Websites don’t exist: Facebook, Buddhism and the Nature of Being

If you're wondering what the hell Facebook has to do with Eastern, Greek and 20th-century philosophy, just bear with me. Facebook's evolving services are going to trigger some seismic disruptions in our online lives. Those changes touch on some fundamental issues in how we perceive and interpret the world, but they also give us a pretty good idea of how the online world is going to evolve over the next few years.

Facebook's new social tools

NOTE: This post was originally written in response to Facebook's first announcement of "Facebook Connect" in the spring of 2010. There were actually two broad categories of tools that were announced at the time, and while the functionality has evolved since then, the core issues they raise are even more relevant now.

Quick definition of Facebook's tools»

I'm not going to bother explaining the new FB tools in depth — they've already gotten plenty of coverage, and they'll get plenty more. Suffice it to say that they allow any online property to:

  • Immediately identify you – and members of your Friends network – without any action or permission on your part
  • Access most of the personal data (profile info, pictures, etc.) from your Facebook profile – again without any action or permission from you
  • Act on that information

The Economics of a Collaborative Illusion

There's been an implicit contract between the people who build web properties, and the people who use them: "Let's keep it real"
"[W]hat people commonly think of as concrete objects are actually successions of occasions of experience. Occasions of experience can be collected into groupings; something complex such as a human being is thus a grouping of many smaller occasions of experience."
— Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

Many people don’t really have a sense of the enormous, sustained effort that goes into maintaining the illusion of a persistent “website”. Even the simplest site is a churning mass of moving parts that are being corralled and wrestled into place, over and over – style sheets, image files, code fragments. Enterprise e-commerce sites have gone far, far past that level of complexity. Every time you load a “page” at an Amazon or a Dell, you’re summoning information from dozens or hundreds of different machines, scattered all over the country. The investment in machines, applications and people it takes to bring all those pieces together – and then make them fit together into the illusion of a persistent “site” every time, for every visitor – can be staggering.

Sooo…why does this matter?

"You cannot step into the same river twice."
— Heraclitus, as quoted by Diogenes Laertius, Lives

It matters because the sites we’ve all grown used to – sites that look pretty much the same every time you go back, and that look pretty much the same for you as they do for your mom – never acted that way because they intrinsically “have” to. There’s been a massive investment in people and equipment to maintain an “illusion of permanence” because there are deep sociological and economic incentives.

Those incentives have been gradually eroding for years, but they’ve never really been attacked by anything so transformational and massive as the new Facebook tools.

A fundamental – and flawed – tool of our consciousness

We have a natural predisposition to think about the world in terms of "things", not "processes". The Buddha pointed that out a long time ago, and modern marketers are getting ready to stop indulging us, as well.

"Everything flows, nothing stands still."
— Heraclitus, as quoted by Diogenes Laertius, Lives

In 1925, the British logician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead coined the term “The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” – and labeled an idea that reaches back to ancient Greece and the teachings of Buddha. While it’s also gone by names such as reification, anicca, Becoming and process philosophy, the basic concept is pretty straightforward : it’s the conceptual error of looking at a dynamic “process”, and mistaking it for a static “thing”. The Buddha, Prof. Whitehead and the Greek philosopher Heraclitus all saw our tendency to make that mistake as a central flaw in the human condition. I agree, but I think there are some important qualifications.

While thinking of a complex process as a simpler object may not be correct, it is a powerful mental shortcut. As long as the “object” we have in mind is accurate enough that we can use it successfully, we can take advantage of the process without confronting the added complexity of the process. That’s not just a convenience – it was clearly a critical step in the evolution of human consciousness, that allowed us to move forward, faster. (No, I don’t have a reference. Prove me wrong.)

That matters for our discussion on two levels. First of all, the mental model of a persistent website that sits there like the corner store is just easier for people to process. It’s not just that it borrows the convenient metaphors of a “place” or a “store”. The simple qualities of permanence and persistence strike deep psychological chords – they imply predictability, and understandability, and the web’s rate of adoption has clearly benefited from them.

That mental shortcut of concreteness, though, also makes online properties easier to create. Designing something that you think of as a single “site” can take a lot of effort to build later on, but it’s a lot easier to think about when you’re getting started.

Nevertheless, as powerful as it might be, that fallacy is a misunderstanding of reality. While there are benefits, there are costs. Many of our most important cultural and scientific advances have come by confronting the fact that something is not a thing, but a process – look at the way that quantum physics turned Bohr’s little billiard-balls into buzzing particle clouds, or that “just-in-time” manufacturing has turned “factories” and “warehouses” into manufacturing supply chains. When the seething realities of a process finally stop playing nice within our tidy mental model, we really have two choices – we can fight to maintain our mental shortcut, or we can acknowledge the fallacy and move on.

Disassembling the great anonymization mill

That human bias for the concrete has encouraged marketers to put a lot of effort into maintaining the illusion of permanence, but it comes at a cost that they won't be eager to bear much longer.

While the personal / cultural factors at play are important, the real forces that will drive what’s going to happen are economic. First and foremost, it means that almost any major site today is basically a huge “homogenization mill” – by offering a massively consistent, simplified experience, it grinds millions of unique visitors into uniform, anonymous data dust.

Then the company behind the site spends millions of dollars more every year trying to run that process backwards, reconstitute the individual grains of wheat out of the flour, and then treat each grain differently.

If marketers could magically identify each of us the moment we showed up, track us individually across multiple visits, and then know – not guess – exactly how to cater to each of us, they’d refocus their budgets to do that in a split second.

Oh, wait…now they can.

"Like" It...Or Not

This all adds up to some upcoming seismic shifts in the nature of our online experience. Whether or not Facebook ends up being the agent of all these changes, they're coming at some point. Consider yourself forewarned.

Each of the following ideas really deserves a lot more thought and attention than I've given them here, but here are at least some quick sketches of where I think this is all going.

"Like": The ultimate quid pro quo

It's a verb for a reason. Whether or not Facebook intentionally switched from talking about "who you are" to "what you do" (hint, hint), the act of clicking the "Like" button is about to become a central gesture.

First of all, "Likes" are quickly going to become the hot new proxy for "marketing value". Facebook "Fans" were obviously already a big deal, but that was still something that lived within a walled garden. (A big walled garden, but the big problem wasn't just population size -- it was you that had to proclaim your passion while you were away from the object of your passion.) If you're involved in marketing at all, get ready -- the obsessive measurement and cultivation of "Likes" is poised to make all the attention paid to "Visits", "Click-throughs" and "Opens" look like rehearsal.

For online consumers, you better get used to clicking "Like" buttons. A lot. Being a "Fan" was really a "Yes"/"No" assertion about who you are. "Liking" something is going to be a transaction. Marketers are going to want you to do it so badly, they're going to make every effort to negotiate with you, and either offer you an incentive or try to impose it as a requirement. It's not only going to be how you enter online contests or get free downloads -- in one click, without filling out a form -- it's going to be how you rate and review items on e-commerce sites, and tell Pandora and Last.FM which artists you prefer.

The end of "the 1,000-egg basket"

Companies now have an efficient, trusted channel to distribute their offerings across the web. They're not going feel nearly as compelled to drive massive amounts of traffic to a single URL they control.

We've obviously been talking about this idea for years, now. The "death of the walled garden", the need to talk to people where they already are...these are already commonly accepted truths in digital marketing. The main reason that all that stuff still hasn't really come true, though, has been the amount of effort and risk that's been required. These new tools offer them the ability to quickly and safely expand their reach, and then reap massive amounts of insight in return. The companies behind what are now huge, monolithic destination sites are going to start feeling a lot more comfortable about leaving you to your own devices. They're still going to need to offer you some kind of call-to-action, but it's going to less and less likely to be "Visit".

Personal offers with a little red dot dancing on your forehead

CAVEAT: Prediction is not promotion»

Why did Expedia just offer you a great price on a trip to Italy? Because your old college roommate lives there. Why did Amazon recommend that book on Carl Jung? Because you "liked" a site on dreams and psychoanalysis.

Centralizing and sharing your information across sites

Probably the most dramatic and obvious change we're going to see is the massive cross-flow of personal information across websites. Amazon's not just going to know what I bought through Amazon, and they're not only going to know my favorite bands...they're going to have information on what I bought and liked from Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy.

Retailers, especially, are going to have a really, really hard time with that Catch-22. Many of them are going to resist it, and many of them are going to try and insist on safeguards so that information that they've "earned" by getting you to Like something doesn't benefit their competitors. Even if those efforts are temporarily successful, though, there are going to be marketers and retailers who experiment successfully with an open approach, and that dam is going to break.

The opportunity to centralize your identity

What that means for the consumer -- or for any consumer who wants to engage -- is potentially the end of a model where we each have 20 or 30 "selves" scattered across dozens of different sites.

NOTE: I'm not going to bury this one in a sliding footnote: I completely understand that this is, in many ways, a devil's choice, and that for many people, in many circumstances, this is not a desirable option. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate and very real likely consequence, and as options to centralize online identities do become broadly available, the potential convenience and efficiency is going to play a large role in how things play out.

The end of the bookmark as we know it

Finally, a smaller point, but an inevitable one, I think -- get ready for the convention of browser bookmarks as we know it to eventually fade away. It's only a small step for "Like" to become a version of Delicious on steroids, with instant critical mass. Once you've got some decent tools to organize all the web pages you've Liked, how much sense does it make to maintain a redundant set? (And I'm saying this as someone who loves Xmarks.) That's not to say that there aren't a lot of intermediate or hybrid options around synching, etc., but...still.

Wrapping Up

Since I already have some more ideas I want to explore in upcoming posts, I won't wrap this up too formally -- if you've invested the time and attention to read this far, then I really appreciate it, and I'd love to hear what you think.

Two broad categories of tools were announced at Facebook's F8 conference. While the actual names they proposed aren't used much, the services still fall into these two basic categories:

  • The new Social Plug-ins can be easily added to any property, and while they're quite powerful, as their name implies, they are modular services that can be added or removed. Technically, the plug-ins don't even need to give a site access to your FB data, although I believe they can if you give explicit permission.
  • The "Instant Personalization" program (bottom of page) goes much deeper -- it allows developers to integrate Facebook directly into a site's data and functionality. By definition, a site that uses Instant Personalization expects to have direct access to your personal FB data.

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Before anyone insists those things could never happen to them, because they would never let Facebook share their personal information like that, or that I'm somehow advocating this to come about, let me just say this:

  • Personally, I feel personal privacy is an enormously important issue, and I have really deep reservations and concerns about how this could all play out. But, for one thing, "privacy" is such a big topic that it's like "gravity". It's always there, but if you always gave it its due, you'd never talk about anything else. I am genuinely interested in exploring the morality of the privacy issue, but there's no way to do that fairly here and stay focused.
  • As to whether or not this is a valid prediction, I honestly don't see how something along these lines doesn't eventually come to be. Maybe it's not through Facebook. Maybe it's in 15 years and not 5. Hopefully it's because the recipient is totally OK with it. No matter what, though, I really can't imagine that it never happens.

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  1. J.
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Brilliant, man. Just brilliant.

    I did think of one issue that you haven’t yet addressed, a huge issue that would probably merit one of those–again, brilliant–graphic rest stops that you’re fond of, an issue that has contributed more to the Internet than Amazon and Facebook combined, an issue that WILL impede the Like juggernaut.


    Not just porn, actually, but any site that with which we do and yet do not want to be associated. Man’s inherent duality demands not only an illusion of online privacy but also that the Internet afford us more than a single identity. As Joe Browser becomes aware of the ramifications of clicking Like, he’ll become more and more hesitant to do so. It comes down to Like vs. privacy, and any future paradigm must consider both.

    • Posted May 3, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Point definitely taken. I’m still working out how I want to pull together my thoughts on that front, but one of the things I want to dig into are the parallel issues around the idea of a “self” — the added leverage that we may (or may not) see around our online identity won’t come from having some some, single static “me” emerge. If it comes at all, it’s going to come from our ability to _control_ who we are — in any given context — from a central point.

  2. Jill
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Great first post!

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