Editorial Facebook vs Vine is another chapter in the book of 'We Own You'

Oh man, Vine is fun. It is already apparent that with creativity and planning you can produce something approaching an epic experience in a 6-second video. Vine is a perfect enhancement of Twitter's casual "what's happening now" social base. With stop-and-go videos that resemble animated GIFs, Vine puts greater movement and reality into life-casting. I showed it to my wife, who is not remotely a Twitter user, and she immediately began storyboarding microvideo adventures for our Serta sheep. So my message to all seven people who follow me on Vine: You've got a lot to look forward to.

Speaking of followers, let's consider the tectonic unfriending that transpired in the ongoing skirmish between Facebook and Twitter, the serfdom of social media users and the historical risks of walled gardens.

A bit of background. Vine is a Twitter-owned mobile startup represented by an iOS-only app for iPhone / iPod touch (it works on iPads too) that turns the device's video function into a rudimentary real-time editing machine. The sweet-and-simple interface keeps the video rolling for as long as your finger is touching the screen, for six seconds. You can lift and replace your finger (stop and start) as fast and often as you like, creating jumpy, time-crunched stories like an entire commute to work or cooking an elaborate dinner dish.

Don't get haughty about this before trying it -- unless you're an Android user, in which case haught away. There's been a fair amount of "So what?" user commentary posted since Vine launched last Wednesday, along with generally positive critical reviews for the app. Surfing Vine as a stand-alone service is rewarding, but as you might expect, quality and substance are spread unevenly, as in Twitter. The cute brigade is bulking up with cat and dog clips, foodies assume we have an appetite for 6-second visual timelines of dinner devouring, and stop-motion specialists are reborn in the new format.

After joining this thing I started seeing Twitter photos differently, as underpowered Vine potentials. I am not a disciple of the internet's tidal migration to video, and I worry about already debilitated attention spans in the online citizenry. But Vine is too much fun on its own to quibble, and it's a perfect Twitter accessory.

The people I stalk on Twitter don't seem to be rushing in: of the 385 individuals I follow, only 12 had signed up (via their Twitter accounts) by Sunday night. If I could expand my fledgling Vine community with Facebook friends ... oh, never mind. In a well-publicized maneuver, Facebook cut Vine's access to Facebook's friend-finder API which external platforms use to connect their members to Facebook friends.

Facebook cut a path through confused and generally negative media coverage by revising its Facebook Platform Policies for developers. The chief explanatory addendum related to the Vine cut-off says this: "Replicating core functionality: You may not use Facebook Platform to promote, or to export user data to, a product or service that replicates a core Facebook product or service without our permission."

You might not think that Vine's quick-vid, point-and-shoot app replicates a core function of Facebook, since uploading a video directly to FB can be a soul-tormenting experience that ends in failure and dismay. Facebook is in the media-sharing business for sure, and in that broader context the new clause apparently applies. A parallel context is an assumed reciprocal animosity between Facebook and Twitter -- when Facebook acquired Instagram, which was and is rabidly used in tweets, Twitter cut the same friend-finding cord to Facebook.

Editorial Facebook vs Vine is another chapter in the book of 'We Own You'

The truest context is the largest, and shines light on the role of social media users in ecosystem battles. Facebook and Twitter are both naturally motivated to keep visitors magnetized to their respective platforms. Facebook doesn't mind its users stepping into the larger internet for unrelated activities. But the company fears losing its grip on addicted users who might be lured onto a platform that has out-innovated Facebook in a certain space. It's not really that Vine is "replicating core functionality" now, but it is anticipating what Facebook might want to launch and monetize in the future.

These argumentative feints seem painfully trivial since anyone can join Vine at any time. For Facebook, maintaining scale in a relentlessly competitive environment involves plugging possible usage leaks. For users, the complaint is about an artificially fragmented social graph.

Many people who are socially active online enjoy the variety and contrasting features of different platforms, and are happy with multiple residences and communities with more or less overlap. My three main hangouts -- Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud -- are distinct from each other. Twitter is the most virtual; I haven't met most of the people I follow. Facebook is better for extending offline relationships onto the screen. My SoundCloud connections are kindred around music creation.

Even with this degree of separation, users are right to expect porous boundaries when liquidity is wanted. Sharing content across walls is part of it; I can extend tweets to Facebook, and share SoundCloud tracks everywhere. The more important user need is accessing friendship connections in different networks. The desire might not arise often, but when it is blocked, the ensuing friction feels artificial and hostile.

The issue arose in both the Instagram acquisition (by Facebook) and the Vine launch (by Twitter), for a reason that will become more common with new waves of mobile apps. It is about the creative quality of those apps. When we create something above and beyond the bedrock social function of connecting to friends, we naturally want to gather together a large community for sharing. It is when sharing a creation, even a photo or 6-second video, that we want to flip our conception of our social graph from several independent networks to one integrated network. It's like a 3D painting that suddenly becomes deep when you look at it in a certain way.

If there is one giant lesson of the last 20 years in the online community industry, it is that walling the garden never succeeds in the long run.

When Facebook or Twitter cuts the cord which integrates our friendship circles (the friend-finding part of their API), it becomes frustratingly clear that we are owned. We don't freely own our social connections across the internet. Social users are owned assets, like dollars in the bank, guarded by platform policies and hedged by developmental roadmaps that seek to cut off competing apps at the knees. I'm not the first to speculate that Facebook might develop a Vine-like function pronto. If so, Facebook users might be delighted with it, and settle ever more comfortably into the walled garden. That's fine.

But if there is one giant lesson of the last 20 years in the online community industry, it is that walling the garden never succeeds in the long run. AOL was the case study during the web's emergent period. Hugely successful during a span of years when mainstream confusion about the internet was neatly solved by carving out a comforting oasis, the company was eventually brought to a point of reinvention by better knowledge and better access. When you're a galaxy you can't hide the universe forever.

Facebook has attained much greater scale than AOL ever did. This business with Twitter / Vine is just a snarky play in a continuing poker game. But as an ongoing strategy, disabling users from calling back to their friends from another social destination depersonalizes Facebook and contradicts the social ethos that it was founded on. No secrets, Mark? Then the users of whom you demand that standard should be allowed to tell their friends about Vine, and the next one, and the next. Beat your competitors if you can. But don't obscure them from your users.



Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He can be found on Twitter and Vine as @bradhill.

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Editorial: Facebook vs. Vine is another chapter in the book of 'We Own You'