Gut Check

gutNo matter what we say or think we’re doing, we’re looking for a Grand Unification Theory or GUT: A way of viewing any random piece of news or gossip without our entire world view cracking and spilling out all over the ground around us. Thus the current fascination with realtime micromessaging and Track.

The past few days there’s been a flurry of discussion falling under the heading of “Google threatened by realtime people search.” The thesis is that search (Google) is based on the past, while Twitter search (Track) is based on realtime, i.e. now. The problem with this GUT is that this is not a new insight, has been discussed openly for several years, and seems surprisingly resistant to being monetized for such an epochal sea change.

Facebook’s move toward opening its realtime update stream does little to disrupt Twitter’s control of its dominant stream via rate limiting and corporate indirection. The GUT suggests micromessages are owned by the individual vendor, and the so-called Open crowd helps popularize what is in reality a shell game. In fact, the vendor who first claims ownership of the stream will immediately forfeit it.

First, it is not the stream that holds the value of the system — it’s the intersection of the active stream (Track) with the individual’s view of the peer group most likely to help winnow the stream down to manageable size. Having access to all the most important information in the world is useless without some way of managing it in real time. Twitter’s value proposition is the Follow cloud managed and extended by Track.

Second, we’ve had systems capable of broadcasting status messages for some time now. Search collected these signals – documents, posts, email, IM – and provided a system to assign value and therefore pricing to the data. Web 2.0 in effect was the API to these floating information objects, with search the primary driver of who gets to where first.

Third, the more we understand the value of these micro-objects, the more interested we become in getting the best deal for distributing them and deriving compensation for the effort expended to create and manage them. Once we understand how valuable Tweets are, we start looking for a manager or an agent.

Of course, there are only a few Scobles or Arringtons out there who can command a decent price for their individual messages. For the rest of us, we have to find support from affinity groups. Affinities come in many flavors, but they neatly divide into two groups: those we know about – church or sport or music or book club – and those who know about us. These implicit affinities are subtle and overlapping and dynamic.

Querying affinities requires a valid contract between the users who make up the groups and those who want to reach them. Google has enormous flow of user data about interest and intent, but little assent at the affinity level. Facebook’s assent is weakly typed because it’s difficult to distinguish between levels of “friendship”. Twitter’s Follow architecture provides the best explicit modeling of affinities, if, and it’s the Big If, Track is available to help balance asymmetry between a small number of Follows and a larger number of Followers.

So far Twitter has succeeded in maintaining growth and the perception of value within its communities of users and developers. FriendFeed has done a good job of challenging Twitter’s blockade of Track and realtime APIs, which hurts third party developers more than it does users. Facebook may make inroads with developers adding the Facebook stream to aggregation tools, and Facebook Connect is already provisioned to handle the news stream.

But any overt move to claim users or their affinity clouds will trigger extremely negative effects. Microsoft’s Hailstorm was viable only as long as it wasn’t wedded to an identity system. Google’s attempts to harvest social graph data from email behavior and graft it onto Google Reader shared feeds violated the implicit social contracts of two separate services. Yahoo’s MyBlogLog harvested data as the result of contracts with Web sites owners and without the clear consent of the users themselves.

Today these services seem somewhat neutered. Hailstorm was in the end deployed as Google Apps and Gmail instead of by Microsoft. Google Reader dominates the RSS aggregation market but has not been integrated into the Apps. MyBlogLog is disappearing from sites as Twitter and FriendFeed communities expand. Third party clients are mining realtime streams to identify and target valuable groups based on their anonymous shared behavior.

But the GUT says Google has peaked. The GUT says Facebook will slowly but surely suck the business model out of Twitter just when they finally discover it. My gut says the GUT will only be ratified by users when they are able to calculate the implicit value of their gestures and then get a check for that amount. The list of those capable of cutting such a check is not very long. It may be the ultimate stimulus package.