David Kirkpatrick’s book — three sentence reaction

I finished reading David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook effect a second time; I took many notes and compiled them —ten page worth— but I’ll blog them progressively, to avoid dispersing the attention.

First, it’s an essential book to read: so much, I’ll give it to you. If you live in Paris, I’ll lend you one of my copy (provided you promise to lend it to someone else after two weeks); if you live too far, send me your address and I’ll have one mailed to you—or I’ll arrange a similar lending chain. Three major critics are in order, however:

  1. It barely mentions critics: Arrington loved it but compared D. Kirkpatrick to a teenager in love, and that fair; it is an hagiography, the life of a saint, and how his calling revealed. Kirkpatrick is right not to indulge into ConnectU; gives enough details to make sense of Eduado Severin, but he completely misses Open Web advocates — probably because Zuckerberg does to.
  2. The core claim of the book is false. The subtitle, the first and last chapter state that thanks to the NewsFeed, “Any/everybody can start a movement” because complete nobodies started massive, influential groups. (Like with Shirky’s Here comes everybody, or Anderson’s Long Tail or Free, all three are onto something big — but the plural of anecdote is not data, and they stop one idea away from coherence, one conversation with a Internet statistician/economist before a sound, major and valid theory.) Traditional barriers to launch upheavals (massive or not) seem less decisive as before; in spite of great efforts, no one has identified rules for unpopular person to reach a large audience through social media yet, and simulation based on a social graph complex structure appear non-ergodic. But, hopefully, we are not confronted to any loony’s message to the world: Kirkpatrick misses to characterize a scale-free filtering process that relies on Friend-ing conventions and the NewsFeed algorithm, but no one seems to understand it; I can’t say if Facebook engineers realize it — but political outcome depend on it.
  3. About half the book is about deals with investors and partners: an expected angle from a Fortune journalist, but the rest is peppered with quotes of Zuckerberg saying that this doesn’t really matter. The book seems to be focusing on minor issues and missing major concerns. There is a remarkable work to explain what would a “Social utility” be, and some insights on internal understanding of privacy and openness — but that’s it. The many factoids about Zuckerberg unusual and decisive psyche yelled “Asperger” at me (a diagnosis you would expect from someone so familiar with tech experts, and going up one notch would have added many more insights than finding his analytical silence impenetrable). Apart from saying Moskovitz learnt by doing there is nothing about the technical aspects of the book: scaling is barely defined, the person who suggested a Newsfeed algorithm is named, UX & AI might be somewhere… Facebook redefined three large areas of computing: I would understand that Kirkpatrick felt less at ease with those, but the explosion of the site has more to do than user’s indiscretion. I’m mostly disappointed at the gaping hole between Zuckerberg’s interest in WireHog, a distributed system and the demands for similar openness by “opentards” like Diaspora, or Google. After studying this for the past five years, I know how those are impossible to wrap your mind around. Balancing users’ control and privacy, innovating forward while designing against misunderstanding are hard, and hard to appreciate; those could have used more examples.
    The early corporate culture is seminal, but the latest concerns about growing would have used a second word, next to “challenging”. The bias mutes needed postmortems on the public (mis-)perception of the service.
    The Largo Winch turned-reality moment with investors, and the story about advertising are priceless, however.

It is a must-read book — but I count room for three more of the same caliber, demanding the same access, the same insight, and more technical skills.


About Bertil

I'm a PhD student in Digital Economics, and I love viennoiserie. Je suis un doctorant en économie (numérique) et j'aime la viennoiserie.
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2 Responses to David Kirkpatrick’s book — three sentence reaction

  1. Craig Simon says:

    Curious about your comment, “Facebook redefined three large areas of computing.” Can you summarize, please? If you already have an entry here which focuses on that, I couldn’t find one.

  2. Bertil says:

    No entry on the English-speaking blog, but I posted a reaction to a radio show in French about that. The three contributions are actually mentioned in the previous sentence.

    Facebook is rarely credited by non-technical source for their contribution:

    * defining an serving architecture that would scale was the first task when faced with entire colleges spending hours a week on the site; I can’t tell how good was Facebook vs. FriendFeed on that, but what their have open-sourced is major, and second only to Google and Yahoo’s;

    * the News Feed was the most significant contribution to Interaction design; that was (controversially) patented and the algorithm raises more questions — but confusing this with RSS would be a mistake;

    * beyond that, Facebook more general attitude to UX and product development summarized in as “Data informed, not data-driven” and detailed during has visible impact on the industry’s methods.

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