On Sunday night, Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network will be one of the two or three betting favorites for the year's best picture at the annual Academy Awards extravaganza in Hollywood. The film tells the (largely fictionalized) early story of Facebook, wrapped in the coming-of-age tale of founder Mark Zuckerberg and the compromises he chose to make on the road to creating what is fast becoming the privately-owned dial tone of social media. Yet that Graduate-meets-Silicon Valley story, fascinating as it is, may only be a prequel to a more significant epic - the role of Facebook in worldwide freedom movements and the real coming-of-age story that represents for our networked world.
I don't know if Sorkin plans a sequel, but surely the last three months in Facebook's brief history qualifies for a sweeping cinematic treatment. Pity David Lean no longer walks this mortal coil, because the follow-up would clearly channel Lawrence of Arabia more than The West Wing. If Facebook is to help lead in the modern world, and to move beyond its mere multi-billion-dollar valuation to grasp the social value Zuckerberg is always talking about, the lessons of Egypt and the revolts roiling the wider Arab world must not go unlearned.
My friend Micah Sifry has a must-read post up at techPresident that serves as a sort of challenge for Facebook and he nimbly puts his finger on the nub of that challenge: the investors' imperative to continue to grow the vast online service and reap ever greater revenue and profit rewards versus the more idealistic goal of building a vital social graph that encourages (and indeed, helps to guarantee) human freedoms, particuarly free speech. "While Facebook is a company built by young techies who care about openness and transparency," writes Sifry, "it is also struggling to expand into countries like China, which abhor those values."
This is a struggle that all nonprofits and NGOs - and the less formal movements beyond - must consider before investing their time, their networks, and their intellectual capital with Facebook and other social networks. While I cannot help but advise clients to "go to where to the people are" and therefore recommend a strong Facebook presence, I'm conscious of the fact that Facebook is a private enterprise, currently wired to make money and reward shareholders; and I think the ownership of data and relationships - the DNA of the social graph - is dangerously tilted towards ever-larger centrally-controlled private concerns that (despite great intentions) are non-democratic.
Sifry cites the example of the disappearance from the Facebook page of Cairo University professor Dr. Rasha Abdullah of a video showing the murder of an Egyptian protester by security forces. It mirrored Facebook's takedown of Wael Ghonim's iconic "We Are All Khalid Said" page last November - the page eventually credited with powering the January 25th revolt. "Young people using the site as a "democratic republic" need to know that their rights will be protected--including their privacy in settings where governments may not be so friendly to democratic conversations." And indeed, Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio's article in the Daily Beast shows how Facebook's "policy" toward human rights campaigns and democratic organizers is so much chewing gum and bailing wire; it took the the behind-the-scenes ad hoc intervention of a Facebook executive in Europe to keep Egypt's most important young activist on the site - and Ghonim has been effusive in his praise of Facebook as a brilliant organizing tool for young Egyptians. Giglio's piece showed the ambivalence at the company.
“Facebook has seemed deeply ambivalent about this idea that they would become a platform for revolutions,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. “And it makes sense that they would be deeply ambivalent.”
The former Facebook official says of the company: “There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”
It's understandable that Zuckerberg and Facebook face competing forces, and Zuckerberg has favored a more libertarian view towards his platform (he once griped about having to take down the pages of Holocaust deniers).
Yet clinging to an anodyne Terms of Service to bounce anything controversial seems - I dunno - so damned last year to me. The world is changing rapidly, and open social communications are leading the way, at least in part.
Those of us who reject so-called "hacktivism" displays of preening "civil disobedience" - you cannot legitimately support free speech by shutting down speech on the web by DDos attack, however much you disagree - are intellectually cornered, in a way. We need to root for the big semi-open platforms - Facebook, Google, Twitter - while wearing down the finish on our worry beads over their monied, private control. Yet it's almost as if, in the argument over social media and its role in revolution and resistance, Facebook argues against itself. Witness the lame spokesman-speak evident in the company's comment for a recent New York Times article on its reluctant role in Egypt:
“We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.”
Who wrote that, Malcolm Gladwell?
Compare that corporate vernacular mess to the enthusiasm of Wael Ghonim. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him, “Tunisia, then Egypt, what’s next?,” Ghonim replied succinctly “Ask Facebook.” He then went on to personally thank Mark Zuckerberg, and said he’d love to meet Facebook’s CEO. Clearly, Ghonim (who works for arch-competitor Google, ironically) was channeling the Mark Zuckerberg who, upon hitting 200 million registered users, placed Facebook at the center of social change: "Creating channels between people who want to work together toward change has always been one of the ways that social movements push the world forward and make it better."
[As an aside, I'm very much looking toward some deeper reporting and analysis on the role of networked activism, social media, citizen journalism, and street-level organizing in the Egyptian revolution. Luckily, my friend Al Giordano and his compadres from the Authentic Journalism school - which I wholeheartedly support - are headed to the Middle East to find out. In an excellent post this week, Giordano wrote: "The media, including that part which has been sympathetic and in solidarity with the Egyptian revolt, has proved so far completely incapable at the task of coldly and rationally documenting what exactly the young organizers, authentic journalists, bloggers and other change agents in Egypt did, under extremely difficult conditions, to end a thirty-year dictatorship in eighteen days. That’s where the story remains, largely unreported."]
The choices Zuckerberg and Facebook make now really do matter for the networked future. Last week, Rebecca MacKinnon wrote a well-considered assessment for Foreign Policy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's second major address on Internet freedom:
Clinton was certainly right to highlight the fact that corporations running Internet platforms and telecommunications services have equally serious obligations to uphold universally recognized rights to free expression and privacy, particularly when governments fail to respect these rights. Companies around the world face strong pressure to censor, monitor, and silence users and customers when it suits government interests. The Egyptian government's shutdown of Internet and mobile services could not have succeeded without the private sector's cooperation. Research In Motion, the owner of BlackBerry, has been asked by a range of governments to comply with surveillance requirements.
Some activists are concerned that Facebook is making it easier for governments to track them down by enforcing terms of service requiring the use of real names, no matter where in the world you live. It was thus encouraging that Clinton called on companies to join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by companies, socially responsible investors, human rights groups, and academics to help companies make and uphold such commitments. Unfortunately only Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have had the cojones (as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would put it) to join.
Secretary Clinton's speech was the most important a major American political figure has ever made on the subject of an open Internet and a more networked government. And it signaled a major step in the movement to open up governments - even superpowers - t0 the increased scrutiny and a participation of the citizenry.
Yet I thought the weakest part centered on private companies and their role in freedom movements, online and off - and the power relationship they have with data. Media technology is one of the strongest financial and cultural forces the U.S. has, and it's clearly thought of as a vital national asset by the Obama Administration; Clinton's speech (and ongoing State Department collaboration with social media companies) and President Obama's well-publicized dinner with a gaggle of Silicon Valley machers were clear signals to this effect. So I guess it was understandable that Clinton didn't push the private data control aspect too hard.
In any event, I'm fairly certain we cannot rely on government to guarantee a Facebook that's as socially aware - as socially vibrant - as it is socially wired. No, that'll take the crowd itself.
More than its investment bankers, Facebook listens to its network and adjusts its practices accordingly. Sure, the company has long been guilty of "launch, fail, react" cycles - but it has been responsive to its users. There have been many uprisings in Facebook's brief history, and to Zuckerberg's credit, he's never played the Hosni Mubarek role.
Who knows if The Social Network's tale of youth and founding moments will grab the Oscar on Sunday, and in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia and Iran, I doubt if anyone cares. Sorkin's film had a clever marketing tagline: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." Nor do you create real social change without making the tough choices.
History is written too quickly for the filmmakers in 2011 - and Facebook's own Tahrir Square is abuzz with change, hope, and major challenge to Mark Zuckerberg's vision of the social web.
[Cross-posted at CauseWired]
Lately, I've been sort of surprised - shocked, actually - to hear this refrain from both clients and the corporate, nonprofit and foundation leaders I often speak to at conferences:
"Isn't Twitter pretty much over?"
This is very much not a variation on the old but reliable "I just don't get Twitter, explain please" line. No, this harsh Twitter query is coming from people who use the service, understand it, and have invested significant time and resources in building followings, lists, and networks. They tweet. They're mobile. They use apps. But they're newly skeptical of Twitter's long-term advantages. And I think my new standard answer to this questions surprises them:
Don't get me wrong: I use Twitter, I find it rewarding, and I recommend it to my clients as a key part of the social media mix. But there's this nagging imp on my shoulder and his message is constant. "Twitter's not the same, it's not like it used to be, it's not as good."
This moment comes for all social networks when the early adoption crowd is run over by everyone else. What felt cool, and forward-leaning, and semi-private now feels like Times Square at midday clogged with double-decked tourist buses. Attention is down. Noise is up. Success can spoil the club. That's human nature.
But there's also something else. Twitter is a private company, of course, but it always felt like a public accommodation - far more so than, say, Facebook or MySpace. It was the user base that created most of Twitter's innovations from the hashtag to the @ message. The small start-up company provided the pipes and tended the code and database. Even smaller companies took the data and created useful applications. Innovation didn't just thrive on Twitter - it fairly seethed. This felt like a new way of communicating - and of sharing causes on the social commons - the occasional fail whales be damned!
Fast forward, as we must. Twitter now has a userbase of 150 million people and a hydra-headed imperative: revenue growth, big company status, an eventual public offering, marketshare, brand domination. We read that it must compete with Facebook and Google or face relegation - that it must find a way to satisfy marketers eager to exploit its vast, tech-friendly, super-connected audience.
And so Twitter is now acting very much like a marketing company. Nothing wrong with that, of course. They're determined to ramp up revenue. But with Twitter, it also seems the decisions they make internally aren't as - well - smart as the ones their committed base of users once made for them.
Take "Promoted Trends." Please. This "innovation" allows advertisers to buy their way to the top of the popular trends lists that adorn Twitter pages on the service's website. Thus, movies and airlines suddenly appear on top of true crowd-sourced trends like real news and pop culture phenomena. Of course, a purchased "trend" is not a real trend at all. It's a lie - though brazen and open in its telling. The other day, for instance, a movie called "Paranormal Activity 2" was the top "trend" on the New York version of Twitter's homepage. It's marked with a yellow "Promoted" tag, which doesn't explain how much money was paid for the privilege. Nor would that label be - in any way - clear to newbie or light users who may not be Twitterholics reading the Twitter blog or following @ev or @biz. And yet it was somehow "trending" higher than "Cablevision" - the real news story of a cable TV black-out at playoff time.
It was weird as well to see Jet Blue buy a fake trend, or Conan O'Brien's usually savvy public brand make the mistake of jumping the line of actual trending topics in the last few days. Couldn't they have - oh, I dunno - actually engaged the community and earned real trends? I tweeted on this of course (I still enjoy Twitter quite a bit) and got thoughtful responses from Morgan Johnston of the Jet Blue team, including this one: "We (@JetBlue) have always embraced Twitter as a company & the community dialog it encourages. Promoted trends contribute to both." And I believe that's true, though I do think it makes Jet Blue look like a line-jumper in the end. But heck, they're advertising a brand and Twitter is offering the unit - at the expense of all the social capital it worked so hard to gather - so who you really gonna blame?
The so-called "promoted trend" is a massive symbolic stumble for Twitter.
It's entirely inauthentic, just shy of truly offensive, and deeply at odds with the ethos that has governed Twitter up until 2010 - an ethos that turns out, in the end, to be about as genuine as promoted "trends."
Further, it adds to the already difficult signal-to-noise ratio that is Twitter with mass adoption. Quite frankly, trends have lost a lot of their value since hashtag spamming exploded during the days of the Iranian revolt. Attention, even with thousands of followers, is hard to come by. Conversation isn't what it once was.
Twitter remains a fantastic network for sharing links and coming across interesting information from a network of great sources. It's also a terrific amplification and promotional tool for campaigns (and products of course). But it feels less social. And with paid "trends" and the direction for the company they may indicate, Twitter feels a lot less authentic these days.
It's becoming increasingly common to "meet" someone online before you encounter them in real life. In my experience, people I meet online are generally quite recognizable when I finally get together with them at a conference or physical meeting. But maybe I'm just lucky.
A fascinating study by Max Weisbuch, Zorana Ivcevic, and Nalini Ambady shows that - in large part - we really are who we pose as on Facebook. The article's from Cognitive Daily. I do think we tend to present a idealized version of ourselves - the cool side of our lives we want everyone to perceive as us. But then again, we also do that in face-to-face relationships, don't we?
...Until we develop peer-to-peer currencies or come up with some other idea, we must pit the corporations who would exploit us against one another. By surrendering to just one publicly held company—no matter how little evil it says it wants to do—we doom ourselves to working for free.
Doug Rushkoff is right about this: Google is on its way to being the gatekeeper to the Internet - which should be the province of no single company. If Murdoch and Microsoft can shake things up by trying to route around Google, that's a good thing. I admire Google's products and use them every day - indeed my small consulting company essentially "runs on Google" - but I think some competition and some new models are crucial.
According to data provided to eMarketer by Nielsen, traffic to Twitter.com was down a dramatic 27.8% between September and October 2009, falling to 18.9 million unique visitors. Nielsen is the latest in a list of research firms reporting declines at Twitter.com. comScore said unique visitors were down 8.1% in October, while Compete reported a 2.1% decline.
The big question: does this mean users are simply moving to third-party services (like the excellent HootSuite, which I use) and using mobile text more - or is Twitter declining as a platform? Related question: is Twitter hitting a wall as an early adopter/enthusiasts' platform vs. a wider consumer platform like Facebook?