Last week Facebook launched Graph Search. This is an attempt to turn Facebook into Google – i.e. make it a place where people go to ask questions, but with the supposedly added bonus that the information you receive is endorsed by people you know rather than people you don’t.
This is a very important step, not just for Facebook, because it could come to be understood as one of the critical opening skirmishes in the Battle of Big Data. How it plays-out could have enormous implications for the commercial future of many social media properties, including Google.
This is how the Battle of Big Data squares-up. On the one hand you have platforms, such as Google and Facebook, amassing huge behavioural data sets based on information that users give out through their usage of these infrastructures. Googlebook then sells access to this data gold mine to whom-ever wants it. On the other hand you have the platform users, who, up until this point, have been relatively happy to hand-over their gold. The reason for this is that these users see this information as being largely inconsequential, and have no real understanding of its considerable value or the significant consequences of letting an algorithm know what you had for lunch. The fisticuffs begins when these users start to understand these consequences – because in most instances, their reaction is to say “stop – give me back control over my data.”
There is an enormous amount riding on this. If users start to make demands to repatriate, or have greater control over, their data – this delivers hammer blows to the commercial viability of Googlebook type businesses, who are either making huge amounts of money from their existing data goldmine, or have valuations that are based on the future prospect of creating such goldmines. It also starts to open-up the field for new platforms that make data privacy and control a fundamental part of their proposition.
Initial reports from the field are not encouraging (for Facebook). There were immediate issues raised about privacy implications which Facebook had to pacify (see this Mashable piece) and significant negative comment from the user community – as reported in this Marketing Week article. See also this further analysis from Gary Marshall at TechRadar. It will be very interesting to see how this plays-out.
From another perspective, I think this announcement illustrates what Facebook believes is its advantage over Google – i.e. its sociability and the fact that it can deliver information that is endorsed by people that you know. The interesting thing about this is that the power of social media lies in its ability to create the processes that allow you to trust strangers. The value of the information can therefore based on the relevance or expertise of the source – not the fact that they are a friend. Google is the master of this in a largely unstructured way, and services such as Amazon or even TripAdvisor can deliver this via a more structured process. Facebook can’t really do this, because it neither has Google level access to enough broad-spectrum data, not does it have processes relevant to specific tasks (Trip Advisor for travel – Amazon for product purchase).