Facebook, the USSR, communism, and train tracks

Low hills closed in on either side as the train eventually crawled on to high, tabletop grasslands creased with snow. Birds flew at window level. I could see lakes of an unreal cobalt blue to the north. The train pulled into a sprawling rail yard: the Kazakh side of the Kazakhstan-China border.

Workers unhitched the cars, lifted them, one by one, ten feet high with giant jacks, and replaced the wide-gauge Russian undercarriages with narrower ones for the Chinese tracks. Russian gauges, still in use throughout the former Soviet Union, are wider than the world standard. The idea was to the prevent invaders from entering Russia by train. The changeover took hours.

— Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth

I read this passage today while sunning myself at Hope Springs Resort near Palm Springs. Tough life, I know.

The passage above immediately made me think of Facebook, and I had visions of the old Facebook logo with a washed out Stalin face next to the wordmark (I’m a visual person). But the thought came from some specific recent developments, and fit into a broader framework that I talked about loosely to Steve Gillmor about on his podcast. I also wrote about it last week, essentially calling for Facebook and Google to come together to co-develop standards for the social web, but, having been reading up on Chinese, Russian, Turkish and Central Asian history, and being a benefactor of the American enterprise system, I’m coming over to Eran and others‘ point that 1) it’s too early to standardize and 2) it probably isn’t necessary anyway. Go ahead, let a thousand flowers bloom.

If I’ve learned anything from Spread Firefox, BarCamp, coworking and the like, it’s that propaganda needs to be free to be effective. In other words, you’re not going to convince people of your way of thinking if you lock down what you have, especially if what you have is culture, a mindset or some other philosophical approach that helps people narrow down what constitutes right and wrong.

Look, if Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door but had ensconced them in DRM, he would not have been as effective at bringing about the Reformation.

Likewise, the future of the social web will not be built on proprietary, closed-source protocols and standards. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Google wants OpenSocial to be an “open standard” and Facebook wants to be the openemest of them all!

The problem is not about being open here. Everyone gets that there’s little marginal competitive advantage to keeping your code closed anymore. Keeping your IP cards close to your chest makes you a worse card player, not better. The problem is with adoption, gaining and maintaining [developer] interest and in stoking distribution. And, that brings me to the fall of the Communism and the USSR, back where I started.

I wasn’t alive back when the Cold War was in its heyday. Maybe I missed something, but let’s just go on the assumption that things are better off now. From what I’m reading in Kaplan’s book, I’d say that the Soviets left not just social, but environmental disaster in their wake. The whole region of Central Asia, at least in the late 90s, was fucked. And while there are many causes, more complex than I can probably comprehend, a lot of it seems to have to do with a lack of cultural identity and a lack of individual agency in the areas affected by, or left behind by, Communist rule.

Now, when we talk about social networks, I mean, c’mon, I realize that these things aren’t exactly nations, nation-states or even tribal groups warring for control of natural resources, food, potable water, and so forth. BUT, the members of social networks number in the millions in some cases, and it would be foolish not to appreciate that the borders — the meticulously crafted hardline boundaries between digital nation-states — are going to be redrawn when the battle for cultural dominance between Google (et al) and Facebook is done. It’s not the same caliber of détente that we saw during the Cold War but it’s certainly a situation where two sides with very different ideological bents are competing to determine the nature of the future of the [world]. On the one hand, we have a nanny state who thinks that it knows best and needs to protect its users from themselves, and on the other, a lassé-faire-trusting band of bros who are looking to the free market to inform the design of the Social Web writ large. On the one hand, there’s uncertainty about how to build a “national identity”-slash-business on top of lots of user data (that, oh yeah, I thought was supposed to be “owned” by the creators), and on the other, a model of the web, that embraces all its failings, nuances and spaghetti code, but that, more than likely, will stand the test of time as a durable provider of the kind of liberty and agency and free choice that wins out time and again throughout history.

That Facebook is attempting to open source its platform, to me, sounds like offering the world a different rail gauge specification for building train tracks. It may be better, it may be slicker, but the flip side is that the Russians used the same tactic to try to keep people from having any kind of competitive advantage over their people or influence over how they did business. You can do the math, but look where it got’em.

S’all I’m sayin’.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

16 thoughts on “Facebook, the USSR, communism, and train tracks”

  1. And coupled with the fact that citizens of the USSR could not as easily ‘leave’ at the time. They were *much* more affected by the top-down decisions being made for them that the users at Facebook are today.

    Well, that and anyone interested in jumping ship or hedging bets already have accounts on other systems.

  2. A little stretched, but good analogy.

    To extend on the world of communism as being analogous with todays social networking sphere, consider the point about what life was like for people under communism which rudely converted to capitalism: they want their old lives back.

    I remember one extensive conversation with a dude in his 30s on a bus in Albania, in which he was telling me how he prefered that world because they had better security and economically, they lived better – a sentiment I validated with others in his age group and above.

    We need to be careful that we are not overplaying the tune of openess like the free market song without realising, that a controlled environment does have its benefits – and a sudden change rather than a slow shift is what hurt countries like Russia and Albania as opposed to the Chinese brand of communism that evolved to capitalism. I’m not refuting your point about Facebook doing this as a competitive strategy, rather highlighting the point about change: we need more focus on the discussion and let these systems evolve to their own brand of openess for them to eventually be on the same system. Otherwise, this vision of openess may instead become anarchy, an outcome that’s best avoided if we want a better future.

  3. I, too, like the analogy – though I think Elias has an excellent point about the segment (majority?) of folks in communist-turned-capitalist states who’d rather have their old lives back. I think that extension of the analogy definitely holds. Most of my friends on Facebook – that is, “real life” friends – couldn’t care less about who owns their social data.

    To that end (and I hope this isn’t leading too far off-topic), I think there’s a rhetorical strategy that may help your average, everyday Facebook user wrap their head around the importance of this stuff. That is: what would happen if Facebook up and vanished? What would you lose, how crappy would you feel?

    Facebook may not up and vanish, but giving people a touchstone for how important that data really is to them can help move the dialogue along.

  4. Chris, love the analogy. Excellent and thoughtful post.
    I think that the way Facebook works now will not allow them easily to change to a truly open platform. It’s their business model and genes that sit in the way. It has become too large to easily adapt to the notion of an open web, I prefer to call this a User Centric Web. Their success has created their own innovator’s dilemma, and you can easily spot that in the way they constantly opening up (one way only, towards FB) a tiny bit when others put the pressure on.

    I used your analogy in a post where I expressed my views on Social Media, thanks!

  5. It appears to me that utility was behind the development of the functional spec for facebook and that this may have imposed more structure out the outset. Linkedin – not fun but a handy rolodex, was similarly purpose built. Twitter which seems much more like a proof of concept that caught on, has created an eco-system that is now developing the tools to make it more useful. If facebook sacrificed functionality for whimsy, would it have caught on? I agree that facebook has a bit of an authoritarian feel but in successful free-markets the emergence of common law and core infrastructure are still important, no?

  6. i don’t think the analogy is on target chris.

    in this case, i’d have to say it’s Facebook that’s been pushing the technical standard for “train tracks”, and it’s Google & others who are coming to the party johnny-come-lately.

    you may argue that FOAF, XFN, & OpenID have been around for while, but it’s exactly Facebook’s implementation (and perhaps LiveJournal before them) that has made some modified form of these features & functionality available to a wide audience.

    while i have no doubt that a world of standards would suit everyone better, it’s also true that it strikes me as unlikely that Facebook will go quietly into that night after having spent 3 years building our a very useful & innovative social networking system & application platform (that many others are now copying).

    it’s of course nice to think that Facebook & others would come around to an open standards view of the world, but that would likely put more pressure on their already-challenged view of monetizing their [currently free] service. while i don’t particularly like that they appear to talk nice about standards, i won’t disagree that it’s not really what they’re thinking.

    on the other hand, it IS appropriate for any company to defend their position in the market, and i have no problem with that. if others compete better — with or without open standards — that’s great too, it will force FB & others to respond.

    in fact, i would argue that it’s actually BETTER for the ecosystem to have at least 2 alternatives; one based on the standards you/others propose, and another not. that still provides plenty of market for both options to experiment & offer benefit to the community… and isn’t that better for them anyway?

    Esperanto might have been a great standard had everyone jumped in. then again, it probably didn’t offer a lot of innovation along with the standardization. maybe that’s really what we need — not just standardization, but innovation as well. both can be useful.

    whether “Russian standard gauge” trains are an innovation or an anachronism, certainly time will tell.

  7. Facebook and its founders want to fundamentally change the way we communicate. FB believes they can make the tool that humanity will use to start solving the really big problems we face. As MZ says “we believe the most efficient way to accomplish these goals is by building a business”

    Make any analogy you want and the fact remains, as DM pointed out, Facebook is leading the industry with its vision and execution. The rest of the guys are scrambling to catch up.

    Who would you rather have leading us into the future? It is good, as DM mentions to have multiple alternatives(leaders). With the life example MZ has set, the notion that Facebook does not want what’s best for the consumer just doesn’t make sense. Think about it this way, if you were facebook and thought you could save the world, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to make that happen? As with their platform policy.

    There is something very powerful about using a standard system. What would happen if there were 4, not 1 way of voting in elections? It would be much harder to organize, communicate, and make decisions.

  8. So, you know Russian history and you are visual person 😉 That is nice 😀
    “the future of the social web will not be built on proprietary, closed-source protocols and standards” – brilliant!

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