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Is Facebook a Marxian Paradise?

June 2nd, 2008 by Max Gladwell · No Comments

Chris Messina draws comparisons between Facebook and the former Soviet Union.

We’ve joined Umair Haque and others in both analyzing and finding fault with Facebook’s tactics, drawing our own lighthearted comparison to the Star Wars saga. In a recent blog post, Chris Messina draws inspiration from a Robert Kaplan quote and finds a compelling analogy between Facebook and none other than the USSR.

Low hills closed in on either side as the train eventually crawled on to high, tabletop grasslands creased with snow. Birds flew at window level. I could see lakes of an unreal cobalt blue to the north. The train pulled into a sprawling rail yard: the Kazakh side of the Kazakhstan-China border.

Workers unhitched the cars, lifted them, one by one, ten feet high with giant jacks, and replaced the wide-guage Russian undercarriages with narrower ones for the Chinese tracks. Russian gauges, still in use throughout the former Soviet Union, are wider than the world standard. The idea was to the prevent invaders from entering Russia by train. The changeover took hours.

— Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth

The tracks are analogous to social web standards. Driven by fear and motivated by control, the Soviets built a walled garden (if by “garden” you mean a communist dictatorship), where train tracks serve as the walls. On the social web, Google, MySpace, Ning, and many more are pushing OpenSocial to become the “world standard”, so our virtual trains can travel unimpeded throughout the social websphere from site to site (city to city and country to country), complete with our bar cars and Pullman cars full of friends and data. Facebook, on the other hand, wants to build its own standard, which is clearly motivated by a similar set of fears. Hence, their command-and-control tactics. What’s even more interesting about Messina’s analogy is that it includes broader, environmental and cultural components:

The problem is not about being open here. Everyone gets that there’s marginal competitive advantage to keeping your code closed anymore. Keeping your IP cards close to your chest makes you a worse card player, not better. The problem is with adoption, gaining and maintaining [developer] interest and in stoking distribution. And, that brings me to the fall of the Communism and the USSR, back where I started.

I wasn’t alive back when the Cold War was in its heyday. Maybe I missed something, but let’s just go on the assumption that things are better off now. From what I’m reading in Kaplan’s book, I’d say that the Soviets left not just social, but environmental disaster in their wake. The whole region of Central Asia, at least in the late 90s, was fucked. And while there are many causes, more complex than I can probably comprehend, a lot of it seems to have to do with a lack of cultural identity and a lack of individual agency in the areas affected by, or left behind by, Communist rule.

When you whiteboard out this analogy, the social web becomes our global society and each social media service or website becomes a region, nation-state, or city…with blogs as the newspapers. It’s quite the picture. The analogy is apt because both society and the social web are human constructs, driven by our social nature. They should, therefore, exhibit similar behavior. The question, then, is whether we’re witnessing the evolution of two superpowers and spheres of influence on the social web? Will this drive innovation or will it end up as a zero-sum arms race?

On the one hand, we have a nanny state who thinks that it knows best and needs to protect its users from themselves, and on the other, a lassé-faire-trusting band of bros who are looking to the free market to inform the design of the Social Web writ large. On the one hand, there’s uncertainty about how to build a “national identity”-slash-business on top of lots of user data (that, oh yeah, I thought was supposed to be “owned” by the creators), and on the other, a model of the web, that embraces all its failings, nuances and spaghetti code, but that, more than likely, will stand the test of time as a durable provider of the kind of liberty and agency and free choice that wins out time and again throughout history.

That Facebook is attempting to open source it platform, to me, sounds like offering the world a different rail gauge specification for building train tracks. It may be better, it may be slicker, but the flip side is that the Russians used the same tactic to try to keep people from having any kind of competitive advantage over their people or influence over how they did business. You can do the math, but look where it got’em.

And what is Microsoft’s role in this? Is Redmond pulling Facebook’s strings?

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Tags: Social Networking · Web 2.0