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’.