Friday, September 8, 2006

Treating Users as Publishers: Facebook Fumbles Feeds for Fact Mining

The Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports along with many others on the quick feature revision that social networking site Facebook had to take in the wake of user protests. Facebook had introduced without any "heads up" new feed features that allowed participants in the online community to monitor when specific people had changes in their online relationships such as adding or dropping links to friends in their social network. In response Facebook quickly introduced a feature that would allow users to specify which types of content and behavior they are willing to have monitored. Although data mining services are common on the Web now the key factor that Facebook missed out was one of the great commandments of Web publishing: thou shalt not force your audience to offer or receive information.

The other thing that they missed out on was the fundamental concept of users as publishers. Social networking services may be one big database behind the scenes, but to the users they are seen more as advanced internet services providers supporting their own unique publishing personas. Your terms and conditions may say that you own their content but you never "own" them as publishers. The talent can walk at any time. In a product in which the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts failing to treat your users as client-publishers can be a fatal mistake. Social networking services need to think of themselves as community-driven Internet service providers, delivering hosting services that enable publishers to meet their audiences and to meet their communications needs. This is a concept that services such as Craigslist and Digg have embedded in the heart of their services.

It's a factor that can slow down service development if you don't know how to move in new features with the proper "don't do evil" communications pioneered by Google, but better to move a little more slowly with consensus than to try to act in an overtly proprietary manner. Publishers who know how to treat their users as publishers are going to be very successful in the years ahead; those who cannot manage that paradigm, whether they be trendy or established, are not likely to build the implicit trust that's required in a more democratic arena of content aggregation. We have met the publishers, and they is us.
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