Thursday, February 05, 2009

Backslashing - the upcoming tests for Google and Facebook

One of the quaintest garbled Finglishisms from my time in Helsinki, and there were many, was when my colleagues would warn of the dangers of a backlash, and call it a backslash. Don't know why, and maybe it was a localized phenomenon, but it conjured up in my mind some kind of fevered robed, masked assassins scything at a cowering hoard of alphanumeric symbols. Anyway, this is the season of the backslash.

At the macro level of backslashery, Obama is shooting fish in a barrel, with his $500k top rate salary for officers of companies taking public funds. Though an admirably attractive idea for mass market politicos seemingly frustrated that stocks are no longer a valid punishment for errant execs, this is unlikely to be effective, since the most capable executives will presumably head elsewhere, leaving a second division in charge of doing the right things.

More to the point though, are the upcoming backslashes in the worlds I inhabit - social networking and mobile. Within hours of it being launched, colleagues and friends were inviting me to share my location with them courtesy of Latitude, Google's considerably important foray into mobile social networking. Hundreds of other startups have been trying to be The Network for mobile social networking, not realizing that there's very little point in having a separate network for mobile social networking that involves other people than in your other networks.

Unsurprisingly, privacy advocates have been jumping up and down. Google has done some elegant things to make it easier for people to not be too obvious about their location, enabling people to lie about it (something that my friend Janne has always maintained was a crucial essence of humanity that social networks would avoid at their peril). The problem however, is that people are inherently lazy, and the middle ground of people like me are most at risk. The youth have time on their hands and care not a jot about privacy - happy to bare all to any who stumble across their myspace page. The old fogies will be appalled and won't use it. Those in the middle such as me will fancy playing with the technology, then forget they left it on (it asks you if you want to keep it on when you leave the app, but out of sight, out of mind). We'll then be embarrassed by it - not necessarily today, but at some later point. This level of discomfort willbe magnified the first time there's an abduction or murder linked directly to it. Google up to now has been a B2B play, with their only customer interface a plain white box. Let's hope they ramp up their service with a smile.

The other backslash coming our way was something i just glimpsed on CNN. The case shown was a family guy whose Facebook account was compromised and a hacker changed his status updates to say he urgently needed help. This hacker than contacted the victim's friends saying he was held captive in London, and one friend obligingly wired over $1200 to get him out of trouble. The same kind of thing can happen on any network. However, as Facebook becomes the most relied upon identity layer for many people, they'll need to rapidly scale their capabilities to deal with the aftermath of the life-wrecking that happens when something so intimate goes wrong.

The massed ranks of users and their backlslashes will probably prove to be a force more humbling and educational to these pillars of the new Internet economy, than even Obama's majesty is to the pillars of the old.

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