How the Open Community Can Beat Facebook

Well, the open community can’t beat Facebook.

But companies using open technologies can – by building better products. Outside the echo chamber of web standards fanatics, the vast majority of web users don’t care about how the web works. They care about their user experience, where their friends are, and when something goes wrong, protecting their privacy.

When I read about Google Buzz (and other open-based products), it is repeatedly described as the open alternative to Facebook. Does this information help me (as a consumer) make a better decision about which product to use? No. That’s like telling the average cell phone buyer that the difference between the iPhone and Android is that the latter uses an open source operating system. When it comes to selling phones, Google relies on their search reputation and brand, not the openness of their platform.

Getting consumers to use your products, like any other retail interaction, requires offering something useful that is better than other alternatives. It is true that sometimes a backlash against one company leads consumers to switch to someone else, but they don’t “vote for the new guy”, they “vote out the old guy”. If users leave Facebook to use Google, it is not a victory for Google – it is a loss for Facebook.

When it comes to showing the value in open technology, very few efforts can show how being open makes products better. Even if OpenID solved all its problems, found a less offensive solution to the NASCAR problem, got providers certified and trusted, provided a legal framework for managing liability, educated consumers, and actually worked, it will still fail without the wealth of data offered by Facebook.

Why should publishers (content and service providers) choose a solution that doesn’t deliver actual consumer value?

In an attempt to address this, the OpenID community has been looking for ways to compete with Facebook. The OpenID/OAuth Hybrid proposal was one approach. Adding rich profile data was another (in the conceptual proposal for OpenID Connect). But these are all focused on enabling technologies, not products. Even if there was a complete open solution for every Facebook feature, it would still not offer a compelling value proposition because without actual data behind it, it is nothing but empty containers.

If Facebook asked me, I would recommend using open technologies because it is good for business (when available and applicable). But to everyone else I would recommend focusing more on the product and less about the openness of the platform. Open is certainly a selling point in the enterprise market, but it is not in the consumer market.

Two years ago the big fight was against the “walled-gardens” and user data, now it is about open standards. It didn’t make a difference back then (users didn’t care) and it won’t make one now. Facebook didn’t change their data policies because of what users wanted – they changed it because of what publishers demanded, and the publishers asked for data, in whatever shape or form Facebook wanted to give it.

The reason why the newly proposed OpenID Connect protocol is actually promising is that it focuses on mobility instead of federation. Instead of trying to build a fully distributed and federated identity framework, the proposal uses OAuth 2.0 to build vendor-specific identity solutions that are all implemented the same way. By allowing publishers to move from one compliant vendor to another, it lays the groundwork for future federation and distribution.

In other words, the fact that it doesn’t embrace discovery at its core, but starts with reliance on client registration and vendor specific relationship is an assets because it guarantees better products with built-in mobility. That mobility will allow publishers to take their business elsewhere if they don’t get the data and services they want.

Good technology enables better products. Being open is just the cherry-on-top.

Then of course, there is the other option: if you can’t beat them, join them.

4 thoughts on “How the Open Community Can Beat Facebook

  1. Hi Eran,

    It’s true that if the Open community wants to give users a choice other than Facebook, they’re going to have to focus on the Product, not the Open:

    “Instead of foaming at the mouth, quitting Facebook in a public display of nobility, or Raising our revolutionary flag of Open, we should be asking ourselves – what can we give users that is truly better than what they get with Facebook? Yes, we should be building in all the values we hold – privacy, security, openness, etc – but I need to be able to show my family and friends your new product and have them get excited, without ever mentioning Open, Distributed, or Free.”

  2. We are not against Facebook.

    I’ll have to agree with Steve Ivy on this one — or rather, and more importantly: I think Mark Zuckerberg does. I think he sincerely believes that the best and fastest way to have everyone on an open, distributed, standard, stable, safe, clear, well understood network with everyone controlling their privacy settings, the hosting, sharing and portability of their data is to have one billion person of Facebook as fast as possible, and letting “openness“ step in step by step, at every f8. The distribution part is the hardest, and will only come after standards are agreed upon — that is, only after he has made all his users explore the possibilities of an SNS well enough to agree on how it should be structured. He repeatedly said so; it’s in his best interest.

    He was a multi-billionaire at 22, has refused deals that included super-tanker filled with gold, claims he lives in a studio that includes “a table, a bed, a tea pot and no internet connection.” The guy has pretty much maxed-out his Maslow pyramid and can now enjoy the comfort of being even more of a open-freak than Larry & Sergei. If anything, he is more quiet, ambitious and impatient than they are to reach that goal. His understanding of the history of successful open platform (OSes mostly) is that they are the result of private exploration, closed implementation & fast adoption by the public, progressive opening into a platform. Examples of this include ICQ for Instant Messaging; Napster for P2P; AOL for the Web, e-mail and IM; SixApart for blog-hosting, etc. (I know those are wrong examples: I’m trying to describe the mindset of a 26 y-o here.)

    The Web might seem to be an exception, but the current struggle to implement semantic, or open data gives him reason. He fits the many exceptions of distributed innovation that you might oppose to that storytelling (like mash-ups, hashtags, etc.) into explorations and a minimalist approach to control, with ex-post incentives (see the Saga of Applications & the NewsFeed for examples).

    In other words — I have a graph I would have loved to show: working on a longer blog post on that — Imagine vertical axis to be openness (used this simplistic notion too many times in here, hate the way it covers too many distinct ideas) and the horizontal simplicity, design and mass-adoption (same: simplistic, blah). We all start from the bottom right, all want to go on the top left. You want to take the high-road: always open, run on top, work from the top left corner right-ward; Zuckerberg believes the currents are stronger, and you reach your destination faster if you take the lower road: rapid adoption through private network, that you open once it reached its most massive possible size.

    If you don’t believe me, watch that interview from a year ago

    especially from the 12’50, where John Batelle asks the question about openness.
    The open standard of the day was Open Social (Google shared widget platform). When asked why he doesn’t connect to that, he seems puzzled and rightfully explain that the two do not have the same ambition: it’s much clearer now than it was a year ago what he meant. “There’s a very clear transition from closed platform to open platforms; in a mature environment, a lot of these technical system tend to be pretty open, but they need to start somewhere. We were the first one to take very big steps in opening up the industry.”

    We are not against Facebook: we are one of the R&D departments of a project with no name — it could be called “Open and Distributed Global Social Network”. FriendFeed was another part of that (more on D than R) that was called into the mother-ship.

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