The Browser

Social Warfare

Google and Facebook battle for your friends.

Also in Slate, Farhad Manjoo says there are no longer any reasons to be a Facebook holdout.

Every so often I am reminded how primitive the Web really is. This usually happens after chatting with someone who works for Google. Recently, I interviewed David Glazer, who thinks about “being social” for the big G. He pointed out the caveman quality of socializing online in 2009. We have friends on Facebook, shared items on Google Reader, blogs on Tumblr, bookmarks on Delicious, and a login at the New York Times, with each of these sites requiring different passwords and user names. Barbaric. And while there are smart companies such as FriendFeed and Plaxo that unite these activities in one place, we are far from what Google describes as the Holy Grail: “Any app, any site, any friend.”

Glazer offers this mental exercise to understand how an online social nirvana might benefit you: Think of an activity you do on the Web in a solitary way, and then imagine how that activity would be better if the site knew about the other people that you care about. I read the New York Times every day. In Glazer’s model, the Times would show me what articles my friends have read or give me a list of articles where they’ve left comments. That’s kind of a cool idea, and one that the Times is trying to pull off with its Times People feature. Glazer believes that everything on the Web is better if it’s social. Checking out a stock? It would be nice to read chatter from other potential investors. Baking a cake? Look at advice from those who have already tried the recipe. Tempted by a new restaurant? See if your foodie friends have eaten there already. The reason we don’t do these things now is that the “barriers to social are too high.” It’s still too annoying to fill out all of those registration forms, and there’s no universal way to manage your online identity and networks of friends. Google and its partners want to collapse the barriers to social and give each and every one of us an entourage.

There’s just one hiccup in this plan: Facebook, the place where many of us already have our entourage. The pre-eminent social network announced that it has 150 million active users worldwide. My Facebook story may be like yours: I joined on a whim, filling out a rudimentary profile on a lazy afternoon. Facebook took that information and, like a hostess powered by four vodka tonics, kept sending friends my way. (The site is a relentless shoulder-tapper.) Without trying too hard, I had 50 friends, and I soon got interested in managing that network, tagging people by school, workplace, hometown, and family. Facebook was nudging me to do something I would never normally do: map out the networks that link my world together.

In an almost sneaky way, Facebook had become very valuable to me. It’s my address book, only supercharged and more nuanced. Yet, as many Web commenters have pointed out, all of the work I’ve done on my “social graph” is held hostage on Facebook. I can’t download it to my computer and take it with me. To offer one prominent example: When blogger Robert Scoble tried to scrape his Facebook data, Facebook closed his account. Mark Zuckerberg and the people who run Facebook, no dummies, fiercely protect the social graph that they have created with our help. They do this for the admirable reason of safeguarding our privacy and the practical reason that the network has enormous potential value. The entire business story of Facebook can be seen as an attempt to leverage this information in a way that doesn’t feel like a home invasion.

This is where Google and David Glazer come back in, and why 2009 might see some serious social warfare between Google and Facebook. Last May, the latter announced a service called Facebook Connect, a set of tools that made it easier for Web developers to let people log in to sites with their Facebook ID and share things on their Facebook news feed. (A good place to try this out is the video site Vimeo.) Three days later, Google announced Friend Connect, a set of tools that made it easier for Web developers to do the same sorts of things, except outside the realm of Facebook. A site such as Qloud lets you join and comment with a Gmail or Yahoo account. So far, so good. But Facebook blocked Friend Connect from accessing its data, and now we have two rival social networks.

This may seem like an arcane, technical struggle, but I believe that a year from now, you are actually going to care who owns your social network. A lot of Facebook is flirting, photo sharing, and inane status lines, but we are also telling it how much we value certain people. I want to hear less about this person. I’m married to this person. Please block this person from ever contacting me in any way ever again. We are sorting out the entourage, or, to put it in a more utilitarian way, we are deciding which people are worthy sources of information.

One of the stresses of being on the Web is the vast amount of available information. It’s a condition that Clay Shirky has described as “filter failure“—we don’t know what sources to let in or what new sources have potential value. (Read this great interview for more Shirky insights.) One obviously great filter is our friends. And one of my favorite places for the random videos and fun links without which the modern workday could not be endured is my Facebook news feed. But my little salon of procrastination is under enormous pressure, as Facebook has yet to figure out the whole making-money thing. I would be bummed if the site had to spam me with ads in order to survive, yet I was forced to stay on Facebook because I wasn’t able to take my friend list to new pastures.

Facebook also knows this and is trying to figure out how open to be. It has the advantage of a huge lead in the size of its network. (More people means more opportunities to find new friends for you.) Meanwhile, Google and its partners are gesturing: Come be free and frolic on our open platform. Google and Facebook have said that they will one day play nicely with each other, but a lot is at stake on the social frontier. Glazer put it best: “People are inherently social—killer user habits are built around connecting to other people.” Killer user habits also make great marketing and advertising platforms.

The hope is that as Google and Facebook compete, we are fitfully making our way toward the benefits of portable social data, a sort of command center for our online self. The advocates of this openness discuss such sci-fi goodies as geolocation and “ambient controls” that would let us decide, like a dimmer switch, how much social information we want to receive. (If you need to get something done, change the setting to “Hermit.”) Keeping a close eye on your online identity might feel burdensome, like putting on a second set of clothes, but consider how much nicer it will be to manage how you look, rather than letting some algorithm do it for you.