What comes after Facebook

“What comes after Facebook?”

This is a question that’s being asked very frequently nowadays — and by people who, a few years ago, were struggling with email.

“Hah,” you say, “he’s just being melodramatic!”

I honestly am not. I know people who still ask for their emails to be presented to them as printouts, who insist on writing in longhand (as in pen and paper) and then asking someone to “type the damn thing in.”

But the fact that THEY are asking the question means that it’s time for an answer.

For a very large number of us today (nearly 700 million), Facebook has become an integral part of our lives. Facebook has had a profound impact on society. Many of us are in touch with old friends. We keep track of each others lives and don’t feel like complete strangers when we meet. We share aspects of our lives as well, and enjoy it when people appreciate our photographs. On a larger scale, Facebook has been given credit for political revolutions, for social and cultural movements. Facebook captures the zeitgeist of the first decade of the 21st century.

I will always refer to the last ten years as the Facebook years.

But we’re already asking what’s next … After all, before Facebook became large, MySpace was huge. So was Friendfeed at one point of time. And does anybody remember Ryze?

I have wondered why we’re asking this question. After all, Google’s bigger than Facebook and has had an equally profound impact on us. But, people at dinner parties aren’t asking what comes after Google. I don’t get asked about the next big search engine at EVERY conference I speak at.

After some thought I’m willing to argue that Google and Facebook are very different in terms of the impact they’re having.

Let’s quickly get Google out of the way so we can focus on Facebook.

Google has democratized information.

In earlier times, vast amounts of money have been made by people who knew something before the rest of the world:

“…and the family developed a network of agents, shippers and couriers to transport gold across war-torn Europe. The family network was also to provide Nathan Rothschild time and again with political and financial information ahead of his peers, giving him an advantage in the markets and rendering the house of Rothschild still more invaluable to the British government. In one instance, the family network enabled Nathan to receive in London the news of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo a full day ahead of the government’s official messengers.”

The Rothschild Family on Wikipedia

Today, in an era where the phrase, “information is power” has become a cliche, Google has done more than any other service to give people access to information. Think about it, text searches, image searches, maps, news …

Facebook’s impact is altogether different. Eben Moglen puts it best: we have lost our anonymity online. Every service preceding Facebook (myspace et all) have been leading up to this one point: each of us now has a permanent, online, identity.

In a presentation I’ve been making that has been put together by my colleague Gaurav Mishra, one of the slides talks about the people era we find ourselves in today. When we go online, we no longer interact with information, we interact with other people. So, we aren’t going online to visit websites today, we go online to visit people. That’s a BIG difference. But that isn’t Facebook’s big impact.

I believe that the notion of privacy is one of the cornerstones of any social system. All the laws that we write, all the systems of behavior that we see all boil down to a society’s understanding of what’s private and what’s not. If you think about it, privacy is not just two states, it is a continuum — from that which we think of as completely private, our deepest, darkest thoughts that we wouldn’t dream of sharing with anyone, to that which is entirely public, our gender is, for the most part, instantly identifiable.

In the last ten years, our notions of privacy have changed. For an entire generation, photographs are no longer private. They are to be shared widely, and be easily accessible to others at a time convenient to the viewer, not the person in the photograph.

I could go on with other aspects of our lives, but the central thought is this: all the conflict we see around the internet boils down to an argument about privacy.

Facebook’s BIG impact is that it is, more often than not, defining what’s private and what isn’t.

And that right there is why people ask what’s next.

As a species, human beings have never been comfortable with centralized authorities controlling privacy. We are also fundamentally opposed to “others” gaining access to information about ourselves that we think of as private. As far as I know, all social systems that have had centralized repositories of information, and have allowed “others” access to information about private citizens have failed, or have been replaced.

So, let’s take three things as self evident:

  1. The ability to interact with people, and organize people online is something we want.
  2. We want to regain control over defining what’s private and what isn’t.
  3. The internet has a distributed architecture, and all centralized models have been replaced by decentralized models (think BitTorrent, Skype …)

So, what follows Facebook is not another website, but a distributed social network.

In my last post, I touched upon the Freedom Box Foundation. They’re talking about the same thing and I think they’re on the right track.

Think of it this way: each one of will own, and carry around, a mini Facebook. This will be a piece of software, with some level of encryption. It will live on our connected devices, and automatically sync across devices we approve of.

We will interact with other people’s mini Facebooks in an ad-hoc fashion, choosing to show what we want to. We will co-own the data that we create with other people, and control access to it as well. So, if somebody wants access to my information, they’ll have to go out and get a sub-peona, not just run an SQL query on a database.

Google will add a people search engine for this distributed network, allowing us to find people in the same way that we find information today, with us controlling whether we give the Google bot access to our information or not.

The software will also protect us at a network level, encrypting the data heading out from our devices and preventing our internet service providers from reading our data and our email. All of this on the fly, without us being aware that it’s happening.

This will happen over the next ten years, but the interim will be a golden period for brands and corporations who realize the value of the data that we have given them access to unwittingly. As long as Facebook, Twitter and other centralized social networks are around, brands and corporations have the opportunity to reach out to, engage, and gather large amounts of user data. This data may well form the basis of brand and corporate activity for the next 30 years.

For the poor souls whose data will form the basis of this activity, they should take some solace from the fact that this has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. The marketeer’s major understanding of customers and markets is based upon data gathered in the early days of television and newspapers, when audiences weren’t as fragmented, and people were far more willing to share personal information. This happened during the industrial age, and was marked by the rise of the middle class. After all, the mail-order catalogue wasn’t always seen as spam! Which is why a lot of the marketing talk we hear today that people think of as wise and based on precedence has an industrial age flavor to it. Most marketeers continue to struggle to understand the denizens of the information age.

I’d go as far as to say that the large group called the middle class has fragmented into smaller groups for which we have no names. That this fragmentation will only increase. And that the data available on Facebook gives us the opportunity to map this fragmentation.

At least in the short term.

You see, encryption and control over our own data will give us back our anonymity. Not only at the username level, but at the network transport level. This will be fought tooth and nail by both corporations and government, but it is inevitable.

As long as society agrees that our persons are inviolable and each one of us has control over our own persons, government and corporations will be unable to battle this legally.

Perhaps, it is my training as a journalist that makes me cynical about the motives of large organizations, and skeptical about the present. I have to say I am hopeful about the future. A handful of people have consistently created technology that has made the world better in fundamental ways by transferring power over to individuals. This blog is an example.