of the various categories and demographic information Google believes reflect your interests (and in a way, your identity, or “who you are” in the eyes of an advertising client). This is all based on a cookie Google places on your browser.

I was hoping for more – because Google has a lot more information about us than just our advertising preferences (think of how you use Google apps like Docs, or Gmail, or Google+, or Search, or….). But it’s an interesting start. I certainly hope that someday soon, Google will pull of this in one place, and let us edit/export/correct/leverage it. I sense probably it will. If it does, expect some pretty big shifts in how our culture understands identity to take place. But more on that later.

Anyway, I thought it’d be interesting to see who and what Google thought I was. I use three browsers primarily, and I use them in different ways. My main browser has been Apple’s Safari, but lately it’s become slow and a bit of a pain to use. I have my suspicions as to why (iWorld, anyone?), but it’s led me to a gradual move over to Google Chrome, which is way faster and feature rich. I’d say over the past few months, I’ve used Safari about 60% of the time, and Chrome about 30% of the time. The other 10%? I use Firefox. Why? Well, that’s the browser I use when I want anonymity. I have it set to “do not record my history” and I delete cookies on it from time to time. For this reason, it’s not very useful, but I do like having a “clean” browser to try out new services without the baggage of those services sniffing out my past identity in some way. Increasingly, I think this ability will become second nature to us all – after all, we are not the same person everywhere we are in the physical world, and our identity is something we want to manage and control ourselves (for more on that, read my piece Identity and The Independent Web). We just haven’t come to this realization culturally. We will.

There’s currently a pretty hotly contested identity debate in the ourosborosphere, and I find myself aligning with the Freds and Anils of the world. I’m glad this debate is happening, but the real shift will come from the bottom up, as more and more people realize they want to more carefully instrument “who” they are online, and start to realize the implications of not paying attention to this. And entrepreneurs will see opportunities to catch this coming wave, as the time comes for services that help us manage all this identity data in a way that feels natural and appropriate. Sure, there have already been attempts, but they came before our society was ready. It soon will be.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to see who Google thinks I am in the three browsers I use. In Safari, where I have the longest history, here’s my profile:

my safari google data.png

I find it interesting to note that Google gets my age wrong (I’ve been 45 for nearly a year), and that it thinks I am so into Law & Government, but that’s probably because I read so much policy stuff for my book, my work with FM and the IAB, and my writing here. Otherwise, it’s a pretty decent picture of me, though it misses a lot as well. I love that I can add categories – I am tempted to do just that and see if the ads change noticeably, but I don’t like that I can’t correct my identity information (for example, tell Google how old I really am). In short, this is a great start, but it’s pretty poorly instrumented. I’d be very interested in how it changes if and when I really start using Google+ (I am on it, but not really active. This is typical of me with new services.)

Now, let’s take a look at my Google Chrome “identity” as it relates to Google Ads:

my chrome data Google.png

Not much there. Odd, given I’ve used it a lot. Seems either Google is holding some info back, or is pretty slow to gather data on me in Chrome. I find that hard to believe, but there you have it. It’s not like I only use Chrome to look for books or read long articles, though I think I have used it for my limited interaction with Google+, because I figured it’d work best in a Google browswer. Hmmm.

Now, on to Firefox, which as you recall is the one I keep “clean,” or, put another way, my identity is “anonymous.”

Firefox data Google.png

Just as I would have expected it.

I’ll be watching for more dashboards like this one to pop up over the coming years, and I expect more tools will help us manage them – across non-federated services like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s going to be a very interesting evolution.

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow

By - April 28, 2011

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(NB: Much has been written and said on this topic, and this post is in no way complete. We’ll be exploring this issue and many others related to data at the Web 2 Summit this Fall).

Perhaps the largest problem blocking our industry today is the retardation of consumer-driven data sharing. We’re all familiar with the three-year standoff between Google and Facebook over crawling and social graph data. Given the rise of valuable mobile data streams (and subsequent and rather blinkered hand wringing about samesaid) this issue is getting far worse.

Every major (and even every minor) player realizes that “data is the next Intel inside,” and has, for the most part, taken a hoarder’s approach to the stuff. Apple, for example, ain’t letting data out of the iUniverse to third parties except in very limited circumstances. Same for Facebook and even Google, which has made hay claiming its open philosophy over the years.

And this trend is not limited to the large players. I currently have 302 photos locked up in a service called Twitpic. I’d very much like to export them into my iPhoto library, so I can mange them as part of the rest of my photo library. But the only way to do that is to “right click” on each and every one of those photos, copying them to my desktop. That’s several hours of work that most folks simply won’t do. When an enterprising coder wrote an automated script that exported photos from Twitpic to another service called Posterous, Twitpic blocked the program. That was about the time I stopped using Twitpic.

This trend, I predict, will become the petard upon which our industry will hoist itself over the next couple of years. Very well intentioned projects like DataPortability.org and others are working on this issue, but it’s largely hidden from public view and debate, because that debate has been framed as “Us versus Them”, where the “Them” are presumably evil and profit-driven companies who want to leverage our data for their own gain. (See the entire WSJ series as exhibit A in this debate).

So far, the approach companies seem to be taking boils down to this: The data we have is too valuable to let our customers understand it, manage it, and ultimately, do whatever they want with it. We’ll say soothing things, and we’ll let our users take some actions with their data – Facebook will let you authenticate using Facebook Connect on third party sites, for example – but we won’t let you take the data you’ve created on our services, put it in your own pocket (so to speak), and hand it over to other services and platforms such that those platforms can add value to your daily life.

In other words, if information is truly currency in today’s economy, so far the coins in your pocket are all from different countries, and there’s no global exchange mechanism. They’re only worth something in the nation in which they’ve been minted.

For example, you can’t pass your Facebook identity to a third party site so as to enable that site to serve you a better advertising experience. While Facebook insists that your Facebook data is, in fact, *yours*, it turns out it’s not yours if you want to use it to help a third party make money. In other words, it’s not really yours if it has true value to a third party. Which, in essence, means it’s only yours if it’s not valuable to anyone but you. But value is most often a social concept – something has value because a third person values it.

If the true value of the economy we are building is to be unlocked, that value has to flow unchecked from one party to another. Were this to be true, differentiation of services would migrate to a higher level of the stack, so to speak. Services would be considered valuable for what they did with data given to them by consumers, rather than by their ability to lock consumer’s data into their proprietary platform. New models would emerge to reward those services for adding that value, and those models would be both more robust, and far larger than the “one ring to rule them all” model currently at play.

As things stand today, our industry’s practices are gaining the attention of dead-serious regulators, spurred to potentially early lock down of how data is used based on an incomplete understanding of how value will flow through future economic models yet to be invented. (More on this in another post).

A generation from now our industry’s approach to data collection and control will seem outdated and laughable. The most valuable digital services and companies will be rewarded for what they do with openly shareable data, not by how much data they hoard and control.

Now, I live in the real world, and I understand why companies are doing what they are doing at the moment. Facebook doesn’t want third party services creating advertising networks that leverage Facebook’s social graph – that’s clearly on Facebook’s roadmap to create in the coming year or so (Twitter has taken essentially the same approach). But if you are a publisher (and caveat, I am), I want the right to interpret a data token handed to me by my reader in any way I chose. If my interpretation is poor, that reader will leave. If it adds value, the reader stays, perhaps for a bit longer, and value is created for all. If that token comes from Facebook, Facebook also gets value.

Imagine, for example, if back in the early search days, Google decided to hoard search refer data – the information that tells a site what the search term was which led a visitor to click on a particular URL. Think of how that would have retarded the web’s growth over the past decade.

Scores of new services are emerging that hope to enable a consumer-driven ecosystem of data. Let’s not lock down data early. Let’s trust that what we’re best at doing is adding value, not hoarding it.   

More on this in my 2007 post The Data Bill of Rights, not to be confused with the “Commercial Data Privacy Bill of Rights,” introduced last week. While well intentioned, this bill does not consider data ownership and portability.

The Obama Valley Dinner: POTUS Got the Seating Chart Wrong

By - March 18, 2011

This one has bugged me for some time, but I’ve not had the time to write it. Now that I’m on a plane for the next four hours, and it has Wifi, I can finally get around to bitching out loud about the photo below:

obama valley dinner.png

Now this photo was widely discussed when it was released by the White House, a few weeks ago. Folks speculated on who the people were that we couldn’t see (the woman with her back to us? The guy next to Zuckerberg?!), and while I may know who those folks are, that’s not my point.

Although my point *is* about the seating chart.

Because if you don’t think a team of protocol and political experts didn’t plan out who sat where in relation to POTUS, well, you’re just not very familiar with how Washington DC does dinner parties. Who sits where, and why, is more than discussed. It’s debated, it’s determined, and it sends a clear message to all concerned. And when a photo like this is released by the White House, it declares to the public a definitive and particular pecking order.

So, with that in mind, is it any surprise that the two leaders who received the privilege of sitting next to President Obama were Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg?

After all, they do rank very high in the Valley – probably in the top three, if not top two, though Eric Schmidt might take issue with that (and Lord knows Larry Ellison will too, but come on).

But what matters here is not who the Valley thinks are the most important folks in the realm. What matters is what Washington, and in particular the White House, believes, and in particular what message, if any, it wants to send through a photo like this.

And I am, quite frankly, disappointed with the seating chart.

Why? Well, because this administration is supposedly all about openness. It’s got the Open Government Initiative, after all, with a conference focusing on samesaid this very week. At the top of its Valley policy agenda is privacy, again with a focus on transparency. Not to mention how the adminsitration has stood up time and again for the open Internet in foreign policy matters.

So why are the CEOs of the two companies with the most closed and controlling data ecosystems – Facebook and Apple – sitting right next to the President?

I’d argue the White House missed an opportunity to send a subtle message – one favoring open platforms, open data exchange, and transparency about data use. Had those been factored into the seating chart, I’d wager that Schmidt and Costolo would have been sitting next to Obama, and Zuckerberg and Jobs would have languished a bit nearer toward the ends of the table. Sure, neither Twitter nor Google are innocent when it comes to how they disclose use of data, but both are clear champions of openness in computing ecosystems, as well as active agents of change in foreign policy issues. I mean, check out this tweet from Dick, and this post from Google, just for starters. And that’s just China….

Just thinking out loud here. End of rant.

Do We Trust The Government With The Internet?

By - February 18, 2011

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As you all know each day I summarize links I find worth reading, toss in a few lines of offhand commentary, and send it out as “Signal.” So far a few thousand folks have subscribed to it, and while it’s not exactly Pulitzer material, it’s fun to do and it is a nice way of forcing myself to not just read the news, but think about it as well.

Last night, quite late it turns out (I had a dinner), I once again sat down to do Signal. The first piece I came across (from the WSJ) sparked something of a rant in me. I’m going to re-post it here, for this audience, to see if it sparks any kind of response.

The backstory is simple: The Journal article, which covered a Congressional hearing on the FCC’s approach to regulating the Internet, opened with this: “In a contentious hearing, House Republicans attacked new regulations for broadband Internet lines and criticized the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for adopting them.”

I read on – I’ve been interested in this issue for years, as many readers know. This particular hearing centered on the concept of net neutrality, which I support, though your mileage on the definition of that term may vary. (More on that here).

In any case, the third paragraph of the article opens with a quote from Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was this quote that sparked my Signal mini-rant. Here is is, in full, with a bit more formatting added:

”Why would you put the government in charge of the Internet?” asks the Republican leader.

Well that certainly begs a pretty big-picture question, don’t it?! Perhaps because we trust in both the Internet and our government? Because that government is supposedly under the “rule of the people” in a “democratic system”? I mean, why the hell have a government if we don’t actually believe in what it embodies?

Do we not believe that the Internet is a resource fundamental to freedom, innovation, and our shared humanity (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran…)? I think we can all agree to that. So in what system should we entrust the Internet? I’d argue it should be within our best expression of shared and collective will – so far, that’s what we call democracy, no? Sure, it’s messy, but I guess the question then becomes, can we trust our government, messy as it is? Or is it the enemy?

Is unfettered capitalism a better approach? I’d certainly prefer the Internet be governed by a system in which we can vote the bastards out should they mess it up. If they regulate to the point where innovation and freedom suffer, then vote them out. If they leave it unregulated to the point where choice is stifled and we pay more each year for less, vote them out. If instead we opt for a total free-market approach, OK cool, I hope it works out. But if companies have the ability to lock in access, content, services, and innovation, well, history teaches us that a few of them will certainly work hard to do just that.

And if they win? Well, by that time, it might be hard to vote ‘em out. A good debate to have, no doubt.

What do you guys think?

Apple Shows Its Colors?

By - February 01, 2011

Today news comes (from the NYT) that Apple has shifted its approach to content sales, no longer allowing content owners to directly sell access to their own content via apps on iTunes.

This is ridiculous, and if it proves out, spells the end of the media’s love affair with Apple and its platform. Mark my words. Apple’s crossed a line here, and in a short time, it will retreat back. If it does not, it will only power competition where purveyors of fine content can exist without Apple’s universal platform tax. The folks at Google/Android must be doing cartwheels this morning.

Then again, it could be that there’s nothing to this, and it was a random act. The Times piece is sourced to Sony, who may have simply misinterpreted Apple’s current rules – that’s Venturebeat’s speculation. We’ll see.

Google Instant Isn't Opinion, Apparently?

By - December 13, 2010

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I was just reading this piece from Fast Company: Top Google Engineer: Google Instant Has No Brand Bias, and this quote struck me:

“What we do at Google and what we’ve done for years is to not inject any subjectivity into these algorithms,” says Amit Singhal, Google Fellow and head of the company’s search quality, ranking, and algorithm team. “We didn’t want to introduce any bias into the mathematical modeling–our modeling is predicting, given a letter, what’s the probability of completion.

Singhal is speaking about Google Instant, which has apparently accused of bias in its suggested search algorithm. I believe he’s speaking the truth – that when it comes to whatever is suggested, it’s pretty much all math, save a few human-coded exceptions around porn, etc.

But the problem Google has is that when it says one thing about one algorithm, it resonates around all others. This is the curse of PageRank – one ring to rule them all, at least in the minds of most consumers. And in that sense, it directly contradicts Google’s take on the “objectivity” of algorithms, as I discussed here. In short, it’s in Google’s interest to say algorithms are protected speech (opinions), and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Apparently, that doesn’t apply to Google Instant. Hmmm.

Google, China, Wikileaks: The Actual Cable

By - December 08, 2010

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When the Wikileaks story broke, I wrote a short piece chastising folks for blogging the assertion that one of the cables proves the Chinese government was behind the Google hacking which preceded Google’s pulling out of the country. The cable is based on single sources, who are anonymous and second-hand, and that doesn’t pass the journalistic sniff test.

My colleague Matt McAlister at the Guardian has sent me the link to the entire cable, and while I stand by my original take on the story, it sure is intriguing to read. In fact, the details I find most interesting are the interactions alleged between Baidu and the Chinese goverment.

From the cable:

….

Another contact claimed a top PRC leader was actively working with Google competitor Baidu against Google.

….

Google’s recent move presented a major dilemma (maodun) for the Chinese government, not because of the cyber-security aspect but because of Google’s direct challenge to China’s legal restrictions on Internet content. The immediate strategy, XXXXXXXXXXXX said, seemed to be to appeal to Chinese nationalism by accusing Google and the U.S. government of working together to force China to accept “Western values” and undermine China’s rule of law. The problem the censors were facing, however, was that Google’s demand to deliver uncensored search results was very difficult to spin as an attack on China, and the entire episode had made Google more interesting and attractive to Chinese Internet users. All of a sudden, XXXXXXXXXXXX continued, Baidu looked like a boring state-owned enterprise while Google “seems very attractive, like the forbidden fruit.”

….

XXXXXXXXXXXX noted the pronounced disconnect between views of U.S. parent companies and local subsidiaries. PRC-based company officials often downplayed the extent of PRC government interference in their operations for fear of consequences for their local markets. Our contact emphasized that Google and other U.S. companies in China were struggling with the stated Chinese goal of technology transfer for the purpose of excluding foreign competition. This consultant noted the Chinese were exploiting the global economic downturn to enact increasingly draconian product certification and government procurement regulations to force foreign-invested enterprises (FIEs) to transfer intellectual property and to carve away the market share of foreign companies.

Why Wouldn't Google Mirror Wikileaks?

By - December 07, 2010

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(image) Consider: Your mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” You thumbed your nose at Wall Street, and you proved them wrong. You’ve stood up to the entire media industry by purchasing YouTube and defending fair use in the face of extraordinary pressure. You’ve done the same with the political and economic giant that is China*. And you’re hanging the entirety of your defense against European monopoly charges on the premise of free speech.

So why not take a bold step, and stand with Wikileaks? The world’s largest Internet company taking a clear stand would be huge news, and it’d call the bloviating bluff of all the politicians acting out of fear of embarrassment, or worse. The Wikileaks story may well be, as pointed out by many, the most important and defining story of the Internet age.

It just might prove to be the smartest PR move Google ever made. (And it could, of course, prove to be the exact opposite). And it looks, so far, like rival Facebook is leaning toward supporting Wikileaks.

After all, tens of millions of Stieg Larsson readers can’t be wrong…and I’m guessing they all see the charges against Assange as driven by more than trumped up sex scandal or politically motivated condemnation. Honestly, Larsson himself could not have written a better potboiler than what’s unfolding before us.

Just thinking out loud. What do you think?

*(And hey, it turns out Wikileaks may have already done Google a solid when it comes to China…)

Google's "Opinion" Sparks Interesting Dialog On Tying of Services to Search

By - December 02, 2010

the search cover.pngYesterday’s post on Google having an algorithmic “opinion” about which reviews were negative or positive sparked a thoughtful response from Matt Cutts, Google’s point person on search quality, and for me raised a larger question about Google’s past, present, and future.

In his initial comment (which is *his* opinion, not Google’s, I am sure), Cutts remarked:

“…the “opinion” in that sentence refers to the fact our web search results are protected speech in the First Amendment sense. Court cases in the U.S. (search for SearchKing or Kinderstart) have ruled that Google’s search results are opinion. This particular situation serves to demonstrate that fact: Google decided to write an algorithm to tackle the issue reported in the New York Times. We chose which signals to incorporate and how to blend them. Ultimately, although the results that emerge from that process are algorithmic, I would absolutely defend that they’re also our opinion as well, not some mathematically objective truth.”

While Matt is simply conversing on a blog post, the point he makes is not just a legal nit, it’s a core defense of Google’s entire business model. In two key court cases, Google has prevailed with a first amendment defense. Matt reviews these in his second comment:

“SearchKing sued Google and the resulting court case ruled that Google’s actions were protected under the first amendment. Later, KinderStart sued Google. You would think that the SearchKing case would cover the issue, but part of KinderStart’s argument was that Google talked about the mathematical aspects of PageRank in our website documentation. KinderStart not only lost that lawsuit, but KinderStart’s lawyer was sanctioned for making claims he couldn’t back up… After the KinderStart lawsuit, we went through our website documentation. Even though Google won the case, we tried to clarify where possible that although we employ algorithms in our rankings, ultimately we consider our search results to be our opinion.”

The key point, however, is made a bit later, and it’s worth highlighting:

“(the) courts have agreed … that there’s no universally agreed-upon way to rank search results in response to a query. Therefore, web rankings (even if generated by an algorithm) are are an expression of that search engine’s particular philosophy.”

Matt reminded us that he’s made this point before, on Searchblog four years ago:

“When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way.”

Back then, Matt also took pains to point out that his words were his opinion, not Google’s.

So let me pivot from Matt’s opinion to mine. All of this is fraught, to my mind, with implications of the looming European investigation. The point of the European action, it seems to me, is to find a smoking gun that proves Google is using a “natural monopoly” in search to favor its own products over those of competitors.

Danny has pointed out the absurdity of such an investigation if the point is to prove Google favors its search results over the search results of competitors like Bing or others. But I think the case will turn on different products, or perhaps, a different definition of what constititues “search results.” The question isn’t whether Google should show compeitors standard search results, it’s whether Google favors its owned and operated services, such as those in local (Google Places instead of Foursquare, Facebook etc), commerce (Checkout instead of Paypal), video (YouTube instead of Hulu etc.), content (Google Finance instead of Yahoo Finance or others, Blogger instead of WordPress, its bookstore over others, etc.), applications (Google Apps instead of MS Office), and on and on.

That is a very tricky question. After all, aren’t those “search results” also? As I wrote eons ago in my book, this most certainly is a philosophical question. Back in 2005, I compared Yahoo’s approach to search with Google’s:

Yahoo makes no pretense of objectivity – it is clearly steering searchers toward its own editorial services, which it believes can satisfy the intent of the search. … Apparent in that sentiment lies a key distinction between Google and Yahoo. Yahoo is far more willing to have overt editorial and commercial agendas, and to let humans intervene in search results so as to create media that supports those agendas. Google, on the other hand, is repelled by the idea of becoming a content- or editorially-driven company. While both companies can ostensibly lay claim to the mission of “organizing the world’s information and making it accessible” (though only Google actually claims that line as its mission), they approach the task with vastly different stances. Google sees the problem as one that can be solved mainly through technology – clever algorithms and sheer computational horsepower will prevail. Humans enter the search picture only when algorithms fail – and only then grudgingly. But Yahoo has always viewed the problem as one where human beings, with all their biases and brilliance, are integral to the solution.

I then predicted some conflict in the future:

But expect some tension over the next few years, in particular with regard to content. In late 2004, for example, Google announced they would be incorporating millions of library texts into its index, but made no announcements about the role the company might play in selling those texts. A month later, Google launched a video search service, but again, stayed mum on if and how it might participate in the sale of television shows and movies over the Internet.

Besides the obvious – I bet Google wishes it had gotten into content sales back in 2004, given the subsequent rise of iTunes – there’s still a massive tension here, between search services that the world believes to be “objective” and Google’s desire to compete given how the market it is in is evolving.

Not to belabor this, but here’s more from my book on this issue, which feels pertinent given the issues Google now faces, both in Europe and in the US with major content providers:

… for Google to put itself into the position of media middle man is a perilous gambit – in particular given that its corporate DNA eschews the almighty dollar as an arbiter of which content might rise to the top of the heap for a particular search. Playing middle man means that in the context of someone looking for a movie, Google will determine the most relevant result for terms like “slapstick comedy” or “romantic musical” or “jackie chan film.” For music, it means Google will determine what comes first for “usher,” but it also means it will have to determine what should come first when someone is looking for “hip hop.”

Who gets to be first in such a system? Who gets the traffic, the business, the profits? How do you determine, of all the possibilities, who wins and who loses? In the physical world, the answer is clear: whoever pays the most gets the positioning, whether it’s on the supermarket shelf or the bin-end of a record store. ….But Google, more likely than not, will attempt to come up with a clever technological solution that attempts to determine the most “objective” answer for any given term, be it “romantic comedy” or “hip hop.” Perhaps the ranking will be based on some mix of PageRank, download statistics, and Lord knows what else, but one thing will be certain: Google will never tell anyone how they came to the results they serve up. Which creates something of a Catch-22 when it comes to monetization. Will Hollywood really be willing to trust Google to distribute and sell their content absent the commercial world’s true ranking methodology: cold, hard cash?

…Search drives commerce, and commerce drives search. The two ends are meeting, inexolerably, in the middle, and every major Internet player, from eBay to Microsoft, wants in. Google may be tops in search for now, but in time, being tops in search will certainly not be enough.

Clearly, as a new decade unfolds, search alone is not enough anymore, and my prediction that Google will protect itself with the shield of “objectivity” has been upended. But the question of how Google ties its massive lead in search to its new businesses in local, content, applications, and other major markets remains tricky, and at this point, quite unresolved.