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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Mobile operators have lost their chance at owning the social graph

I'm at the Telco 2.0 event in London today. We just saw the results of a live survey of the delegates on a range of questions, asking whether telcos were "in control" of particular areas of the industry - and if so, whether that control was a solid grip, or ephemeral and likely to be weakened over the next few years.

One question stuck out to me - whether telcos still "own" the user's addressbook and process of initiation of personal communications. The consensus in the room was that operators still have a couple of years' window, before they risk losing control of the much-discussed "social graph". (I actually hate the term, but agree with the general idea that it's valuable to understand an individual's affiliations and personal universe).

By coincidence, I happened to read this article about youths' behaviours on Facebook this morning. This paragraph leapt out to me:

I asked Shamika why she bothered with Facebook in the first place, given that she sent over 1200 text messages a day. Once again, she looked at me incredulously, pointing out that there’s no way that she’d give just anyone her cell phone number. Texting was for close friends that respected her while Facebook was necessary to be a part of her school social life. And besides, she liked being able to touch base with people from her former schools or reach out to someone from school that she didn’t know well.

This actually tallies with my own use of social networks - I've only got a small fraction of my Facebook and LinkedIn affiliations in my mobile phone's addressbook. And I wouldn't want the others included - especially those affiliations which are not people (events, groups, fan pages, things I "like" and so on).

Even if I had some telco-based cloud addressbook, it would only reach a fraction of my personal or business universe. An increasing percentage of my communications are conducted "off-phonebook", especially on Facebook or Skype, but also via Twitter and various email accounts. As I've written before, I have no need for some sort of converged addressbook, especially one controlled by a gatekeeper who wants to charge me for the privilege, and use its bottleneck position to stop me churning when I want in future. The notion that this is somehow going to be solved by clunky centralised solutions like IMS and RCS is an exercise somewhere between self-delusion and wishful thinking.

I notice that Telco 2.0 has also published this post on the role of operators in understanding and monetising personal information. My view is that they have three uphill challenges:
  • The growing fraction of personal communications & data that it invisible to the operators
  • The general happiness of end-users with fragmentation of their contacts / affiliations and communication channels. The "convergence layer" is in the brain, not the phone or the network. As increasingly multi-tasking capable users, this is not a problem to many of us.
  • The poor structuring and accessibility of the data that they *do* possess, spread across multiple databases and repositories.
Some of the "old school mobile" pundits are still clinging to the idea that mobile operators "know everything" about you. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially as growing numbers of people have multiple (unlinked) accounts, devices and SIMs from a range of operators.

If the semi-mythical "social graph" does turn out to exist, it's more likely to be Facebook, Google or Apple that owns it, at least in the developed and Internet/smartphone-centric world.


Unknown said...

Great post. and absolutely true. so is the phone number the number 1 client ID anymore? nope. could the telco use some kind of LBS/ Client ID to validate the fractured social ID? yeah, if people wanted it?

Chema said...

I agree with most of the post, but I don't see why "mobile operators not owning the social graph" is so disastrous.

What service providers could (could, not will) do is getting to do more (i.e. more useful things for subscribers and businesses) with what they have.

Phone number is not the prime client ID for a number of people, but it is the token for the inner circle, and that's still with a service provider. Perhaps not for very long, but it still is.