Facebook, Steve Jobs, And Dog Day Afternoon

In his most recent email blast-turned-blog post, Jason Calacanis has chosen a familiar subject: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The post is more focused than his previous one about Zuckerberg, but in some ways, it’s more outrageous as well. In case you haven’t been following along for the past couple of months, Calacanis is no fan of Zuckerberg and the way he’s handled the recent privacy fiasco or his company. He’s hardly alone. But in this latest post, Calacanis (humorously) compares himself to Serpico, the whistle-blowing cop (a real-life figure) played by Al Pacino, in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 film of the same name. And he gives Zuckerberg five “simple” ways to make Facebook more trustworthy.

Calacanis has asked for a response to his thoughts, so I figured I’d write it out just as I did to respond to his “The Case Against Apple-in Five Parts” rant last Summer. To be clear, many of Facebook’s recent privacy issues are very real. And Facebook, as usual, has done a poor job addressing many of them and managing the backlash. That said, the overall implication Calacanis keeps making that Facebook (or Zuckerberg in particular) is in some way an evil force out to screw us all is silly. Calacanis brings up Serpico, but this actually reminds me of another Lumet/Pacino pairing: Dog Day Afternoon. In that film at one point, Pacino’s bank robbing character, Sonny, starts screaming “Attica! Attica!” over and over again, invoking the Attica Prison riots in order to get the people to rise up against the police.

So is Calacanis Frank Serpico? Or is he Sonny Wortzik? The five points:

1. Add an export key

Okay, this seems like a fair idea at a high level, but the key to this is the details. Calacanis wants a button that a user can click and get returned all of their data in some kind of file format (similar to the tools most blogging software offer, for example). “In the case of Facebook you could do this by having the ability for users to export all their photos, contacts and–gasp–their social graph!,” he writes. Okay, contacts is simple enough, but their social graph? What exactly does that mean? The connections you have with everyone else on Facebook? How exactly do you export that? And even if you do, where else do you import that to?

If it’s an XML file showing who you’re connected to, how would another service be able to use that? They’d have to be able to match names to names — assuming that those people were also on their service in the first place. And if it’s not for import into another service, what use would this be to the user? Just peace of mind?

Further, the picture export is interesting. For a long time, the major critique against Facebook was that it was a completely closed garden. What’s funny now is that in some regard, we’re hearing almost the exact opposite complaint. Pictures is a good example of this because you can (finally) allow other services to import your pictures (and more importantly, keep them for more than 24 hours) through the new Open Graph Protocol. Sure, this isn’t exactly a user-friendly export — but I’d actually argue that no user-export feature is user-friendly. All pump out XML files (or the like) that 99.9% of users have no idea what to do with.

Better would be if a third-party service built this exporter tool (which Calacanis does sort of allude to). But that again would bring up privacy issues. What data about your social graph should this tool be allowed to access and export? Your data is the obvious answer, but the social graph means grabbing at least some data from others as well.

Calacanis does note that “no more than 1% of users would ever use this feature” — that’s undoubtedly true — so it’s important to note just how complicated it would likely be for Facebook to offer this sort of export. Aside from pictures and contacts (again, simple enough), you have status updates, social game data, wall posts, videos, etc, etc, etc. And you have all of this for connections between the nearly 500 million Facebook users. If we think the Privacy settings are a nightmare (and they are), I can’t even begin to imagine what the export settings would look like. And how much work would this require Facebook to put in for a feature that basically no one would use?

It’s a nice thought, but I’m not sure how much more trustworthy this would make Facebook seem to the average user.

2. Support a common ‘Like’ standard

Okay, this obviously isn’t a new idea — in fact, it sprung up at the same time that Facebook’s Like button did. Here’s the problem with this: it sounds great in theory, but would it be great in practice? And further, while it may be nice if Facebook supported something like this, they are still a company with their own goals, so what’s the benefit of supporting it from their perspective?

Calacanis’ stance is obviously that the benefit of Facebook supporting this would be as a gesture of good will towards both the open community and the larger web community that they (according to him) have screwed over again and again. Okay, again, that’s a nice thought, but I’m not sure it outweighs the benefits of Facebook having its own product. As I see it, there are two key benefits to this:

1) Facebook gets all of the “like” data. This is the core of why a lot of critics hate the Like button, but it’s also the core of why Facebook is doing it. This information is valuable both because it helps Facebook’s stated goal to make the web “more connected”, and it allows Facebook to be the service that can be the best at doing that. And it’s also undoubtedly valuable from a monetization perspective. Facebook won’t yet say how such data will be used to serve up ads, but it likely will be in the same way that Google searches are. No one calls Google evil for doing this (or at least, that has died down over the years), so why can’t Facebook do it? Newly instated CTO, Bret Taylor, recently told VentureBeat the following about the Like button:

Let me clear something up. We are 100 percent focused on explicit data. We have pretty strict data retention policies. The implicit data is anonymized after 90 days. We use it to measure something called “like-through” rate so we understand how the buttons and plug-ins are used and how we can improve them.

2) Facebook can control the experience. If the Like button was an open standard, Facebook would have to wait for whatever standard body is overseeing it to make changes. Chris Saad had a great guest post on Mashable the other day about some of these issues. In it, he writes, “Facebook’s challenge, however, is that they are pioneering many of these interactions and can’t necessarily wait for standards to emerge or crystallize before acting.” While he doesn’t specifically mention the Like button, Saad undoubtedly wants to see Facebook adopt an open version — but he also wisely acknowledges that it may not be in their best interest to do so in the short term. And he points out that Facebook leading the way in new areas gives ideas for new open standards, such as OpenLike.

Calacanis goes on to say that Facebook should support the Like standard rather than “steal everyone’s ideas and incorporate them into your product and then make them closed,” but I’ll get to that in a second.

3. Do not require folks to use your currency

I’m not sure this would actually make Facebook “more trustworthy” at all. Calacanis says the service should allow “100 different currencies inside of Facebook“, but wouldn’t it seem more trustworthy to users if they had the one simple option that Facebook vouched for?

Calacanis uses a good portion of his post to heap praise on Apple CEO Steve Jobs, saying that Zuckerberg could learn a lot from him — but this one payment system rule is the exact same system Jobs has in place in the iTunes/iPhone/iPad ecosystem. In fact, I have no doubt that this movement to Facebook Credits is Zuckerberg learning from Jobs. Some techies bitch about Apple’s system being “closed” in this regard, but customers don’t. They like the simplicity. Can you imagine if developers were allowed to offer 100 different ways to pay for things through iTunes? Would that make the system more trustworthy? No, it would make it a lot less trustworthy.

I just don’t get this argument at all. This might make Facebook more trustworthy to third-party payment systems, but not really to anyone else. And further, the praise of Jobs in this post seems to directly go against much of the criticism against him in the post from last Summer that I responded to.

4. Remind users of their privacy setting

This idea Calacanis did pull directly from Steve Jobs. At the D Conference, Calacanis quotes Jobs as saying, “Privacy means people know what they are signing up for in plain English. Some people want to share more data. Ask them. Ask them every time. Let them know precisely what you are going to do with their data.” Calacanis takes that and says that Facebook should: “Require a dialogue box every 10 days or so that reminds users of the default status of their updates before posting them, and allow them to set their standard privacy setting in that dialogue box.” Setting aside the fact that this would annoy a huge percentage of those 500 million users to no end, that’s not exactly what Jobs was talking about.

Sure, Jobs played up Apple’s respect of user privacy in broad terms, but what he was actually referring to there was the sharing of location data. When you load up a new iPhone app, it prompts you if it’s going to use your location data (which you have to opt-in to). But for native apps, this setting is remembered (not brought up again every 10 days). Meanwhile, in Safari, each time you load an app that wants to use location data, there’s a prompt each time — and let me tell you, it’s annoying as hell to have to hit “Okay” each time.

Google is actually better than Apple at letting users know what each app does. Every time you install an app on Android, you’re alerted what it needs access to in order to fully function. Sure, you could argue that Android needs to do this since it doesn’t have the same locked-down App Store approval policies as Apple does, but it’s still worth noting that Apple isn’t quite as strong here as you may believe. And why not? Again, some of it is because of the App Store policies, but some of it is also because such prompts take away from the user experience.

Also, one application that does prompt you about your sharing of information every so often is Google’s Latitude. Because it’s running all the time in the background, every so often they send you an email to let you know it’s on, and to see if you’d like to turn it off. It’s a pretty good way of handling a controversial feature — but the key there is “feature” — it would be overkill for Facebook to do that for all of its privacy settings.

It’s also important to note that both of these Google and Apple “prompt” examples are about location. Facebook does not yet have a location feature. And you can be sure that the recent privacy flare-up is one of the reason they haven’t released anything yet.

5. Stop stealing every idea out there and partner!

This is an interesting point because (like point 3) it has absolutely nothing to do with the users. Users don’t care if Facebook is copying ideas from other startups. Most of them would have no idea. So I guess this is for Facebook to be more “trustworthy” within the startup community. But Calcanis’ argument breaks down quickly here.

In terms of stealing other features — Facebook absolutely has done this in the past. But to bring up Calacanis’ newfound hero again, Steve Jobs has a favorite Picasso quote on this. To which he adds, “we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Calacanis notes: “The proper protocol in the valley is to at least try and partner, or purchase, the startups who have innovated in a space you’re going into. It’s clear you have no intention of doing that, and hey, that’s your right!

In my very first post for TechCrunch, I noted that Facebook was more or less copying FriendFeed, and that the Facebook you’d be using in the future would look exactly like it. What ended up happening? 4 months later, Facebook purchased FriendFeed.

Twitter is another company that Facebook has clearly been emulating. You may recall that Facebook tried very hard to buy them, but Twitter (probably wisely) wouldn’t sell.

In terms of partnering up with other startups, Facebook does seem to do this quite a bit. With video events, for example, they often use Ustream. For their own events, rather than selling their own tickets, they use Eventbrite.

So I’m just not sure about Facebook having “no intention” of partnering with or buying (even if only attempting to buy) other startups.

That being said, no one trusts you any more after you screwed app developers and lifted Twitter, FourSquare, Quora and countless other startups’ innovations,” Calacanis writes. Twitter was already addressed, but Foursquare is an interesting one to bring up since, again, Facebook’s location features haven’t launched yet. That said, the indications are that Facebook will actually team up with services like Foursquare in some way to federate their check-ins. This again, is hardly smashing the competition.

As for Quora, it’s a product being built by ex-Facebook executives (not just your average new startup). And Facebook has already said (on Quora, no less) that it’s not trying to compete with Quora.

Attica! Attica! Attica!

Again, does Facebook have some privacy issues? Of course. But the real question we need to be asking ourselves is: why? Is it because the company and its CEO is evil and/or doesn’t give a shit about the users? I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: if you honestly believe that, quit Facebook immediately. Don’t blog about it, don’t tweet that you’re thinking of doing it, just do it and never look back.

Personally, I have a hard time believing that. I do not believe we’re in some old-school James Bond movie where villains do evil things just to be evil. Nor do I believe this some new-school James Bond movie where villains do evil things for money. Is Facebook trying to make money? Of course. But they’d have to be the dumbest company run by some of the smartest minds in the world to start doing evil things on purpose to make money and believe that is a long-term business strategy. Everyone would follow my advice above and the company would go under.

Some people (like Calacanis) think we’re seeing that now. But the fact of the matter is that despite a lot of hubbub in the tech media, most users don’t seem to be fleeing — just as they didn’t after the last flare up, and just as they didn’t the time before that. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people joined Facebook on Quit Facebook Day than actually quit. Instead, Facebook continues to grow at an expanding rate. The limiting factor there seems more likely to be the number of people on Earth rather than privacy concerns.

So if the company isn’t evil and/or does actually give a shit about its users, then why are we seeing these very real privacy issues? Because they’re trying to do something very difficult. Facebook is trying to move from a service where most of the data is some level of private (which again, many people used to bitch about), to a service where much of the data is shared. If you believe them, they’re doing it because this will be the future of the web.

Twitter has had this stance since their inception, so for them, there is no controversy. But considering Facebook’s more private history, the transition is rough (to say the least). This is a big, ballsy bet for them. But that’s how Facebook got to where it is today — by making big, ballsy bets.

And again, I don’t think it’s in the name of screwing over the users — remember: most have signed up in the past year and don’t have the same notions of privacy on the service as some of us long-time users may. And I also don’t think this bet is entirely about making money (though some of it is). I think that many people at Facebook actually believe the steps they’re taking to make the larger web more social will lead to a better web. (If they didn’t believe that, wouldn’t we see a lot of them quitting?) And we can all take comfort in the fact that if they’re wrong, history will shove them aside. But I actually think history is on their side here.

Calacanis can build cases against Apple and Facebook all he wants (and then later make a case for Apple against Facebook, or something), but the fact of the matter is that the masses aren’t with him here. Why? Either A: they clearly don’t think Apple or Facebook are evil or they wouldn’t support them the way that they are. Or B: they simply don’t give a shit. Or C: both. I’m tempted to go with C, but I’m going to go with A here.

And if that’s the case, screaming “Attica!” over and over again isn’t going to work. It’s just going to make you lose your voice.

Also, Lakers in 6.

[images: Warner Brothers]