The power of two

I spent this week at John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Partly because MG SIegler was on fire, doing a hybrid live blogging/news analysis stream that let me mine the hallway conversation, and mostly because John Battelle poured a ton of research and preparation into a relentless pursuit of the “story” — namely Twitter. John asked the questions we all wanted asked, leaving plenty of time to relax and enjoy the moment when the Big Guys finally showed their cards.

We’ll soon see how well these cards are being played, but for now the one fundamental fact is that, as with Noah, there are two of everything. Twitter and Facebook. Google and Microsoft. Scoble and Scoble (the one at the top of the thread and the one at the bottom.) This is very important because it undercuts the rationale for throwing FUD at the BigCos by turning us all into Missouri. If there are two locked trunks (varying degrees perhaps or not, doesn’t matter) then we can make up our minds for ourselves. The result: a valid user contract.

The reason a valid user contract is important is that it shifts the argument from who’s doing what to whom to what are we agreeing to do with our data. We may have argued over the value of Track on an individual basis, but this week’s announcements underline its value in aggregate. The hostility over the embargo of realtime search eased when FriendFeed opened things back up with realtime conversation; now the Facebook acquisition is being used to restart the notion of exclusion. But it has much less force once we notice that, just as with the Fail Whale, FriendFeed will continue until it morphs into a Facebook hybrid. We will continue to have a choice, and will validate those, preferably two, who continue to scratch the aggregate itch.

Viewed through the lense of the power of two, big memes like scalability and market force take on a different hue. What does it matter to me how good Windows 7 is in the abstract, as a revenue splash for Microsoft or as a funding mechanism for whatever the company is trying to do in the WebOS era? Not a lot, but certainly much less than in the context of OS/X, WebKit, iPhone, Android, etc. In context, Windows 7 drives the motion of the two forward. It means that Google Voice drives Apple to drive AT&T to open the door, while driving the Android ecosystem to firm up its AppStore and bake out its alternate proposition. It’s like what Tim Berners-Lee is doing, playing the US and UK governments off each other in a race to document transparency.

This counter-surge disruption draws its power from the elasticity of the network and the cloud computing model. Next to this inexorable self-correcting dynamic, the politics of both FUD and silence fail miserably. If the sound sucks on a Startup School webcast from Berkeley, wait a half hour and the chorus of Fails prompts a fix. If you have to leave to drive to the event, get someone to patch the feed into Ustream so you can monitor from the car. If the car doesn’t play iPhone app audio, get a car that does it right. These micro-decisions in ones and twos make a small ripple; in a cascading social wave, you get Twitter and FriendFeed and Facebook and Google and Microsoft. And in that world, you get a new media model.

The mistake (if that’s what it is and not the fuel for progress) that’s made in identifying any one node as directly competitive with another is that the least important aspect becomes the defining metric of success. In fact, FriendFeed is wildly successful because it does not compare directly with Twitter or Facebook in scale or “user friendliness” but rather creates the ability to do things in the context of those successes. If Twitter lists make some of those FriendFeed processes possible in the larger platform, it only accelerates the value proposition of the aggregate tools. The barrier to entry is in finding complementary roles for new players beyond the first two or three.

Evean Williams’comment about there being room for both Twitter and Facebook may have been good politics, but it also reflects the larger reality of the power of two. Minus Twitter, Facebook remains trapped in its internal domain, without the escape route opened by Adsense to allow Google to achieve scale to create pressure on Microsoft. Without Facebook, Twitter has no vehicle for moving into the larger company’s private (and enterprise) market. FriendFeed is as much the structural backbone for Twitter as it is for Facebook, and Williams’ comments about not seeing two-way synchronization as particularly useful between the two clouds was the least perceptive comment he made at Web 2.0. In fact, the power of two will mandate full sync whether he likes it or not.

Forget the noise about FriendFeed and its founders being elites or two engineering-focused or whatever Silicon Valley spam you hear. If you’re looking for signals about where this thing is moving, look to the voices that are making the turbine spin. It says nothing about the various entities that make up the technology environment, negative or positive, to deride any one node. Commercial, social, open, pay-per-view, whatever. The most disruptive thing I saw on stage at Web 2.0 came from ComCast’s Brian Roberts, with the beta on-demand service that erases the boundary of the TV and the computer. This has gone wll beyond the politics of exclusion, the swiftboating of any individual, company, ideology, format, or layer of the stack. That won’t stop the sniping, but nobody really cares.