Anyone who has worked in the technology has heard of Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web. He continues to be a force shaping the Internet, and he sees social media as a threat to the principles of the web, as he notes in an article in the December issue of the Scientific American, “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality.”
According to Berners-Lee, what makes the Web work is the principal of universality, the ability to connect to anything and offer information in a common format that can be read by anyone. Whether the connection is wired or wireless, and the data is written, graphic, or spoken, it should be accessible from any device that can connect to the Internet. Along with universality, the Web calls for decentralization. As with the Internet itself, the Web has no central server or authority that monitors or approves content. In fact, the open nature of the Web has made it a truly democratic world medium. As a recent editorial on Technorati notes:
The principles of an egalitarian society where all are equal immaterial of race, colour, class, wealth or nation is embodied in the web today. It has become the beacon of democracy and is more vital to free speech than any other medium, because it is perhaps the least censored most used and universally connected resource in the world.
What Berners-Lee sees as a threat to the openness and democratization of the Web are the increasing numbers of walled off Internet content. We are talking about social media. Emerging business models that are attracting lots of users and inviting them to a private party where information is shared only among those who have been invited to join in. As Berners-Lee writes in his article in the Scientific American:
Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.
With the social media explosion, I believe that Web users are confusing social media and the Web. Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, ant Twitter are not open platforms. They are proprietary platforms that are operated as businesses, but that fact is becoming obscured by their popularity. Facebook is now the most popular destination on the Internet, even surpassing Google, but it’s still not an open platform. As Berners-Lee notes, the threat of monopoly limits innovation, and freedom.
The social media and Web explosion has led to mega-monopolies like Google and Facebook. These entities have become so popular that they have developed their own juggernaut-like momentum, and yet they are still not open platforms but businesses. Democracy does not thrive in a business setting, since money is the fuel that drives the business. Granted, companies like Google say they will protect your privacy, and things like Gmail are protected by the company. Google even has the phrase “don’t be evil” as part of their code of conduct. But even a benevolent despot is still a despot.
Then you have to consider entities like Facebook. If you haven’t seen the film “The Social Network” I recommend it, not only as a good film but to give you some insight into the ethics that went into forming the company. Facebook is in business to make money, billions of dollars in fact, and they do it by maintaining a closed infrastructure and gathering information about its users that they can use for profit. Facebook has had a number of privacy issues arise in the past, and they will sell your information for a profit This from InfoWorld commentator Bill Snyder on “Why Facebook is selling you out – and won’t stop”:
The root of Facebook’s most recent transgression (allowing third-party apps to harvest user IDs) is greed — greed for the millions of dollars that app developers are pulling from the site. Facebook wants a piece of that action, and if privacy, freedom of speech, or any other trivial concern users may have get in the way, that’s just too bad.
One of the other guiding principles of Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web is “no snooping.” Content in e-mail and even the TCP/IP data stream need to be considered private, and freedom of speech needs to be protected on the Web. Private entities like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter don’t have to adhere to those principles.
So what are the implications of all this for marketers? You have to dance with those who bring you to the party, and as long as the party is happening at online locations like Facebook and Twitter, that’s the place you need to be. But be wary. Remember that places like Twitter and Facebook are still a private party and you are there by invitation only, and subject to the rules of your host. Conduct yourself accordingly.