Instagram is not Facebook, and yet…

Instagram is not Facebook. It’s not a network of friends. The accounts you follow on there are a personal choice instead of a network effect of friends and acquaintances you meet in the real world (there are those too, but are they the majority?). Yet Instagram pushes the same crap as Facebook – “follow this account because someone you follow does”.

Why? Don’t the Product Managers understand the fundamentals of social networks? Or are they just hell bent on destroying value?

Companies, when they perform an acquisition, usually focus on recouping the cost of the acquisition. Or they want to build value by merging the brands.

Clearly, Facebook doesn’t care about the money. It’s pocket change for them. They are immune in terms of money. They aren’t immune in terms of user growth.

The only thing they care about is destroying competition. What’s sad is that they don’t realize that Instagram and WhatsApp are not rivals any more. They’re property. It’s always good to invest in and improve property.

This would be like Facebook purposely degrading their Android apps just to drive people insane and see what happens.

Oh, wait…

Thoughts on Chris Hughes’ call to break up Facebook

I took my own sweet time to read this story, collecting some of my ideas and publishing them here. I’ve already had a lot of online and offline conversations around the topic, but posting these thoughts here for posterity and discussion makes sense to me.

Opinion | It’s Time to Break Up Facebook

Jefferson and Madison were voracious readers of Adam Smith, who believed that monopolies prevent the competition that spurs innovation and leads to economic growth.

The F.T.C.’s biggest mistake was to allow Facebook to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. In 2012, the newer platforms were nipping at Facebook’s heels because they had been built for the smartphone, where Facebook was still struggling to gain traction. Mark responded by buying them, and the F.T.C. approved.

Facebook’s version of Snapchat’s stories and disappearing messages proved wildly successful, at Snapchat’s expense. At an all-hands meeting in 2016, Mark told Facebook employees not to let their pride get in the way of giving users what they want. According to Wired magazine, “Zuckerberg’s message became an informal slogan at Facebook: ‘Don’t be too proud to copy.’”

They create immense amounts of data — not just likes and dislikes, but how many seconds they watch a particular video — that Facebook uses to refine its targeted advertising

One big question is, of course, who owns this data? The data would not exist on a platform which doesn’t have the technology to track your time in seconds. The data is also not really relevant to you in a meaningful way. So unless there’s a way to make it meaningful, there is no point in us users claiming ownership of it. Even if we did, in most aspects, the data is owned by Facebook and that is the basis for them not deleting it even after you’ve asked for ‘all’ of your data to be deleted. In that context, ‘all’ is all of the data you’ve given to Facebook, not the data they’ve generated on you.

he went even further than before, calling for more government regulation — not just on speech, but also on privacy and interoperability, the ability of consumers to seamlessly leave one network and transfer their profiles, friend connections, photos and other data to another.

Chris Hughes says in the next line that these proposals were not made in bad faith, but from where I am seeing, these are nothing but bad faith. One can only say these things from a position of privilege, of power. Where were these ideas when twitter launched periscope with Facebook friend-finder integration?

The fact is that what Zuck is proposing here is nothing different from what Microsoft did for Apple all those years ago to head off anti-trust investigations. Why not head off an investigation by propping up a few lame-duck competitors who Facebook can kill off in the name of API changes whenever it feels threatened?

Zuckerberg’s words may seem like music to your ears, but they are nothing more than an empty promise. Already, you can export your Facebook data, and there are services built around importing it and doing stuff with it. So how is his proposal any different?

Will Facebook provide an API to easily move all your data and conversations, and photos off? Will Facebook provide precious server time required to sync out every last bit of data through a legit API? I don’t think so.

Even if they do, the point remains that he’s doing this just to save his own hide. Paying lip service to the open web and interoperability is the easiest thing he can do as CEO.

Besides, Facebook’s value isn’t in the data you provide it with. It’s in the data they generate about you. Today, your uploaded data might be in the couple hundred MBs. But I can assure you, the data they’ve generated about you, and the data you don’t know you’ve uploaded (including stealthy location tracking, cookies, and third party browsing data they’ve bought about you), probably stands in the GBs.

That vast difference is something Facebook will never give you access to, since they can legally claim that it is data they have created and they own. You taking charge of that data is the real threat to Facebook.

Zuck knows this only too well and is trying to ward it off.

Imagine a competitive market in which they could choose among one network that offered higher privacy standards, another that cost a fee to join but had little advertising and another that would allow users to customize and tweak their feeds as they saw fit. No one knows exactly what Facebook’s competitors would offer to differentiate themselves. That’s exactly the point.

Another example of hypocrisy from Chris. We know there are social networks out there today that do all of these things. There are exceptional services built by dedicated people who believe in the ideal of an open web. Just recently an instagram replacement was kickstarted. It took a long while to get it to the bare minimum it needed to fund successfully.

Why? Why did Chris Hughes not put his money where his mouth is? Why not fund all these competitions as an outsider? He’s arguably for the money for it.

App.net was kickstarted by the people, but along the way they took funding from a VC firm. Some people saw that as a betrayal of the idea with which it began, and ADN ended up shuttering under a year later.

Hughes doesn’t need to singularly fund social networks and exert control as a VC or angel investor. He can fund them as an individual and just use his voice to amplify the message – that open web ideas do exist and have the potential to be disruptive.

The thing is, that Silicon Valley is about control. Right now, the definition of control is Facebook. It’s a behemoth that can eat up most of the things in its path, whether it’s WhatsApp and Instagram, which it acquires and turned into its pawns, or Snapchat, which it is trying to destroy by replicating it and using its networking effects against.

Look towards the (inter)networking world – everyone needs networking and so it’s not that sexy a field. But even though there’s a behemoth, Cisco, it can’t eat everything up. Every few years a company springs up that can cause serious competition to it based on new technology, or better production cycles, or just a fresh pair of eyes on the same ideas networking has been revolving around since the last decade.

So Facebook doesn’t need to be broken up in order to be made irrelevant, be it the right approach or not.

The F.T.C. should have blocked these mergers

Its first mandate should be to protect privacy.

It’s interesting to talk about privacy only in terms of Facebook, but it is infinitely more important to talk about privacy in a broader sense.

The US needs an agency that actively works with companies and individuals to thwart attacks on our data, to help secure information, and to educate the people about these topics. Right now, there’s a haphazard group of organizations doing this, led perhaps by the FBI, which steps into the case when hospitals and other organizations are attacked.

There needs to be an organization that ‘polices’ the use of data. Of course, there’s no reason to stifle new growth, but this org would work with, and actively target companies that are becoming big, and perhaps even white hat attack them to show weaknesses.

This latter role has been left to private entities till now, and that has worked out fine for most people. But formalizing it means making sure that the US has a pulse on cyber warfare in the civilian realm, which is where it is more active and deadly currently.

Imagine a CDC for cyber warfare and privacy issues.

But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence

Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.

Can they, though? Can either Zuck or any government in the world ‘fix’ Facebook? As an industry, social media can be regulated. As a company, Facebook can be fined and controlled. But as an idea, as a part of the Internet, and as a trend, Facebook is more difficult to control. What needs to happen is that along with the threat of government sanctions, Facebook also needs internal pressure to restructure. That pressure will never come until golden boy is removed from the helm. It was only till Biz Stone and Jack were shown to be totally inept at handling twitter, that people understood that twitter needs some serious work. It’s a great feeling to follow an enigmatic or often just an esoteric leader and believe that they’re doing the right thing. But Facebook’s investors, specially those who care about the effects of the company on the world, should break through that spell and focus on forcing the company to rebuild.

Zuckerberg himself should realize that it is under his own helm that bad things have happened, and we’ve long given him a huge platform to grow and become a leader. But just like Rahul Gandhi, growing on the job is not possible for someone who controls the fate of a billion people. That just doesn’t work. He would be better off stepping away from the plate and letting someone else play while he rebuilds himself and finds out what he believes in beyond just the dominance of Facebook.

Facebook’s biggest mistake with Snapchat

Facebook has a problem. No, not Snapchat. Snapchat is competition.

Facebook’s problem is SnapCreep. After failing to buy out their competition, Facebook has steadily been trying to steal the best (or worst, depending on who you ask) parts of Snapchat and integrate them into their own apps.

This invasion has been reflected on Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and now the main Facebook app as well. But for all that work they’re putting into copying for their competitor, they’re rather unsuccessful in making it obsolete.

This is because Facebook doesn’t seem to understand that the markets they’re looking at are different. People who want the notorious features of Snapchat doesn’t want it in the same apps as they use to keep in touch with their high school frenemies. They want to keep those worlds separate. Similarly, people who want to use WhatsApp to communicate with family and close friends don’t want to post silly photo updates. They already use the camera functions rather well.

Facebook seems to think that it can meld certain features into existing apps and wish away Snapchat. But that’ll not happen because of the way these apps are setup and used. That’s Facebook making a big bet and trying to change the rules on the racetrack after the race has begun. WhatsApp is a cure for traditional SMS. Facebook is the social network of default. Instagram is photo-sharing on drugs (which is why people certainly seem to be taken by the daily stories features, but they’re loathe to use things like disappearing pics or face filters). All of these have set functions, set features and that’s why they sort-of go together. That’s also why Facebook has been able to integrate the users in all these apps together, though I do have a complaint about pushing the same users over to WhatsApp and Instagram as I already have in my Facebook lists.

Snapchat is a slightly different beast. It has a precedence, no doubt. Yahoo Chat, melded with Omegle. But neither the use case, nor the customer base lends itself to a traditional keep-up-with-your-friends social network. Which is why Facebook will not beat Snapchat by pushing similar changes to their current customers through these apps. They’ll only end up alienating smart users who have looked at Snapchat and notice the pattern.

Instead, Facebook needs to do something they’ve not done in a long time – start from scratch. Take a page out of Meerkat’s book (no Facebook, this does not mean go and buy that company) and build something from the ground up, the app and it’s user base. Let your experiments go under the radar, and fail often. But please, keep these out of the glaring view of the media and your own idiosyncrasies until it’s actually a product and not just patchwork.

Your problem with Snapchat isn’t that Snapchat exists, it’s that you’re trying to replicate it, without actually making the effort of building something new. The solution is clear to your users – go and build it. They might come.

What Facebook needs to do next

Update: Facebook has done it! It has finally created a messenger standalone for the web. You can go here to check it out (here if that doesn’t let you login) or here to read about it (but why would you?). Cheers!

Facebook has changed a lot over the past few years. There have been acquisitions, newsfeed, design changes and rollbacks and a whole mess of things. Facebook obviously understands that the future is mobile (hence WhatsApp and Instagram) and that people are moving in all kinds of directions, towards private spaces (hence the separate Messages app) and public posts (hence hashtags and the searchability of your FB post that goes with those).

So what’s next? Well, today, I wanted to send a link to my brother. Since I’m on Windows right now and not on my Mac (I usually just iMessage links to him), I fired up Facebook and sent it to him in a message. Why? Because it’s convenient, because Facebook detects the OpenGraph information about the page and processes it to make a neat link+image combo and because we have many conversations on there anyways.

Why didn’t I send it to him as a directed Facebook post? I could have, but I didn’t care enough to make it public. Our Facebook activity is not our true selves but a reflection of what we want to portray to others, and this link didn’t necessarily fit into any paradigm of my public self. (In other words, it wasn’t epic. Publicly shared links must be epic.)

Why didn’t I send it to him in an email? Hush, don’t ask silly questions.

But then, I wanted to send him another link and another. So what did I do? I clicked on that miserably little link that takes me to Facebook’s dedicated messages page so that I could share links and have conversations in a larger space than that goofy little box that occupies the bottom right corner of my screen.

That’s when it hit me. Facebook has a beautiful Messages app on the iPhone. I’ve sung praises of it before. But there’s a curious lack of a well designed web interface for messages. The old and clunky interface that sits there now has been sitting untouched since a long time.

Now, you’d argue that another private space that I could have used was the Facebook Groups feature. It looks nice, it’s often updated and has the same look-and-feel as the rest of Facebook. But why would I create a group for just myself and my brother? There’s no need for that since /messages exists. The only thing needed is to build a nice looking private messages space that people would use.

I was really tempted, as I started writing this post, to build this webapp myself. Facebook’s API is open and easy to work with. I’m sure I could have found many plugins and libraries to make the task easier for me. But any such project can never be feature complete. I can build it and you can come, but you’ll never stay because of lack of features, because a single guy sitting with a laptop with a limited amount of time can only do so much.

So Facebook, here’s the next thing you need to do – make messenger.com what it really should be – a full-fledged webapp that’s as classy as any other public facing feature of Facebook. I hope to see it soon!