Hyperlocal news site outside.in has released a new version of their API.
Hyperlocal news site outside.in has released a new version of their API.
I wanted to clarify my comments about Facebook’s similarities to AOL. I don’t think Facebook is a bad company or that they won’t be successful; they seem like smart passionate people who genuinely care about making a great space for their users.1 It’s just that I, unlike many other people, don’t think that Facebook and Facebook Platform are the future of the web. The platform is great for Facebook, but it’s a step sideways or even backwards (towards an AOL-style service) for the web.
Think of it this way. Facebook is an intranet for you and your friends that just happens to be accessible without a VPN. If you’re not a Facebook user, you can’t do anything with the site…nearly everything published by their users is private. Google doesn’t index any user-created information on Facebook.2 AFAIK, user data is available through the platform but that hardly makes it open…all of the significant information and, more importantly, interaction still happens in private. Compare this with MySpace or Flickr or YouTube. Much of the information generated on these sites is publicly available. The pages are indexed by search engines. You don’t have to be a user to participate (in the broadest sense…reading, viewing, and lurking are participating).
Faced with competition from this open web, AOL lost…running a closed service with custom content and interfaces was no match for the wild frontier of the web. Maybe if they’d done some things differently, they would have fared better, but they still would have lost. In competitive markets, open and messy trumps closed and controlled in the long run. Everything you can do on Facebook with ease is possible using a loose coalition of blogging software, IM clients, email, Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader, etc. Sure, it’s not as automatic or easy, but anyone can participate and the number of things to see and do on the web outnumbers the number of things you can see and do on Facebook by several orders of magnitude (and always will).
At some point in the future, Facebook may well open up, rendering much of this criticism irrelevant. Their privacy controls are legendarily flexible and precise…it should be easy for them to let people expose parts of the information to anyone if they wanted to. And as Matt Webb pointed out to me in an email, there’s the possibility that Facebook turn itself inside out and be the social network bit for everyone else’s web apps. In the meantime, maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about the web’s future moving onto an intranet.
 And I’m definitely not, as more than one person has suggested, “bitter” about Facebook’s success. Please. Just because you disagree with something doesn’t mean you’re angry. The only reason I even wrote that post is that I got tired of seeing the same people who think AOL sucked, that Times Select is a bad business decision for the NY Times, that are frustrated by IM interop, and that open participation on the web is changing business, media, and human culture for the better trumpeting that this new closed platform is the way forward. ↩
Earlier in the week, I made a comment in passing in a post about Vimeo:
you do know that Facebook is AOL 2.0, right?
A few people picked up on it and speculated what I might have meant by it. In reading those posts and poking around a bit, I found a post that Scott Heiferman made just after Facebook Platform launched in May:
While at Sony in 1994, I was sent to Virginia to learn how to build a Sony “app” on AOL (the #3 online service, behind Compuserve & Prodigy at the time) using AOL’s proprietary “rainman” platform.
Fast forward to Facebook 2007 and see similarities: If you want access to their big base of users, develop something in their proprietary language for their people who live in their walled garden.
Scott pretty much nails it here. I’ve no doubt that Facebook is excited about their new platform (their userbase is big enough that companies feel like they have to develop for it) and it’s a savvy move on their part, but I’m not so sure everyone else should be happy about it. What happens when Flickr and LinkedIn and Google and Microsoft and MySpace and YouTube and MetaFilter and Vimeo and Last.fm launch their platforms that you need to develop apps for in some proprietary language that’s different for each platform? That gets expensive, time-consuming, and irritating. It’s difficult enough to develop for OS X, Windows, and Linux simultaneously…imagine if you had 30 different platforms to develop for.
As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.
Fotolog launched in May 2002 and grew quite quickly at first. They’d clearly hit upon a good idea: sharing photos among groups of friends. As Fotolog grew, they ran into scaling problems…the site got slow and that siphoned off resources that could have been used to add new features to the site, etc. Problems securing funding for online businesses during the 3-4 years after the dot com bust didn’t help matters either.
Flickr launched in early 2004. By the end of their first year of operation, they had a cleaner design than Fotolog, more features for finding and organizing photos, and most of the people I knew on Fotolog had switched to Flickr more or less exclusively. They also had trouble with scaling issues and downtime. Flickr got the scaling issues under control and the site became one of the handful of companies to exemplify the so-called Web 2.0 revitalization of the web. The founders landed on tech magazine covers, news magazine covers, and best-of lists, the folks who built the site gave talks at technology conferences, and the company eventually sold to Yahoo! for a reported $30 million.
So. Then. Here’s where it gets puzzling. According to Alexa1, Fotolog is now the 26th most popular site on the web and recently became more popular than Flickr (currently #39). Here’s the comparison between the two over the last 3 years:
This is a somewhat stunning result because by all of the metrics held in high esteem by the technology media, Web 2.0 pundits, and those selling technology and design products & services, Flickr should be kicking Fotolog’s ass. Flickr has more features, a better design, better implementation of most of Fotolog’s features, more free features, critical praise, a passionate community, and access to the formidable resources & marketing power of Yahoo! And yet, Fotolog is right there with them. Perhaps this is a sign that those folks trapped in the Web 2.0 bubble are not being critical enough about what is responsible for success on the Web circa-2007. (As an aside, MySpace didn’t really fit the Web 2.0 mold either, nobody really talked about it until after it got huge, and yet here it is. And then there’s Craigslist, which is more Web 0.5 than 2.0, and is one of the most popular sites on the web. Google too.)
What’s going on here then? I can think of three possibilities (there are probably more):
1. Fotolog is very popular with Portugese and Spanish speakers, especially in Brazil. According to Wikipedia, almost 1/3rd of all Fotolog users are from Brazil and Chile. In comparing the two sites, what could account for this difference? Fotolog has a Spanish language option while Flickr does not (although I’m not sure when the Spanish version of Fotolog launched). Flickr is more verbose and text-intensive than Fotolog and much of Flickr’s personality & utility comes from the text while Fotolog is almost text-free; as a non-Spanish speaker, I could navigate the Spanish-language version quite easily. Gene Smith noted that a presentation made by a Brazilian internet company said that “Flickr is unappealing to Brazilians because they want to the customize the interface to express their individual identities”.
Cameron Marlow noticed that Orkut is set to pass MySpace as the world’s most popular social networking site (Orkut is also very popular in Brazil), saying that “Orkut’s growth reinforces the fact that the value of social networking services, and social software in general, comes from the base of active users, not the set of features they offer”. Marlow also notes that Alexa’s non-US reporting has improved over the past year, which might be the reason for Fotolog’s big jump in early 2006. If Alexa’s global reporting had been robust from the beginning, Fotolog may have been neck and neck with Flickr the whole time.
2. Flickr is more editorially controlled than Fotolog. The folks who run Flickr subtly and indirectly discourage poor quality photo contributions. Yes, upload your photos, but make them good. And the community reinforces that constraint to the point where it might seem restricting to some. Fotolog doesn’t celebrate excellence like that…it’s more about the social aspect than the photos.
3. Maybe tags, APIs, and Ajax aren’t the silver bullets we’ve been led to believe they are. Fotolog, MySpace, Orkut, YouTube, and Digg have all proven that you can build compelling experiences and huge audiences without heavy reliance on so-called Web 2.0 technologies. Whatever Web 2.0 is, I don’t think its success hinges on Ajax, tags, or APIs.
Update: You can see how much Fotolog depends on international usage for its traffic from this graph from Compete. They only use US statistics to compile their data. I don’t have access to the Comscore ratings, but they only count US usage and, like Alexa, undercount Firefox and Safari users. (thx, walter)
 Usual disclaimers about Alexa’s correctness apply. The point is that among some large amount of users, Fotolog is as popular (or even more) than Flickr. Whether those users are representative of the web as a whole, I dunno. ↩
Long ago, I signed up on last.fm and downloaded the AudioScrobbler plugin for iTunes, which plugin listens to what I’m playing in iTunes and sends a report of it the last.fm web site. Then I promptly forgot about it. A year and a half later, it’s compiled quite a musical dossier on me: 10,300+ tracks listened to (that’s about 18 per day), my most listened to track is A Dream by Cut Copy, and my 10 most listened to artists are Ladytron, Boards of Canada, Fischerspooner, Bloc Party, John Digweed, Daft Punk, Royksopp, Pixies, Radiohead, and Sigur Ros.
Even longer ago, I used the dearly departed Kung-Tunes to place a list of my recently played music on kottke.org. Thanks to the last.fm API and a gently modified version of this PHP script, that list is back; you can find it on the front page of kottke.org.
Hmm, this sounds like fun, an API for the Google homepage.
Google introduces an API for Google Maps. And there was much rejoicing by the cartography hacking community.