Friday, July 9, 2010

Social Exodus? Or Social aggregation? A prediction on Google’s alleged Facebook Killer

You and I can easily be forgiven for not attributing the invention of the electric bulb to Sir Humphry Davy. In fact, we would be two among millions who make the same factual error. While it was Sir Humphry who produced the first version of incandescent light – the first electric bulb – it is Thomas Edison who successfully commercialized it.

Edison was the first to switch to a low resistance and cheap carbonized bamboo filament which allowed consumers to use electricity as fuel rather than the time’s much more expensive kerosene. He launched his test pilot in Manhattan where one could find investors keen on cutting-edge technology, where employees worked late into the night and had much need for better lighting and where the state-government provided favourable permits which was key for Edison's fight against the National Lamp-Maker’s Union. Edison’s company also patented a system for electricity distribution later establishing the first investor-owned electric utility.

In short, Edison didn’t just create a better light bulb. He created a system for the consumption of electric lighting by putting in place technology and investment, by finding his advocates and early adopters and by gaining endorsement from the time’s very influential stakeholder –the government.

Facebook wasn’t the first enabler of social-media. It did, however, create a very effective ecosystem for using social-media. One of the key elements of this ecosystem was allowing developers to distribute their own applications via facebook spawning a whole array of entrepreneurs. Facebook is leading the pack in consumer-behaviour research of social-media. For example, Facebook is now prepping itself to be the alternative to email which has seen a steep decline among teenagers, the next generation work-force.  Facebook’s Social Graph aims at allowing consumers to bring their social profiles to any supporting website. In short, Facebook is trying to do for the 21st century what telephones did for the 20th.

So when people claim that Google’s rumoured new social-media enabler, Google Me, is a facebook killer, I can be forgiven for being sceptical. It is true that Google has many more services than Facebook does. It has Orkut, Buzz, Gmail, Calendars, Maps, a new appstore etc. But it is difficult to simply replicate a system, aggregate old services and pray for an exodus of users from facebook to Google Me.

But while I don’t think Google Me is simply Facebook with new pants or an aggregator of old Google services, I do think the company is the Edison of our time. If anyone can get ahead of the curve and redefine social-media – it’s them. I think the future of social-media will be defined in three layers. So here’s the structure I would like to see on Google Me:

Layer 1: Social Aggregation As a consumer, it is your prerogative as to what social-media enabler you prefer to use. In fact, you may have multiple – Facebook, Twitter, Last.FM and Linked In for example. Layer 1 will aggregate each of the social-media that you use into one aggregated data stream. One way this could be achieved is by creating an App structure, where each service is added as an app and plugs in data to an aggregation interface that runs on an HTML 5 enabled browser. A truly open social-media enabler, like I hope Google Me is, will allow users to choose from a variety of options or create their own interface for data aggregation.

While I do realize third-party applications that achieve the same end exist today, the power of the above described aggregation comes when combined with the next two layers.

Layer 2: User-defined, privacy-enabled Scrobbers Think of Scrobblers as little lemmings that hang around your social-media gathering data and carrying it to areas that you specify. An Example: Scrobblers are used effectively by the service Last.FM. Scrobblers for Last.FM carry data about the kind of music you listen to on your audio device. This allows Last.FM to understand your music tastes and recommend music that adheres to those tastes.

Scrobblers can be applied to almost anything. For example: a World Cup Scrobbler could hang around your twitter feed to figure out which team you support. You could lead this scrobbler to a wish-list service which tells your friends – Whatever you do, DO NOT buy me the Italian Jersey.

Another example is allowing scrobblers to hang around your online grocery list. You can also aggregate that scrobbler to scrobblers from your online work-out routine and your web-connected weighing machine. These scrobblers containing your work-out progress, your eating habits and your body weight fluctuation could be sent to your physician or dietician.

The key to enabling wide-spread use of scrobblers by consumers and for new-product innovation by manufacturers and developers is establishing easy-to-use privacy policies. The user, for example, should be allowed to open some scrobblers to public use (example: clubs could use your audio scrobblers to contact you when your favourite bands are playing) some for personal use and some for private groups (example: medical data).

Layer 3: Open Social App Development Open Social was released by Google in 2007 allowing programmers to develop social network applications that run across a number of participating social-media enablers like facebook, MySpace etc.

With HTML 5 and the layer 1 defined app structure, Open Social could be extended to work with any kind of application with the ability to gather data from any social-media enabler (layer 1) gathering insights from any kind of Scrobbler (layer 2) – with a user-defined privacy setting. 

These apps can open up a world of innovation for hyper-connected services. Here are three examples:

  1. A messaging service that aggregates your email account, your facebook wall and private message board, your direct messages via twitter, your LinkedIn messaging board, your mobile SMS’s and your preferred chat messenger. This messaging service would function like your email, with wider contact options.
  2. An organizer that aggregates all your meetings, events across multiple social-media and events across the city highlighting the ones that you would prefer based on scrobbler data and your location around the city.
  3. A service that allows you to form ad-hoc social groups in a social locations such as a mall so that like-minded shoppers (found based on scrobbler data and location services) can comment about promotions and review products.
When it comes to Google, I am an optimist. While the structure I have defined above is a crude one conjured up at Starbucks on recycled napkins, Google Me combines some of the greatest product engineers of our time, working for months on the problem of how we use social-media. Furthermore, they are developing on an already strong, open ecosystem put in place by Google itself. A new Facebook? No! We are looking at a new, potentially revolutionary way of being connected.


  1. Good post Anand...

    You might have touched upon this in your L2 above, but I feel the concept of "Annotations" deserve a special mention given the current state of rapid evolution of social media..

    "Annotations" is based on the concept of semantic web ( that provides a data storage/retrieval mechanism on web for enabling applications to interpret transactions /conversations better..

    Latest examples of annotations in practice are the location based, mobile social media apps such as FourSquare and Gowalla...FS has close to 2M users already and starting to gain traction among its users and the partners who reward the users with badges, mayorship etc.. Twitter has already launched its Tweet location (and exposed APIs for annotations) and Facebook is rolling out this feature soon...

  2. now i see why you said you are actually quite enjoying this transition time of yours. You are using this time to really focus on your interest and produce some excellent insights! Love reading your blog entries! Keep them coming!