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How Social Networking Will End

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Aug 3, 2007 1:27:00 PM

Facebook's decision to ban Harry the Marketing Headhunter Joiner will not, in and of itself, have any noticeable effect on the social media darling's continued rise. It does, however, go a long way to explaining why social networking will--and must--cease to be owned by anyone other than the people who make up the network.

Just to recap, Harry joined Facebook, and attempted to invite his entire list of contacts (all 4600 of them) to join him there. You'd think Facebook would appreciate Harry's enthusiasm for promoting Facebook, but their response was to disable and ban his account for violating ambiguous terms of service related to alleged spamming and use of his account for "advertising purposes."

While many of Facebook's members will applaud the decision to chase this particular money-changer out of the temple (there being no shortage of nuisance recruiters whose spamming is of the egregious kind), it highlights the fact that Facebook can and will ban anyone it chooses for any reason that suits its purposes, and without any practical recourse for the convict.

By contrast, no one can be banned from the web, or email*. If Hotmail doesn't like you they can ban you, but you can just scoot over to Yahoo and resume emailing people. There's a little overhead to moving address books around, but otherwise it's not something you really need to worry about unless you're selling c1allis or the daughter of a deposed Nigerian general. 

The reason you can't be banned from email the way you can be banned from Facebook or MySpace is that email is a protocol, not a product. No one "owns email" the way Mark Zuckerburg & co. own Facebook. A published, standardized protocol means anyone can operate an email system that can inter-operate with any other email system.

A social networking system is very different from something like, say, anapplicant tracking system, because it has no value on its own. If yours were the only company in the world to have an ATS, it would be just as valuable to you (and perhaps even more so) than if every company in the world had one. Social networking and email, however, are utterly pointless if you're the only one to have an email address or Facebook account. The point is not the product, but the people it facilitates interaction with. Most social networking products are worth nothing despite having a product similar or functionally superior to Facebook's because they have an insufficient number of members.

My fundamental belief is that the features you see in virtually every social networking product constitute a set of fundamental protocols. Friending someone, for instance, is really just like hyperlinking across sites, except that both ends of the "link" agree to it. There is really no grand engineering challenge here. At most, Facebook in the past provided some value by regulating membership, but with them opening the doors to the general public last year, even that part is in fast decline, and as Harry's case shows, may be on its way to becoming anti-value.

The ultimate precedent for this vision is the Internet itself, which despite being referred to and understood as a single entity by laypeople, is in fact just a giant hodgepodge of individual networks which have agreed to carry each others' data through a vast series of peering agreements. As a result, the Internet has given us countless new and novel tools, while the phone system has given us the fax, early versions of which predate the voice telephone itself. Social networking is not a product, it's a protocol, and I fully expect the market ten years from now to be vastly more fragmented than it is today.

* Obviously this excludes state censorship a la China or Iran, which is a whole 'nother category.

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