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Google, Facebook go beyond social, beyond identity

Mike Elgan | Aug. 12, 2014
Besides, is it really 'identity' if they don't really care who you are?

The most social layerish product of all is +Post Ads. A business can turn a post into a banner ad that appears on other web sites. When people click on it, they can interact with the post as if it were on Google+.

After Google+ opened to the public, both Google and Facebook went through a phase where they decided that the business model was identity. Both social networks started saying they would require people to use their "real names" in order to use the service. The idea was that in order to monetize people, the social networks needed to know exactly who you really were. Facebook even experimented with requiring users to send scans of their passports and driver's licences to prove identity.

It didn't win either company any fans. (Facebook retreated to making proving identity optional; Google canceled their real names policy just last month.)

Then came the new strategy
At some point in the past year or so, Facebook seems to have had an epiphany. They realized that to win in the mobile space, they didn't need a walled garden. They didn't need a social layer. And they didn't need people to prove their real identities.

What they needed was a pseudo-identity layer, plus an ad layer.

By psuedo-identity layer, I mean they don't actually have to know who you are. They just need to know that you're the same person associated with the various signals harvested on different apps. It doesn't matter that you're Bob Sacamano who lives on Elm street in Lodi, California. What matters is that you're the person who's into fitness, according to your fitness app, pizza, according to your restaurant finder app, and Italian cars, according to your web surfing habits, and that you interact mainly with these 14 specific people and spend your time mostly in those five locations.

This idea is a refinement of Google's social layer idea. Instead of trying to glue everything together with explicitly social behavior, Facebook simply tries to harvest whatever behavior they can, convert that behavior into signals, then serve up contextual ads wherever they see that user showing up. Social interaction is just one of many categories of user behavior that generates signals useful for serving relevant advertising.

So it's no longer about building social features into apps. It's about collecting personal information from many apps and serving ads on many apps.

How many apps? The more, the better. And that's why Facebook has been on a buying binge. They bought the Instagram photo sharing company for $1 billion, the WhatsApp messaging app company for $16 billion and the Moves fitness app (that tracks your every "move") for an undisclosed sum.


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