Social networks

  • March 22, 2018
  • If you study economic cycles you can watch the evolution of a disruptive technology throughout its lifecycle from a specific product, to a competitive industry. The last phase in the evolutionary chain is often the formation of a utility. For example, over a couple of centuries we’ve seen the evolution of electricity from a curiosity, to a business, to a group of public companies. Along the way there are the inevitable mergers and acquisitions to enable a winnowing field of competitors to achieve the scale needed to compete in very large markets.

    It wasn’t just the electric industry that went through this evolution. The telephone, gas, and cable industries did in their own ways. Local or reginal utilities that provide sanitation and water still dot the landscape too. Banking is in a similar position that is manifests differently. In fact, any industry that attracts the term “too big to fail” is showing signs of utility status.

    When your business becomes so big that it affects large segments of society it can’t be allowed to fail lest it crater the economy or cause massive disruption injuring many people. At that point government has a compelling interest in preventing failure and along with that comes regulation of the riskiest corporate behaviors.

    The latest example to hit the radar might be social media which has completed many steps of the lifecycle with blistering speed in just over a decade. This speed notwithstanding, we are now at a point where what happens in social media affects all of us.

    Regulation is a thorny issue wrapped in individual freedom. But it is also a logical way out of an impasse. The recent interference in the US election, which all the American intelligence agencies have confirmed, is a proof point that social media is now a utility and needs some form of regulation.

    In a recent article in Wired, “Bad Actors are Using Social Media Exactly As Designed,” writer Joshua Geltzer makes the point that popular social sites including Facebook, Twitter, and Air BNB, all provide tools that enable users to find and segment groups that are best subjected to targeted messaging. His point is simple, the bad actors didn’t pervert social media or hack its code. They simply used the tools provided to mount a campaign to upend a US election and there’s evidence of similar activity elsewhere.

    By this measure, social media is now too big to fail; it is too essential to a large segment of society and its potential excesses must be managed so that it does not consume the society and the users who depend on it. Geltzer’s article clearly, but inadvertently, makes the case,

    When Russia manipulates elections via Facebook, or ISIS recruits followers on Twitter, or racist landlords deny rentals to blacks and then offer them to whites through Airbnb, commentators and companies describe these activities as “manipulation” or “abuse” of today’s ubiquitous websites and apps. The impulse is to portray this odious behavior as a strange, unpredictable, and peripheral contortion of the platforms.

    But it’s not. It’s simply using those platforms as designed.

    So, what would a social media utility look like and how would it be different from what we see today? First off, social networks should be regulated with as light a touch as possible. Grandmothers sharing baby pictures shouldn’t have to change their use habits, for example. Second, to achieve positive ends, regulation should be implemented at two distinct levels, the source and the periphery.

    At the source, regulation comes down to access for any person or entity with a beneficial and productive need for the utility’s services. In the electricity markets this means stable pricing for all and a commitment to serve as a common carrier. It wouldn’t be much different with social network regulation; the key is beneficial and productive use.

    Common carrier law began in railroads and shipping. In return for its use of public lands and roads, the carrier commits to serve all parties equally. In broadcast industries (radio and TV), slices of electromagnetic spectrum play the role of roads  that the broadcasters use as grants (licenses) from the people. In transport, the waterways are also owned by the people, so are the roads, and railroads have historically received government help because they provide a useful service to society. It goes on, but you can see that source regulation amounts to giving all participants a fair shot at using the public’s assets and insisting on beneficial and productive use.

    Regulation at the periphery takes on a different cast, notably in America where so much of modern utility regulation evolved. A great deal of peripheral regulation occurs through certification and licensure. People interested in careers involving one of the utilities often serve apprenticeships, learning from a master before earning journeyman’s status. They must also pass tests to prove their knowledge and skill.

    Barbers, beauticians, and other personal services professionals go to school and sit for certifying exams. Other professions are similar. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, and many others must take many years of education, pass tests, and serve different forms of internships before practicing on their own.

    The point here is that we already regulate the day to day best practices of many industries. We do it with a light touch and in the interest of the culture and the society functions quite well despite, or more likely because of, this light approach to regulation.

    My take

    Perhaps the time has come to consider lightly regulating parts of the tech industry, something we have never done. But the age of information and telecommunication, a 50-year economic cycle called a K-wave, is reaching its natural endpoint and that’s often when utility status and regulation has come to the forefront in prior cycles.

    Elevating social media use to professional status, seems a logical thing to do. Establishing a certification or licensing process plus capturing a user’s license number when accessing some of social media’s higher functions would give an uncomplicated way of keeping bad actors out of the networks or at least making them traceable. In case you are wondering this is the basic process of getting a building permit.

    This approach need not apply to lower level personal use. But trying to reach millions of people on a social network is functionally like climbing a utility pole and messing with the wires. For this one should need certification.

    Last point, part of certification in any industry is training in the ethical use of the tools and techniques of that industry. As a society we have not engaged in such a dialog for social networks yet, but one is overdue.



    Published: 2 days ago

    thMicrosoft announced the intent to buy LinkedIn for $196 per share today or more than $26 billion. It’s a huge deal and a great payday for the social networking company specializing in making it easier for business people to connect. But why do this deal and why now? This calls for a lot of speculation but perhaps we can make some sense of it.

    Like other major software companies including Oracle and Salesforce, Microsoft sees itself as an essential platform for enterprises at all levels. The more functionality it can provide to its users, the easier it will be to keep them at home rather than roaming the Internet looking for something new. In addition, the availability of a familiar face such as LinkedIn has great appeal for many customers.

    But also, we may be witnessing the consolidation of the social networking space. Brands like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and others such as Plaxo and MySpace, all got started around the same time—about ten years ago. Since then each has found a niche and many rely on an advertising model for revenue and growth.

    Those models are limited by network constraints, however. Each might be flexible and have great people working there but as Metcalf’s Law stipulates, the value of a network is directly proportional to the number of nodes on it. In our case nodes can be thought of as people and while we might all have Twitter and Facebook accounts, the number that also have a third network is smaller for the simple reason we can only track so much.

    So the advertising potential of networks is similarly limited. There is a large revenue pie for ads on social networks but it isn’t infinite and as is often the case, the early participants like Google continue to capture the lion’s share of revenues. In such a situation, if LinkedIn can be relieved from the need to generate so much ad revenue growth by simply becoming a valuable addition to the overall Microsoft value proposition, so much the better. The situation is similar with other vendors that offer social and collaboration functions as part of their value propositions, like Salesforce and Oracle.

    All this is to say that the age of social media is likely entering a mature phase. We can see which ones will be able to have a stand-alone future and which ones won’t. This doesn’t mean social networks and social media are becoming passé—just the opposite. They’ve become so valuable that they are becoming commodities and it’s hard for commodities to reap soaring profit growth (that’s why they’re commodities).

    So, good for Microsoft and LinkedIn, I think they are better together and their association seems to signal an inflection point in social networking. The strike price of $196 per share is significantly below last year’s peak of nearly $260 but also significantly above Friday’s close of $131.08, just about right in the middle. Is everybody happy?



    Published: 2 years ago