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More musings about what makes Facebook different

A few days ago, I commented on the some of the reasons why I thought Facebook was different, and ended with this:

So that’s my guess, that Facebook is a multidimensional conversation. Why is that important to the enterprise? Why is it important to work-life balance? These are questions I will seek to answer over the next two days. If you’re interested, keep an eye out.

It’s time to keep my word.

Why are multidimensional conversations important to the enterprise? Let us first look at what I mean by multidimensional conversations.

[As with anything else I write, I urge you to pick it up, mangle it, shred it and in all probability improve it. That's the important thing, as long as you also share what you improve. Who said I had a monopoly on articulation? I sure didn't. I'd rather we opensourced the idea, as it were, so that we see Linus's Law operate on ideas and concepts, not just on code].

When I say multidimensional conversation, I mean some sort of interaction that takes place between people in different contexts: family, work, beliefs, hobbies, interests, whatever. Each a “community” in its own right. With people belonging to multiple communities at the same time, some more than others. With people having different roles to play in these different communities.

I think that’s the first thing that really struck me about Facebook. That it wasn’t just a community site; instead, it was a site where communities coalesced and sometimes even collided. I felt this really resonated with real life; people often belong to multiple communities when they are young; it gives them the chance to be “different people” in different communities, so they do it. Over time these communities tend to merge and coalesce; in some cases, people fight to keep their different personas distinct and separate, and this causes them immense anguish.

What does this have to do with enterprises? I think people belong to different communities even in enterprises, each community with its own purpose, its ethos and values, its membership, rites, rituals, interests, what-have-you. If the communities are few, and if they don’t overlap, then you get tribalism. And an enterprise riven by tribalism is a dank and gloomy place.

Humour me for a moment, and accept, for a few minutes, the idea that people, even enterprise people, enjoy belonging to multiple communities. Multiple memberships in multiple overlapping communities. Why would this be of value to enterprises?  Let me try and explain.

When you belong to a community, you have some sort of relationship with others in that community. When everyone belongs to multiple communities, you land up having multiple “strands” of relationship with the same person. That’s really useful when you’re in a pinch together, or even in a full-blown crisis. Even if one of the strands is weakened, the others hold the two of you together.  This is not just true for a given pair of people, it works multilaterally.

Christopher Locke used to call this “organic gardening”, this concept of having shared interests beyond work, but at work. When I first met him in 2000, he was passionate about the need for firms to have multiple levels of relationship, both within the firm as well as across the enterprise boundaries.

Working together is all about relationship, about trust and respect. These things get fed and enriched when you spend time together. It’s the same at home. You want a worthwhile relationship with your partner, your children, your parents, your friends? You’d better put the time in. How do you put the time in? It’s simple when you have common interests.

So what am I saying? I think that Facebook facilitates relationships at multiple levels between people, by providing utility services to multiple overlapping communities. I think that as a result, multidimensional conversations take place. I think that the relationships that grow as a result are fundamental to enterprise success.

Talking about relationships. I think it’s time for a segue into privacy. Why segue at this stage? Because I think there is a critical link between relationships and privacy. I was talking over aspects of privacy with Kaliya Hamlin sometime ago in Brussels, and she recommended that I read Daniel Solove’s The Digital Person. Which I duly did. Great book. Actually, Kaliya’s great to talk to about anything to do with identity and privacy; while I don’t always agree with her, I always learn from talking to her.

Solove’s book covers a lot of ground. I won’t pretend to be able to summarise it here, but let me touch on a couple of points.

One, Solove talks about three “large databases” interactions to do with information about the individual: business to business; government and the individual; government acquiring from business. While Solove is concerned about malevolent use of the large quantities of  private data flowing around, he seems to be much more concerned about the Kafkaesque misuse of the same information, as a consequence of bureaucratic bungling.

Two, Solove makes the assertion that we can never train individuals to process large quantities of private data as efficiently as a (bungling) bureaucracy, and as a result most attempts to protect the “data” will fail. The bureaucracy gets information as a result, and the individual gets shafted.

I think Solove has a point there. I have never seen “data protection” legislation amount to much….. just look at what’s been happening in the UK recently…. the trouble with empowering bureaucrats with handling large quantities of private information is simple…. when something goes wrong, no one is accountable.  And the individual suffers.

In trying to get over this, Solove raises an interesting idea. Regulate the relationship, not the data. As with priests, lawyers and doctors, make the relationship between information provider and information gatherer a sacrosanct one.

[Incidentally, these should not be seen as attempts to paraphrase Daniel Solove. Please read the book for yourself. All you see above is some of the takeaways I had from his book, read some time ago. My apologies to all who feel I have misinterpreted what he said.]

Which brings me back to Facebook. As long as (a) I am free to choose what information to share with Facebook; (b) I am free to choose whom I am sharing it with as a result; and (c) I can see what I am sharing, and with whom …. we are making progress. Sure, I would like to see better tools for importing and exporting information in and out of Facebook, but I sense that it’s happening. Maybe it’s not happening fast enough for some people, maybe it’s not happening openly enough for some people, but it’s happening.

In that sense I think of Facebook like I think of iPods when they first came out. I was prepared to accept a degree of closedness initially, if I liked the design, if there was utility value, and directionally I could see an open way forward.

So much for the multidimensional conversation bit. What can Facebook do to help me with work-life balance? This is really an offbeat theme, something I’ve picked up from comments people have made over the last year or so. Where I work, I think we have around 7500 people on Facebook. Some 50 of those are my “friends” …. while I may know more of the 7500, we haven’t yet got around to exchanging friend requests.

Over the last year or so, we’ve had the opportunity to watch each other’s multidimensional interactions on Facebook, and this has accelerated our understanding and appreciation for one another. Some of my “friends”, observing my status messages and receiving updates on my activities in their Mini feeds, have commented on something I hadn’t considered. That what I do lays down an audit trail of my work-life balance. As a result, they can see whether I “walk the walk” or not.

Unintended consequence it may be, but I thought it was valuable. There is a level of transparency that comes about as a result of using tools like Facebook in the enterprise, a transparency that can demonstrate whether people actually adhere to the values they speak of.

Facilitating multidimensional relationships. Providing an audit trail showing whether people adhere to the values they speak of. These are the sort of things that, in my opinion, differentiate Facebook from other social network sites.

Is Facebook the greatest thing since sliced bread? No. Can it be improved? Yes. Will I expect to see better competition emerge, especially for the enterprise space? Yes. Is it open enough? No. If misused, can it form a gigantic threat to privacy? Yes.

There are a hundred questions, and a hundred answers. I’d rather not spend time pontificating about all that. What I’d rather do is to use Facebook in order to improve it, in order to build the right things outside it, in order to build the right things in it, in order to be able to make worthwhile comments.

So that’s what I’m doing. Comments welcome.

Posted in Facebook.


10 Responses

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  1. Balaji Sowmyanarayanan says

    Facebook- Hanging out as a Service is cool/useful/usable only when much smaller percent of the total set is possible connections hangout there.

    If majority of the 7500 of your org are there in the hangout will you( meaning anyone, not just you JP – with you I smell a gogly ) still embrace it with so much enthusiasm? Will you extend your Dunbar limit or will you complain about overload as in Inbox peeves?

    The work life balance argument is similar to (work)telephone helping better relationship with relatives afar, email as source of serendipity. In other words, will the balance scale? No pun intended.

  2. JP says

    Interesting points, Balaji, Lloyd.

    I think the Dunbar number may be shifting, but not by much. My sense is that it is gently heading upwards as a result of our having technical help with our connections, as a result of there being more ways to connect, and as a result of people travelling more often. I believe research is being conducted into this. In any case the number is not going up greatly, the current value could be anything between 200 and maybe 300, against the original 150.

    On the subject of scaling we need to bear something in mind. Each subcommunity by itself scales, to the extent that it seems to behave as if it has a Dunbar number for the subcommunity. Each subcommunity has its requirements as well; the work subcommunity requires certain outputs; the home subcommunity requires certain outputs as well; as long as these output levels are met, all this will scale.

    So maybe the key shift as we move into a multiple parallel subcommunity world is a concentration on outputs. Not an expectation on minimum levels of inputs.

  3. Ali Choudhury says

    I joined Facebook in May of this year. I was impressed by how it greatly simplified keeping in touch with people whose addresses, emails and numbers you’d lost. Beyond that, most of the applications in it are useless clutter and I get the feeling it could be made far more useful than it currently is.

  4. Robbie says

    I’ve also thought a lot about Facebook, and while it’s great at relationship management, I don’t take advantage of the min-feeds that you highlight as one of the strong points to learn more about my friends. I’d still much rather choose my apps for that purpose. Anyway, I wrote more on this subject a while ago which can be read here: http://blog.iclutton.com/2007/10/facebook-vs-your-favourite-rss-reader.html

  5. Zbigniew Lukasiak says

    Hmm – but do you read Umair Haque?

  6. JP says

    Zbigniew, I do read Umair, if you mean the BGSL stuff; I must admit I mainly read the research notes.
    Am I missing something? What do you feel I need to follow up?

    I tend to agree with Umair that the only firms that will succeed are those who want to make a positive change to the world. The problem begins with defining what a positive change is.

    You can see what I stand for. All you need to do is to read The Kernel for This Blog or About This Blog, right at the top of this blog. Not everyone agrees with me.

    I believe that artificial scarcity is an abomination, and I’m doing everything I can to counter it wherever I see it.

    I think that the pushback against Facebook is overdone. In a strange variant-of-Moore’s-Law way, some people would have me believe that Microsoft took 20 years to “become evil”, Google took 10 and Facebook took 4.

    I don’t buy those arguments. Where do you put Apple in that sequence? What do you say about iTunes or iPod or iPhone?

    That’s why I said I like Facebook in the same way as I like the iPod. Doesn’t mean it can’t get better.

    As you can see, I’m intrigued by your brief comment. Tell me more. What am I missing in the BGSL stuff?

  7. Zbigniew Lukasiak says

    Hi JP,

    I must admit – this comment was deliberately so brief – that is a cheap trick, I appologize. But Umair does have quite substantial arguments for the evilness of Facebook – if you grep his blog just for Facebook you’ll find them. I will not repeat them here – because I cannot say I get them in their entirety. But I do think Facebook changes the sides at the point when they constraint user autonomy in the name of revenue.

  8. Zbigniew Lukasiak says

    And just another link to the list: http://www.somebits.com/weblog/culture/cancelling-facebook.html

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Perfect Path linked to this post on November 25, 2007

    [...] (This is the me-focused way of looking at the fact that I belong to multiple communities as JP’s talking about this morning). This reduces the cognitive load – if we’re only really comfortable with up to 150 people [...]

  2. It’s called FACEBOOK; namanya Fesbuk bung! « Mencari Wazeenisme linked to this post on May 2, 2009

    [...] Hematku jelas, kata kunci dari jejaring ini cuma satu: Relationship atau hubungan (meski kurang pas … [...]



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