over 10 years on 2008-06-01


in the last few days i have been fascinated by the reaction in the 'blogosphere' to my post explaining how facebook photos is starting to be used as a marketing channel.  in the post, which is below, i outline why it is happening, and encouraging people to play with the concept of what a 'photo' tag means and how it can be used.  the way in which people reacted is sufficiently interesting to me that i thought it was worth a followup post - something i almost never do...  (back to greener pastures of thought tomorrow, i am very excited about a few new ideas from brunch this am).

the reaction to the original post seems to be first and foremost outrage and indignation that i would suggest facebook photos are and can be used in this way.  this is the equivalent of reacting to the concept of 'spam' as a construct by simply saying 'that is evil' and failing to explore why it exists and what it means for the nature of email product design -- yes, it is certainly a re purposing of a channel intended for one thing towards another end, but regardless of value judgment, any online communication platform is an exercise in design defining the way information is transacted.  systems will always be adopted for the most profitable ends possible, just as water flows downhill.  the best way to refine a platform is to think about it, test it yourself, learn from it, and refine.

social networks, just like email before them, are going to have to contend with the fact that through their constructions they open themselves up for use in ways they do not intend (which may or may not be sub-optimal for their user base).  facebook photos, a system of allowing one person to opt others into an association with a piece of data, is a construct which is capable of being used in a wide variety of ways -- and people already have started exploring ways to re purpose it.  so, while i may agree or disagree with the concept that this is 'good' from a user perspective, it is very much possible and possibly even profitable.  the question is not 'good' or 'bad', but how to think about the problem and what a change would look like. 

the second reaction to the post seems to be a feeling that this is trespassing against the concept of 'facebook' and some sort of social bond between people on the network.  this has often been captured by people saying something like 'i would immediately unfriend you if you did that to me' -- this is slightly more productive commentary, it is an expression of the idea that using a system like facebook carries with it certain social bonds that, if exploited, would cause someone to sever the ties.  that is a good argument, it makes sense, and will surely effect the way the channel is used.  one could argue that the whole value of communication networks is built on the same social enforcement concepts...

so, let's go a step or two further, maybe this train of thought means that people will quickly remove 'friends' they feel are risky, before they mis-use the power they have been granted over identity and association, maybe this will limit or change the type of messages people spend their social capital on promoting, or maybe people won't mind.  no one knows yet what will happen.  people were/are upset that facebook now shows friends who 'endorse' products next to ads for those products itself -- but is it changing behavior, are people shutting down their accounts?  controlling this 'social' level and keeping the messaging and relationships on facebook factored in a way that makes the community valuable is exactly facebook's long term business.  they invest in it by trying things like friend lists and permission lists -- and this is precisely what i suggest when i speak to the question of how facebook will react in the original post.

finally, there are a lot of just plain vicious reactions floating around (and some real ad hominem attacks).  i have figured this out about the blogosphere by now... and the reasoning behind why the commentary flows this way is quite similar to the drivers of facebook photo spam.  simple mudslinging is the oldest trick in the book for generating attention, pageviews, and advertising dollars.  it is completely unsurprising, but it is a re purposing of comments and blogs (communication platforms) in a way which is profitable to the author (drives traffic with minimal effort or thought).  you see comments and posts always tending towards extremes and disequilibrium, because it is most profitable re purposing the channel people have figured out to date.

this is the ultimate irony (though i guess not so surprising) - the reaction to my post is driven by precisely the same incentive system and re purposing of a communicative channel which the post itself is about...  so please, do go out and experiment with these platforms, pressure test them, watch how people react, and then refine your own work and actions.  the nature of communication is changing, and the only way to understand what is going on and what changing formats mean is to play with them.  this isn't about facebook (though it is a fascinating and terrific company), it is about how people communicate, share information, and innovate in a brave new world.

original swl blogposts and letters 2007-2010