I had the privilege of listening to Alex Schultz, a director of Facebook’s Growth Team, speak at MozCon about the future of search. With only one, monolithic slide behind him – reading “Facebook” – he painted a picture of a web where the “…enterprise is being rebuilt from the ground up.” Alex, in a Steve Jobs-esque way, tried to lead the audience to the conclusion that all web sites should adopt Facebook as their means to identify patrons as individual Facebook users (without the end-user consent, of course). If someone is logged in to Facebook, does that mean that they should be logged in everywhere?
Now, wait a minute. Has the enterprise been shaken as far as Alex would like us to believe? Maybe the web has always been identifiable in some form. Let’s take a step back for a moment (this might seem weird, but just humor me).
As humans, society began as a series of tribes hunting and gathering. We lived in huts, where the only thing separating ourselves was sheepskin (if that). Slowly, as civilization advanced, we learned to build better walls to separate ourselves from our social colleagues. Sheepskin became adobe. Adobe became stone. Stone became brick, and so on. Even as technology progressed, the most important barrier existed from the very beginning.
The psychological barrier – it’s what compelled us to raise those walls, regardless of the materials. Even while living in a sheepskin hut, we believed a thin, fragile barrier provided security. In the same way, we believe our computers/laptops provide security. We try to ignore the fact that our IP addresses bind information to a unique destination. We forget that web sites place cookies on our computers to track conversion rates and click-through rates. Who cares if someone is in your home, as long as you never notice?
The point I am trying to make is that anonymity has never existed. Facebook is simply attempting to capitalize on it. Facebook would love to have all of your user statistics traced back to one account. This makes it that much easier for Facebook to market the data to third-party companies. It’ s somewhat ironic that Facebook would be marketing this idea to marketers at a marketing conference.
Google, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. Instead of tracing all action to an individual, they’ve traced a series of actions to an individual instance. One doesn’t have to log in to Google in order to use it, so Google gathers the “anonymous” data across many users to arrive at a consensus. “People who search like this will probably like that.” It might not be as precise as Facebook, but it also doesn’t have as many constraints. Google lets the math decide, and that’s what scares Facebook.
Facebook is completely reliant on its users spoon-feeding data into its system. If it were to lose that, it would have nothing. Google, with its algorithms already in place, has just introduced its own UGC system, Google+. Unless the Facebook/Microsoft alliance can pull off a miracle of data integration, system integration, and algorithmic analysis, this round will easily go to Google.
In a way, this is just another example of brute force (crowd sourced data) verses brains (algorithms). You can bet on brains to win this one.