Please Stand By

testpatternDare Obasanjo writes about Facebook’s news feed redesign and decides it is a big mistake. He’s backed by some 94% of users responding to a Facebook application poll, and cites internal gossip that Mark Zuckerberg thinks user feedback is irrelevant. I think Dare is premature in this assessment.

First of all, Facebook is not copying Twitter; it’s copying FriendFeed, who originally copied Twitter. Where Obasanjo describes two different models – phone book and micromessaging – there already are three, including personalized aggregation or what I will call the micro-portal. Facebook already had part of the last functionality, so its opening of the micromessaging stream consolidates all three legs of the tripod.

In doing so, Facebook is counting on the same relative inertia that Twitter has so carefully cultivated. The calculation is that 175 million people are less likely to move away from something than they are to wait and see what is going to happen. Twitter decided they could stonewall third parties once a critical mass was reached, parrying attempts to build competitive subservices by slowing down API access. Today’s Twitter to FriendFeed delay: a reported 40 minutes.

Why would Facebook users leave? They’d have to have a reason, another better service that provides what they apparently feel is lost by the news stream reworking. Certainly not Twitter, the counter-metaphor that is allegedly causing the trouble. Then who? MySpace? Open Social? Windows Live? Why? The problem with Dare’s thesis is that there’s no motivation to leave something that continues to provide the fundamental service, phone book, The devil you know…

Assuming inertia is not the same thing as discounting the concerns of users. This realtime landrush has captivated millions and encouraged a fundamental shift from blogging and print-based media to a swarming vestigial soup of emotion, information, and complete bullshit that is impossible to ignore. Put simply, what Facebook and Twitter are trying to tame is a wave of innovation with an impact not unlike that the 30 second TV ad triggered.

Before the 30-second spot, companies were known by their names: British Telecom, Federal Express, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Afterwards, the names were literally changed to their contractions: BT, FedEx, KFC. Speed became the brand. The cable news networks turned the news cycle into the news stream. With the DVR, the content became the commercial, with product placement compressing seconds into microsecond glimpses in fast forward.

The microstream behaves according to a set of rules not of its choosing but defined by its users. The twin coordinates of follow and track are the immutables: who do you care about and how can you be signaled. Once you open the channel, you make a decision about flow – a signal to noise algorithm that can only be fine-tuned if the calculation of value is responsive to changing events. Track is dynamic, the magic elixir that converts the normal into the exceptional.

Look around. Everywhere you hear the wail of those beleaguered by the microstream, helpless in the face of having to choose between giving up or being overwhelmed. What would we have given to have anticipated the collapse of the world economy, the few valuable signals that would have gotten us out while the getting was good? The value of information is in its timeliness, wrapped in the context of behavior by those we have learned to trust for their instincts, insights, courage, and humor in the face of the obvious.

Whoever conquers Track will be like those who made music and pictures come out of thin air, coursing over invisible wires and virtual rabbit ears. The big networks emerged out of that soup, and to this day they remain powerful beacons. Now the social media clouds are forming, and they have no choice but to confront and conquer the microstream.

Facebook has no choice but to unleash the flow, and they have the horses to deliver Track in the near term. Once that occurs, Twitter will have to choose to stand pat and wait out the confusion, or deliver a commercial Track of their own. What Dare Obasanjo describes as a fact:

On Twitter, users explicitly decide as part of following someone that they want all of the person’s tweets in their stream. In fact, this is the only feature of the relationship on Twitter.

is more likely a factoid, an assumption of intent based on what the creators of a service decided. In fact, Twitter was a side project of a podcasting service, and Track was a late-night coding experiment that users turned into what is likely the company’s business model.

Following someone for all their tweets is just one part of the equation. Tracking them for interaction signals is also important, as are realtime conversations archived to a common container. We’ve all seen the advantages of a single stream of information, whether it’s email and then IM as Gmail pioneered, or email and IM and micromessages as is being pioneered right now. If you listen carefully to Ev Williams’ comments on Charlie Rose recently, you’ll see he and his team understand this.

Facebook does too, and its decision to carefully unbundle some of its feature set from its walled garden approach should not be underestimated, as I believe Dare does. It’s a matter of numbers, in this case how many will drop off or materially change how they use Facebook in ways that will reduce the service’s momentum. Facebook Connect continues to accelerate in the marketplace, expanding the leverage of the firewalled social graph around the network.

For the advanced user, an open Facebook stream and Track delivers Twitter track for free. What Twitter is now doing to a smaller competitor (FriendFeed) will not play as well with its bigger rival. Imagine what a marketing bonanza for Facebook Pages would occur if contests that depend on realtime entries (like the 30th caller to a radio station) were off limits to Twitter users whose tweets are delayed by 4 minutes, let alone 40.

Obasanjo makes much of the difference between Twitter’s intended stream and Facebook’s accidental one:

The fact that you got a news feed was kind of a side effect of filling out your virtual rolodex but it was cool because you got the highlights of what were going on in the lives of your friends and family. There is a legitimate problem that you weren’t getting the full gist of everything your 120 contacts (average number of Facebook friends) were doing online but it would clearly lead to information overload to get up to the minute updates about the breakfast habits of some guy who sat next to you in middle school.

Information overload. Side Effect. Some guy from middle school. Track solves all these problems, for each and every cloud. Please stand by. We are experiencing technical difficulties, but we’ll be right back