Let’s not build the next Facebook


Here’s an idea. Let’s not build the next Facebook in Northern Ireland. Let’s not even use that phrase as shorthand to explain our tech/web/media ambitions. If we do we will limit ourselves and our thinking.

The next Facebook already exists. It’s called Facebook and the whole slew of immitators, wannabes, and alternatives are out there whether they are Path or Pinterest or Renren. (Renren the “Chinese Facebook” raised $743 in May 2011 with a US flotation.)

If the mythology surrounding Facebook is to be believed, Facebook was started by Zuckerberg, not with an IPO  in mind, but perhaps nothing in particular in mind. Although he had already toyed with an idea to follow/improve/replace projects such as BuddyZoo/CourseMatch/Facemash.

There is literature, reports, interviews and even a movie about the beginnings of Facebook. But while we might never know the real motivation – or even if there was one – we do know Facebook was not set up as “the next Google“. For who in their right minds – with the exception of Microsoft through Bing – would set out to compete with or emulate the Google giant?

In popular web phenomena, Google was (and still is) the Big Thing before The Next Big – Thing, Facebook.

Innovate – not replace
Even Google – if we are to believe the history and mythology – didn’t begin life as an alternative or improvement on Yahoo or Excite search engines. It began as the Stanford Digital Library Project (SDLP). The SDLP’s goal was “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library.” For those too young to know or remember, before Google, web search was a pretty hit and miss affair. There was a need for a better mousetrap.

Was there a Next Big Thing before Google? I’m sure there was, but we need to look pre-dot com bubble for anything sensible (although I would appreciate your suggestions in the comment section). Can I suggest America Online? Aol brought Internet use to the ordinary non-tech person. There was an inordinate amount of snobbery about Aol. It was criticised for being a “walled garden”. Emails from Aol accounts were looked down on by “real” Internet users who were able to set up their own email clients – well, were on Compuserve, anyway. But Aol was a safe and simple introduction to millions of people. They “carpet bombed” homes with their set-up discs. You could argue that Aol pre-dates the WWW. But that is not important. It was a giant.  It ranked fourth (behind the Web, email, and graphic user interfaces) in a 2007 USA TODAY retrospective on the 25 events that shaped the first 25 years of the Internet. It was not set up as The Next anything, it was just a Big Thing. The MSN network followed in 1995.

Even Aol had what could be described as a crude version of Facebook as part of its offering – Buddy Lists.

Facebook – the next Aol
No – it’s not, but just think. For many people Facebook is the Internet/the Web. It is (or it and sites closely linked to Facebook) their main/only destination on the Internet. It is itself a Walled Garden experience. Only recently I had to explain to a 20 year old about the joys of “surfing the Web” – just following links on pages to see where they take you.

If you want to build the next Facebook – or Angry Birds or Aol Buddy List or Google, I wish you well. If you want to build a new iPhone App OK, that’s your choice, but read this first. It was written in 2009. Then read this: “In 2012 Deloitte expects the number of apps available from all apps stores to exceed 2 million.” There were 1 million in December 2011. Only 20% are downloaded more that 1000 times. (So many apps – so little to download).

The Next Beatles
Even before The Beatles broke up in 1970, people were talking about “the next Beatles” – a search and argument and discussion that continued for years. In 1970 as part of the recording of their final album they performed Get Back on the roof of their Apple HQ in London. In 1987 U2 repeated the exercise (with a considerable amount of pre-publicity) in Los Angeles. The NME headlined their report “U2 – The Next Beatles” with tongue deeply planted in cheek.

U2 did not replace the Beatles – nobody replaced The Beatles. Facebook did not replace Google. The Internet did not replace Libraries. The printing press did not replace hand writing.

So let’s move away from that mindset. Let’s not build the next Facebook – let’s not even think that way.

Don’t Predict – Innovate
Mid-February and just a few weeks after the “predictions for 2012” have been published. The only thing I am prepared to predict is that there is a strong chance that magazines and newspapers will fill their space in late December 2012 with predictions for 2013.

Let’s  invent the future – not predict it.

One of the Big Things now is Social Media. A few years ago it was Web 2.0. When did we stop talking about Web 2.0? (Aside: when I was in the BBC there was a very serious conversation handed down from on high as to whether it was “web two”, “web two point zero” even “web two point nought”). We don’t talk about it any more – because we don’t need to. And it is unlikely that we will talk about Social Media in the same way in the not too distant future. Read Liz Heron’s thoughts.

“All that scratchin’ is makeing me itch”
What predicated the arrival of Facebook, Google, Adobe? What was the itch that was scratched? And is Northern Ireland the place where you find the capability to scratch those itches? Well, the answer to that second question is “Yes”, because itches have been scratched even if we don’t talk about them as much as we should.

Perhaps someone can fill in the details about the history of Poll Daddy which I don’t know enough about. There are plenty of others – but none have been “game changers” … yet.

Committees and Camels
Let’s look at one of the commonality that exists in some of the Big Things. Yes, I agree this is very superficial and generalistic. But it is attractive. First, The Couples

  • The Yahoo Duo
  • The Apple Duo
  • The Adobe Duo
  • The Microsoft Duo
  • The YouTube Trio
  • The Twitter Trio (more or less)
  • The Facebook … uno, duo, trio (if twins can count as one)- depends how you read it.
(And maybe to extend the music analogy a bit: if Lennon&McCartney are on one side of the duopoly, then Epstein is on the other and if Bono&Edge and one side then McGuinness is on the other.)

Yes, I know this analysis is full of flaws, but my point is that the great ideas didn’t come out of a committee. They tended to have two parts –  the engineering visionary side and the concept visionary side (let’s say The Engineer and The Producer). In a Venn diagram, there would be a massive overlap in their roles.

So first the idea, the vision, the itch…

Then The Support
The visionaries did not come from Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Mumbai. They certainly didn’t come from Northern Ireland.

  • Facebook – Harvard
  • Google – Stanford
  • Yahoo – Stanford
  • YouTube – PayPal

These great tech ideas/businesses/game changers came from not places, but ecosystems

  • the education ecosystem
  • the creative ecosystem
  • the content ecosystem
  • the engineering ecosystem
  • the business ecosystem

I know two young men – both from Holywood – who are separately developing new tech ideas and both are doing that in the USA. I don’t know whether these are brilliant or awful ideas. It doesn’t matter, the ideas have already been exported. As have the guys who are following them.

Before you have all the ecosystems above, you need one in particular – a political ecosystem. It  doesn’t have to do much, it just needs to support ideas creation. Politicians do not create jobs. The best they can do is to create the conditions for jobs to be created.

We should and do applaud the work being done in the Northern Ireland Science Park and (especially NISP Connect), The University of Ulster, Digital Circle, Digital Derry, Build Conference, Emerald Valley, NI Screenthe CIIF Fund, the Creative Entrepreneurs Club, a revived Presidents Club and all the Camps, coffees Mobile Monday and other events. For such a small place there is plenty of networking and innovation talk. Yet in the WIRED Meet-up Long Tail Northern Ireland locations hardly show at all. It’s not that they were not happening. It’s just that the news is not getting out there. Please feel free to add others to this list.

What have we to learn from that?

First, while a result tomorrow would be great, it is unlikely. First we need a fantastic education system across the board. We need to understand that people who take risks are are supported in that risk taking will win. Great ideas will come out of universities, small businesses, and other places but they won’t come out of the civil service.

We need a leadership (in education, politics, finance and others) that understand the possibilities and the technology that will change NI)

And most of all, we need to talk up what we do, be confident about it, think together. Most people complain about “silos”. I’m not sure sure. I think another word for “silos” is “focus”. But we have to break out of them from time to time; co-ordinate, communicate, share ideas and direction.

If we are looking for the person who is going to build the next Facebook, we are more likely to miss the great idea which would have been the Next Big Thing if we had changed our mindset.

The Irish Showband was a phenomenon. For decades they toured the country playing note perfect covers of other people’s songs. The best were tight, well disciplined, and excellent musicians. But they only played note perfect covers of other people songs. Then the mobile disco started, under cut and out played them. The Showband was not a creative force, but great at copying. I expect that other countries have their copycat artists whether in music or technology or art. A fabulous copy of a Van Gogh might sell but never for as much as an original.

So, let’s take the harder route. Let’s be original.


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