Great Social Networks Steal

In praise of Facebook’s thievery.

Last fall, I spoke to Mark Zuckerberg about a common Facebook dilemma: We’re not equally friendly with all our online “friends.” Some of your Facebook pals are very dear to you, while others are merely acquaintances, long-lost family members, estranged co-workers, or guys from college who still owe you 50 bucks. At the time, Facebook had just unveiled one way to solve this problem—a feature called Groups, which let people create a shared space on the site. For instance, you could create a group for your friends from high-school band class, and then those people could invite others from band into the group. This saved you the hassle of poring over your friends list in search of all the band members. Sure, this approach had potential pitfalls—what if someone tagged a non-band jerk into the group?—but Zuckerberg argued that it was the best way the company could think of to divide up your friends.

“For example, look at the algorithmic solution,” Zuckerberg said, referring to the idea that Facebook could use the data it had about you and your friends to automatically suggest who should be in which groups. “Would you trust an algorithm that said, ‘OK, we’ve defined who your close friends are?’ Would you ever use that list for anything? No. ‘Close friends’ would be different for every single person.”

I found Zuckerberg’s argument convincing; it did seem dodgy to let a computer define your social circles. So I was surprised when, this week, Facebook unveiled a feature called Smart Lists. “Managing lists is boring. That’s why smart lists do the work for you,” Blake Ross, Facebook’s director of product, explained in a blog post. Now every Facebook user will see lists called Work, School, Family, and City that are automatically populated with people in your networks. In other words, Facebook has embraced the “algorithmic solution” that Zuckerberg pooh-poohed last year.

I’m not criticizing the young CEO for changing his mind. In fact, I think he should be praised for following the crowd. Zuckerberg was moved to create a better way to create lists for one reason: Other people were doing it. Google’s new social network, Google+, is built on the idea that dividing your friends into groups should be easier than it is on Facebook. (I didn’t find Google+’s method so much better, though.) In August, a startup called Katango released a Web app that automatically sorts your Facebook friends—and it became an instant hit. Facebook, predictably, was watching. Despite the CEO’s one-time skepticism, they wasted little time building these ideas into the big kahuna of social networks.

This is Facebook’s greatest strength: Zuckerberg and his minions copy everyone else’s best ideas freely, unashamedly, and really, really well. Just after announcing Smart Lists this week, Facebook launched another big feature. The site’s new Subscribe button lets you get specific people’s updates directly in your News Feed, even people you haven’t friended. Sound familiar? It should, because subscribing to someone on Facebook is exactly like following someone on Twitter.

On Facebook, friendship has always been a two-way street—this was one of its core principles. But Twitter’s success apparently led the company to decide it was flexible on that point. Facebook has been similarly inspired by lots more features around the Web. The site’s other recent initiatives include check-ins (cribbed from Foursquare), Deals (Groupon), Questions (Quora), and mobile chatting with a group of friends (GroupMe). Star Trek fans will recognize this promiscuous pilfering as the principal tactic of the Borg. Like that futuristic collective, Facebook roams the tech universe in search of interesting technology, then mercilessly assimilates all the best stuff into its ever-larger catalog of features.

This dynamic has two benefits, one for the company and one for its users. First, copying keeps Facebook on top—every feature the site co-opts increases its chokehold on the social network market and weakens its rivals. But Facebook’s quick assimilation of the best Web ideas is also good for its hordes of users. Facebook is never beholden to dogma. Zuckerberg might have believed that a computer couldn’t organize your friends list very well, but Katango proved that it could, and that people would love it. So why not give the people what they want?

I suspect that Facebook will be sensitive to the charge that it gets ahead by imitation. After all, Facebook’s very founding has been clouded by charges of theft. (Those charges are bogus, I say.) But I bet that Zuckerberg also recognizes the long history of pilfering in the tech industry. Some of the best companies in tech are as adept at imitating as they are at inventing. Look at Apple, Microsoft, and Google. The original Mac was the most innovative desktop computer ever built, but it was inspired by a flurry of ideas about the graphical user interface first developed at Xerox PARC. Microsoft’s Windows was, in turn, inspired by the Mac. And then look at Google’s Android phone: It’s a wonderful platform that has seen tremendous success in the market—but it is also, undeniably, an imitation of the iPhone. And early, pre-iPhone-imitating Android devices weren’t exactly original—they looked like the BlackBerry.

Silicon Valley has a grudging respect for aggressive assimilation. In a famous 1994 interview, Steve Jobs quoted Picasso: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Jobs elaborated, “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done. And then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. … We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Stealing, as Jobs defined it, has become much more difficult over the years. Tech companies are accustomed to patenting everything they come up with, and they hire lots of lawyers to protect those patents. That’s why all the companies that make mobile phones and tablets are now suing one another. They’ve all made gadgets that (necessarily) crib one another’s inventions, but they’re obliged, by their attorneys, to protect their patents. Nowadays Jobs feels differently about copying: “We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it,” he said in a statement in March 2010, announcing Apple’s decision to sue HTC.

The Web software world isn’t as patent-happy as the phone business, so—for now—Facebook is free to grab what it wants with both fists. I hope they keep at it. If there’s a good feature on some other social network, why should I have to leave Facebook to get it?