The information superhighway is the conduit through which the world operates these days. Since the invention of the computer, we have incorporated technology more and more into the daily operations of our businesses, our education, and now the very fabric of that which makes us human: our social relationships. The rise of Facebook as the titan of social media in the digital world was swift and powerful. So much so that in the 7 years (yes, the Facebook website was launched only 7 years ago from a Harvard dorm room,) it has gained 600,000,000 users, averages 138.9 million unique monthly visitors as estimated by Quantcast, and according to Social Media Today in April 2010, an estimated 41.6% of the United States population has a Facebook account. So what is left to do for the company that was started by a college student and within 6 years became the 3rd largest Internet-based company in the U.S.?
How about stepping on the toes of worldwide web mega-giant Google, Inc. for starters? Started as a research project in 1996 by two Stanford University PhD students, Google revolutionized the organization of information on the web by introducing the concept of analyzing the relationships between websites. Their software, coined PageRank and destined to become the thorn in the side of fly-by-night marketers everywhere, measures a website’s “rank” in a user search based on the number of pages that link back to the original site (and the importance of those pages, though who defines “importance” is up for debate according to this writer.) It is fairly ridiculous to detail the immensity of Google’s presence on the web to anyone reading a blog on said web, who likely has the user experience of having been on said web more than a couple of times. Perhaps the best comment to make here is that the verb “google,” as in “I needed information on X so I googled it,” was officially added to the Meriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003. One wonders how long it took Kleenex to get there. E.B. Boyd provides a comprehensive timeline of the building feud between Facebook and Google, culminating in the most recent debacle deemed “Whisper-gate.” A few weeks ago, a well-known Boston PR firm was attempting to publicize a story about the privacy violations involved with Google’s new Social Circle program, a social media application that allows a Google user to prioritize a search based on content created by or shared by one’s social connections. For example, when looking for a movie review, Social Circle will highlight reviews written and/or shared by those in the user’s connections list. The story being linked to Social Circle claimed that private information is also being pulled and saved on millions of users. Granted, privacy is a huge issue in the information age and this story does not sound so far-fetched. This is particularly so considering the ongoing privacy violation issues that Google has faced with the Federal Trade Commission. The fishy part happens when the journalists receiving the pitch on this particular story were not getting a straight answer on WHO was really behind the telling. The Daily Beast quickly broke the news that the face behind the PR mask was Facebook itself, quietly stirring the pot. So May 2011 marked the turn of what first appeared to be just normal business competition into a real life Clash of the Titans. As Boyd explains, “…it will be an epic clash between two companies with overpowering senses of mission–and ones they will battle furiously to further and protect. After all, it’s these missions that both companies surely see as the paths to unimaginable wealth.” This is not just scrambling for a piece of the pie. This is a calling to destroy the each other’s pie completely. And information is the battleground. Google’s stated mission is to “organize the world’s information.” Certainly with the volume and breadth of information that is now available, organization is a key ingredient to the functionality of the Internet. However, Google’s perceptions of which information should be available to its organizing little bots and databases are much broader than some think. Facebook operates under the directive to give “people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” At first glance this does not sound at odds with the organizing of information. Include in the mix, however, that each of these multi-billion dollar companies generates its revenue based on advertising sales, which are in turn based on targeted information from its users, which each feels is proprietary to its business, the battle lines begin to form. Facebook’s 600,000,000 users share a lot of information with each other. Facebook will not open this information to Google’s access. Google currently has the market on information considering its processing of one-billion-plus searches per day. Facebook’s revenue-generating ability relies on people sharing information with each other THROUGH Facebook. Information shared outside of the Facebook world detracts from their accurate placement of ads. Google’s ability to accurately target ads to user demographics depends on its ability to troll freely through the internet world, collecting data as it goes its merry way. In his article “Facebook-Google Privacy PR Smear Is A Campaign In An Epic, Escalating War” Boyd postulates that the mission and the resulting money are indistinguishable as motives. The rhetoric of each company certainly points primarily to it’s mission. But Boyd points out that the overall culture of the companies also focus primarily on the mission. They are, as he says “true believers” in their individual causes. Where this war will lead and how far they will go to protect their higher purpose remains to be seen. Considering the power of these two companies and the fairly virgin territory of regulating behaviors and practices on the Internet, this will be an interesting war indeed, one that could inevitably affect the way Regular Joe Schmoe and I are able to access and use the information highway that we have come to depend on so heavily for our society. Looking back at the humble beginnings of the giants we now know as Facebook and Google, I wonder however, if this immense contest might just be at its root, a simple college rivalry gone horribly, horribly wrong.