Facebook Is Stone Soup – Part One

Facebook Is Stone SoupI’m sure you’ve heard the old story of Stone Soup — either through a reading assignment in elementary school or perhaps in The Pragmatic Programmer. I think it’s fair to consider the rise of Facebook as an elaborate retelling of that fable. Facebook isn’t alone in this, of course, but I’ll use them as a representative case.

In the story of Stone Soup, a couple travelers arrive in a small village. They don’t have any money or anything useful to barter. At first they attempt to press the hospitality of the locals for a meal. However, the locals are feeling uncharitable. Perhaps they’re poor or a common stop for soldiers marching to and from the front lines of the current war. In any case, they make it clear that there isn’t enough in the village to share.

The travelers decide to try a new strategy. They set up a stockpot over a fire on the edge of town and fill it with water from the local stream. As the water heats up, they find a few clean stones that they add to the water.

Soon, curious villagers stop by to see what’s cooking. Surprised to see a soup made of nothing but stones and water they laugh. The travelers take this in stride and continue to stir their “soup.”

“So is it any good?” A villager wonders aloud.

“Of course!” answers a traveler. “It’s an old family favorite. Of course, in our family recipe we usually add a carrot or two.”

The village considers this for a moment and then runs off to his house to fetch a carrot. “I suppose I can spare this, stranger, if you would share a bit with me.” The traveler agrees and into the pot goes the carrot. A little later the scene repeats itself as more villagers hear about the soup and offer a potato or some herbs or even some soup bones.

Soon the pot of simmering stew is attracting everyone in the village as they line up with bowls and wait to sample this novel “Stone Soup.”

To the reader, the moral is clear – even if you don’t have much to contribute you can share in something amazing if enough people share as well.

The important part to take away, in my opinion, is the role of the travelers. We think of them as clever and relatively benign con artists. That they are, but we’d do better to think of them as primitive entrepreneurs.

They saw a problem, identified resources that could be applied to solve the problem, developed an enticing pitch that lined up suppliers who were eager to get involved and commit their resources for a piece of the whole in the future.

Now, at this point in the story, if we were talking about a regular business, we would start talking about investors. Because when applying this story to a business, typically the people throwing stuff in the pot are rich dudes watching powerpoint presentations.

If you were telling this story in silicon valley ten years ago, the villagers would be employees working all-nighters and hacking their weekends away because they were excitedly creating the future. A future that hopefully involved sharing a soup made of vested options cashed in after a huge IPO.

But we’re talking about Facebook and almost all other web and information businesses today. These businesses are reaping the rewards of a newly networked civilization whose participants are eager to share their experiences, knowledge and time. That sharing encourages more participation and involvement through the network effect and enough burgeoning but unrealized value that no one should question why they haven’t gone public or sold themselves to a giant.

A lot of people are trying to guess at the facebook owner’s exit strategy. How are they going to harvest all of those dollars and get out on top?

I don’t think they’re going anywhere. As long as the villagers keep contributing there’s no need to pull the pot off the fire. Sure, they could exchange their ownership of facebook for some cash… but to what end?

  • If you own the near constant attention of a sizable chunk of the developed world what is cash going to get you that your stockpot can’t?
  • If you have private and unregulated control of a tool that has proven instrumental in overthrowing the governments of  sovereign nations what is another billion dollars to you?
  • If you can precisely map the network of humanity’s relationships and manipulate the exposure of information and interaction between specific people what can’t you acquire?

As for the villagers, they can choose to stop contributing at any time. They all have perfectly serviceable pots at home and full pantries to boot. But why would they? They are feasting constantly and chatting with their friends and neighbors over warm bowls of stew that they got for nothing more than a potato or soup bone or perhaps nothing at all.

There is reason to fear that these villagers might, over a long time, lose their cooking skills. Anyone who has sat across from a mute friend whose fingers are busily scooting across a tiny screen. One might fear that someone nefarious could add a poisoned cabbage to the community pot. But you might also argue that a person who did that is a fellow villager who could do something similar or worse in “real life” as well.

It isn’t clear what happens next. In the story everyone ate a bunch of soup and got sleepy and went to bed.  I don’t think there was a sequel. There was no Stone Soup II: The Stones Have Electrolytes.

The metaphor falls apart anyway when we start firing up the Google Rock Omelet and the Twitter Pebble Chop Suey houses down the street. See – this metaphor is descending into chaos.

Reddit Gravel Bacon Circlejerk.

If we can’t rely on a strained metaphor, we’ll have to look to history. There, however, the message is mixed. When people share and collaborate great things can happen. Dictatorships fall, sciences and arts are born, technology blossoms. Smallpox, slavery and world wars weigh pretty heavy in the opposite pan*.

Lately, the internet seems to be working for freedom. Wikileaks, social media in the middle east, political and blogs and educational materials like tutorials, forums and, in my opinion the most valuable thing the human species has ever created, Wikipedia.

On the side of oppression sit the government firewalls, the ubiquitous cookies and the swelling databases they feed, and the infrastructure that is pulled taut in a tug of war between the pernicious partners of private greed and government control and on the other side, public oversight and private innovation. It is the sudden success of the internet enabled smartphone that has at once tripped both public oversight and government control. Mobile phones are miracles that allow oppressed people to organize and distribute information outside of government controlled broadcast media and landline networks. However, they also move the network off the subsidized and regulated wires into the wild west of the wind.

Mobile-phone technology is like fire: as soon as a society gets it, it can’t imagine life without it. Ken Auletta writes about the Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim, whose former company, Celtel, brought the cell-phone boom to Africa, where the number of cell phones “has grown from fewer than four million in 1998 to more than four hundred million today—almost half the population of the continent.” Despite their expense, inconvenience, and even danger, they’ve proven invaluable in Liberia, a country entirely without landline service, where people need all the tools they can get to face the overwhelming task of rebuilding from nothing.

The common thread is the flow of information. Systems that encourage information to flow from the highly distributed public toward centralized hubs that can be controlled by governments and even less accountable private owners discourage freedom. On the other hand, systems that leak information from the vaults and back rooms of the powerful and make it easy for people to share and communicate are rapidly dissolving the walls and chains of old tyrants and bullies all over the world.

The internet has always been a muddy mix of public and private innovation and influence. It’s adept at aggregating and distributing information in ways that are both inspiring and scary.

We haven’t had writing long enough to judge whether freedom or bondage is the more common state of mankind. We’ve swung wildly back and forth since the invention of the printing press. It seems we’ve swung at an increasing rate as new technologies have piled on as the externalized memory of mankind, books, gave birth to an innovation feedback loop that has powered that oscillation to the point that freedom and oppression are suspended in a Schrödingerian quantum state.

I really should of stuck with children’s story metaphor.

Google famously made is core value to “Don’t be evil.” What that means is hard to pin down. As a “tech” person, or at least as someone who plays one on the internet, I know it has a significant resonance with the hackers and engineers who identify with the co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. As people responsible for the parts of the information flow that the general public can’t see, evil has a particular connotation. Usually it’s what the people in marketing want. The marketing people are paid to manipulate and control, but the hacker ethos values access to information and pragmatic distribution of responsibility. Marketing wants to obscure the problems and focus on the things going right; the geeks like bugs to puke all over the screen so they can fix it.

At least that’s the geek side of the story, like all stories, it is, at best, untrue.

That slogan would give me some hope if I didn’t know how much money was eroding it smooth from all sides like a rushing river over a jagged, inconvenient stone.

Lance Cameron Kidwell

5 March 2011

Posted in Culture

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