Tuesday, December 30, 2008

communication and collaboration - the big upgrade

The responses to my blog are always a little surprising to me. Yesterday's post didn't have a whole lot of substance, but it did include one good product idea, which is to somehow let other people edit my posts.

Someone on news.yc was not impressed by my idea though:
I was going to disagree with those negative comments below but then read the blog and damn; this guy has a freaking ego to think people would want to edit his ramblings for him in any other way than comical..

Next, I looked at the comments that were on my blog directly. One of the first ones was from Paul Graham, and it said simply:
deniable -> deniability :-)

Well, apparently Paul Graham wants to edit my ramblings, and in a way that would make me look smarter too... I'm pretty sure that he would have just made the correction himself had it been as easy and obvious as leaving a comment, but unfortunately no blog software seems to do that, most especially not Blogger.com.

Last year, someone translated one of my posts into Chinese (and I had Google translate it back).

This all reminds me of one of the blog posts that has been trapped in my head for a long time...

It starts off with something about ants, because my house must have been built on top of a giant anthill or something, because they are continually staging giant invasions and I'm always having to set them on fire or vacuum them up or something. So I'm always thinking about ants, and ants are kind of interesting because, more so than a lot of animals, the individuals are not really viable, and the hive (or colony or whatever) is kind of like a creature of its own (yeah, I know, I'm not the first person to notice this). It even has a short term memory in the form of pheromone trails left on my floor, and I erase those memories with a paper towel and some soapy water. So the ant colony is fairly sophisticated, but each ant's behavior is relatively simple -- they are just following some simple rules and don't really comprehend why or how the colony works. They don't see the "big picture".

And that reminds me of our brains, which are built out of relatively simple neurons. Each neuron simply sums up it's inputs, and then generates an output that gets passed along to some other neurons (or something like that, I'm sure it's a huge simplification, but you get the point). Certainly no individual neuron can possibly comprehend what it's doing -- it just cranks along summing up inputs and generating outputs. The magic is in the wires, the connections among the neurons.

Individual humans aren't terribly viable animals either. They almost went extinct not that long ago (100,000 years?). However, since then we've managed to pretty much take over the entire planet and build all kinds of amazing things like airplanes, computers, and burritos. Humans started out kind of similar to other animals (but weaker and less numerous) and then became something fundamentally different. That transition occurred because we are able to communicate and collaborate like nothing else. We can communicate though both time and space. We learn from people who died thousands of years ago on the other side of the planet. Even a survivalist hunter who goes off into wilderness alone is still relying on all the training and knowledge that was passed on before the journey began.

So in many ways, the human society (or human superorganism) is kind of like the human brain -- the magic is in the connections. Significant advances have occurred when we upgraded the wiring that connects everyone. The inventions of spoken language, written language, and the printing press were all revolutionary because they enabled more sophisticated communication and collaboration.

And now I can ramble on about ants and neurons and stuff, and people all of the world can read it, and digest it, and tell me I'm an idiot, and make their own ideas, and pass them on to other people, and it all happens in a matter of minutes. As much hype and excitement as there has been around the Internet, I think that people may still be misunderestimating its importance. We are literally upgrading the wiring that drives human society.

This is also why I'm excited about things like FriendFeed. The flow of information and influence is rather fundamental to way our world works. In the past much of that information flow was slow and hierarchical. It had to pass through one of a relatively small number of tightly controlled networks and publishers. But suddenly, the information can come from anywhere, and go anywhere, and it doesn't need anyone's approval. If it's completely random, it won't work any better than a bunch of randomly wired neurons (which I assume isn't very good), but with the right wiring, everyone starts to get the right information for them, and maybe we can stop being so stupid. I'm not yet sure what this new human architecture looks like, but that's what makes it an interesting (and extremely important) problem.

I sometimes think of FriendFeed as a kind of "distributed broadcast channel", but that's just part of picture. Better collaboration, like having other people edit my blog posts, is another part. It enables each of us to do what we do best, which improves the overall system efficiency and intelligence (and more importantly, I can avoid things that I don't like doing).

Keeping with the brain anology, it's very likely that we can't even comprehend what's going on. I certainly don't. I'm just a little neuron, summing up my inputs, and then passing the result along to you.

Monday, December 29, 2008

blog, v2

I haven't posted anything here in about eight months, mostly because I've just been very busy, but also because:
  • Blogging is too hard
  • I post a lot of things over on FriendFeed, which is easier, and I'm lazy (and you really should subscribe to my FriendFeed if you find anything I post here at all interesting)
  • I got tired of my blog posts. When I read them, there's something I don't like.
Nevertheless, I sometimes want to share something more than a FriendFeed message or interesting link, so I'm going to give it a second try.

However, I've decided that in the future my posts will be more rambling, and more pointless. I think part of what I don't like about the older posts is that they are sometimes arguing a point or something, but my real point (or my intention, at least) is just to share some kind of idea or thought, not convince anyone of anything. Also, I think this will be a lot easier to write because I can just type a bunch of words and they don't have to fit together in any particular way, and it's also a good excuse to not bother with any editing, so I should be able to crank these things out really fast.

I also have this idea to outsource the writing of my blog posts to someone, ideally everyone. The idea is that I'd write a bunch of stuff and then someone else (maybe wiki-style) would turn it into something coherent and readable. That would save me a lot of time and also provide plausible deniable when I write something that turns out to be especially stupid or offensive. But that's in the future. For now, it will just be a bunch of words that keep going until I get bored or distracted, and then I'll hit "send" :) (I'm also writing these things in Gmail since the blogger interface upsets me)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The power of links and the value of global knowledge

Long, long ago, before Google, search engines evaluated and ranked web pages by considering each page in isolation, examining the size of the fonts, the contents of the meta tags, etc. In some cases, it was even possible to "hijack" another site's listings by simply cloning their HTML. Perhaps a few search engines attempted to improve on this with simple tactics such as counting the number of links to a page, but that was generally useless since it's so easy to create "fake" links in order to boost your count.

With Pagerank, Google took a very different approach. Instead of considering each page in isolation, they examined the link structure of the entire web and computed a global evaluation of that structure. In other words, they began looking at the entire forest instead of just the individual trees. Google did other things too -- Pagerank is just one of many factors, but this general approach of evaluating information in a global context is fundamental to many of the algorithms. These algorithms made it easier for Google to spot which web sites were actually important, and which were just pretenders. Of course Google isn't perfect, and people can still manipulate rankings to some extent, but it was substantially better than the old way, and good enough to form the foundation of what is now a $174 billion dollar company.

Last week I wrote about Facebook gathering similar information about people. By collecting information about people and the links between them, they can start to get a global view of the human "forest". Unfortunately, based on many of the responses, that post wasn't very well written. A lot of people focused on how annoying Facebook applications are (true), how search results limited to your friends would be useless (also true), or other things completely unrelated to my point. A few people mentioned that Facebook hasn't done anything useful with this data, which is actually a good point, but I think that has more to do with Facebook and the newness of the data than it does with the value of the data. After all, the web was around for many years before Google came along and started profitably mining the link structure.

Will Facebook ever do anything useful with the human link data? I have no idea, and it's not particularly important to me. However, I'm confident that SOMEONE will begin mining this data, and that it could ultimately be more valuable than the link data from the web. Facebook is a convenient example because they happen to have a head start on collecting the data, but others might be the first to actually profit from it. Google, in particular, is much better at data mining and also has quite a bit of human link data (from Gmail and Orkut). Microsoft+Yahoo will also have a nice data set, though I doubt that they will know what to do with it. Of course none of this data is perfectly clean and noise-free, but real data never is -- the web certainly isn't.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Facebook knows who you are, and that's worth more than you think

It's very fashionable to declare that Facebook is an over-hyped fad and will never make any real money, certainly not enough to justify its insane $15 billion valuation. At first glance, it's easy to understand why some people might think it's a toy -- most of the activity there seems to involve biting, poking, and joining groups with funny names.

However, I think that assessment misses out on something very interesting: Facebook is capturing everyone's identity and relationships. Of course there's some noise caused by random friending, but by examining the larger graph as well as other details such as location, affiliations, interactions, and of course explicitly entered relationship details ("how do you know Paul?"), they can get a pretty good idea of which people are actual friends and acquaintances.

The lack of reliable identity information has always been an issue on the web. It's the reason why we don't have a useful directory of email addresses -- everyone in the directory would get bombarded by spam or other unwanted messages, and even if it did exist, how would you know which of the thousands of Adam Smiths is the one that you are looking for? Facebook has already solved this problem for a large fraction of people. It's easy to search for a name and then pick out the right person based on their picture, location, or friends. I get a lot of messages on Facebook, but unlike email, I have yet to receive any spam. That's pretty remarkable.

Perhaps a people directory doesn't seem terribly valuable, but if you can't imagine how to make money from knowing everyone's identity and trust networks, then you aren't being very imaginative. Spam and fraud are two of the biggest problems on the internet, and they are very difficult to stop because it's so easy to create new identities, and we have no good way of differentiating between real identities and fake ones. Even in "real" life, people are able to skip town-to-town, defrauding people again and again because to the people in the new town, they have a new and unknown identity.

One of the best examples of this problem on the internet is eBay. If you try to buy or sell something on eBay (especially computers or electronics, apparently), there is a very good chance that someone will try to rip you off -- just search Google for ebay scammers and you will find pages such as "How scammers run rings round eBay" and "eBay Forums: Today's Scams In Progress". Ebay has had a relatively solid lock on the auction market due to network effects, but with billions of dollars in profits, a $42 billion market cap, and 10 years of not innovating, I'm willing to bet that won't last. With reliable identity information, most of these fraud schemes would become impractical, which would obviously be a real advantage for an eBay competitor.

What else is highly profitable on the internet? Search. I doubt that anyone will ever beat Google at Google-style search, certainly not Microsoft or Yahoo, even if they do tie their horses together. The only way anyone will create something significantly better than today's Google is if they add a new and important ingredient to the mix. Many people have suggested that demographic information, or perhaps knowing what your friends have searched for will help, but I doubt it. What could work is actual, direct, human involvement by the users. In fact, it's already helping in a very limited form -- Wikipedia pages are written and edited by random people on the internet and they frequently occupy the top spots on Google (and I always click on them). Of course the problem with letting random users edit or reorder the search results is that you will quickly be overwhelmed by spam and fraud. But what if you knew who the users were and which ones you could trust?

Those are just the first few things that come to mind -- the uses of identity information are endless. Of course there's no guarantee that Facebook will actually realize any of this potential -- there were many search engines before Google, and they all fumbled the opportunity they had, but it's important to at least understand the potential for big things.

Update: This post was supposed to be about data more so than Facebook (Facebook just happens to have the data). See this post for a (hopefully) better explanation.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ideas vs Judgment and Execution: Climbing the Mountain

How much is an idea worth? Many normal people assume that ideas are valuable, and that if only they could think of one, they might be able to sell it for millions of dollars, like the Pet Rock. On the other hand, many engineers, VCs, and successful entrepreneurs claim that ideas are worthless. Paul Graham provides a sort of "proof" that ideas are worthless:

Startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here's an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there's no market for startup ideas suggests there's no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

People in the "ideas are worthless" camp usually claim that it's all about execution -- they have plenty of great ideas that just need great teams to execute on them.

I have ideas all of the time, many more than I have time for, and so I tend towards the "ideas are worthless" camp. However, there's a nagging inconsistency -- something isn't quite right.

Quoting yet again from Marc Andreessen's "Guide to Startups, part 4: The only thing that matters"

I'll assert that market is the most important factor in a startup's success or failure.
The product doesn't need to be great; it just has to basically work. And, the market doesn't care how good the team is, as long as the team can produce that viable product.
Conversely, in a terrible market, you can have the best product in the world and an absolutely killer team, and it doesn't matter -- you're going to fail.

In other words, you just need to build the right product. A mediocre team building the right product will succeed and a brilliant team building the wrong product will fail.

Isn't that a little bit like saying that having the right idea DOES matter? And if ideas are so plentiful, then why do we see great teams executing perfectly on bad ideas?

I've thought about this for a bit and realized that both camps ("ideas are valuable" and "ideas are worthless") are wrong, at least when stated so simply.

Imagine that products are mountains. To build a product, you will need to climb that mountain. Some mountains have a big pot of gold at the top, and some do not. In order to make money, you will need to pick the right mountain and then successfully climb to the top and gather up the gold. You can fail by choosing a mountain that has little or no gold at the top, or by dying on the way up.

Taking this metaphor a little further, there are also multiple paths up the mountain. According to Wikipedia, Mount Everest has fifteen recognized routes to the top. Some routes are easier than others.

Successfully executing a trip to the top of the mountain requires a certain level of technical ability -- how much will depend on the mountain and route. It also requires good judgment in order to choose the right route, or to change course when you realize that the current path isn't working out.

Judgment isn't talked about as much as execution, but it's obviously very important. A technically brilliant team, upon encountering a sheer cliff, may excitedly think to themselves, "this is the perfect opportunity to use Erlang!" (or some other fancy tech -- Erlang is just a funny example) A team with better judgment would notice that there's an easier route that goes around the other side.

Judgment also plays a critical role in choosing which mountain to climb. Our landscape of product-mountains has millions of different mountains, many of which have never been climbed. Other mountains have been attempted in the past, but the team froze on the way up, or there was no gold when they got to the top (apparently the gold flows intermittently in this analogy).

There are also people wandering around in the flat lands near the mountains. Many of these people have ideas about which mountains have gold at the top, and some of them have even drawn crude maps showing what they believe to be an easy route to the top. Inevitably, they try to sell their ideas and maps to the mountain climbers, but the climbers just brush them off and say that their ideas and plans are worthless.

Eventually, a team of climbers will discover a huge cache of gold on one of the mountains. Naturally, the people who were hanging around at the base trying to sell their ideas and plans will say, "I had that idea first! They stole my idea! I knew there was gold at the top of the mountain!"

And it's true that they had the idea, as did many other people. Ideas are plentiful. The problem is that most ideas are bad -- either there's no gold at the top of the mountain, or the ascent is too difficult with today's technology. What's valuable is the judgment to know which mountains have the gold, and the team that can get to it.

So are ideas worthless? Not quite. If a skilled climber who has successfully chosen the right mountains in the past thinks he knows the location of another gold-rich mountain, people will listen. The idea has value because it comes from someone who has a history of being right.

If the exact same idea were presented by a random person with no experience and no ability to execute, it would probably be ignored -- there's just not enough evidence that it's a good idea. If that person truly believes in their idea, they will have to prove it on their own. (The beauty of our system is that they often can, even if everyone else thinks it's a bad idea)

If someone with a history of being right also has a capable team of climbers who have demonstrated the technical skill and judgment to climb other mountains, then that is very valuable, and they will have no trouble getting their idea funded.

Idea * Judgment * Ability * Determination * Luck = $$$

Thursday, March 27, 2008

FriendFeed from the command line

Sometimes, it's faster and easier to just use the command line. Thanks to the new FriendFeed API, I was able write a little script that connects my command line to my FriendFeed.

This probably would have been easier to write in Python, but bash is so awkward that it makes for a somewhat more interesting challenge. (most of this code is just dealing with image files -- the real work is done by curl)

Here you go:
# Replace with your nickname:remote-key
# Go to http://friendfeed.com/account/api to get your remote key

function usage {
echo "Usage: $0 [-t title] [-l link] [-u nickname:remotekey] [images ...]"
exit 1

while getopts m:u:t:l: opt ; do
case "$opt" in
\?) usage;;
shift $[OPTIND - 1]


[ "$TITLE" = "" ] && usage

ARGS=("-F" "title=$TITLE" "-F" "link=$LINK" "-u" "$USER")

for F in "${FILES[@]}" ; do
if [ "$MAXSIZE" != "" -a -x /usr/bin/sips ] ; then
T=`mktemp /tmp/ffshare.XXXXXX`
sips --resampleHeightWidthMax "$MAXSIZE" --out "$T" "$F" 2>/dev/null

CODE=`curl -o /dev/null -w "%{http_code}" "${ARGS[@]}" http://friendfeed.com/api/share`
if [ "$CODE" == "200" ] ; then
echo "Shared on http://friendfeed.com/`echo "$USER" | sed -e 's/:.*//'`"
echo "Failed: HTTP response $CODE"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Is fragmentation bad?

Imagine that you've just finished watching a movie and are in the mood to talk about it. How are you going to do that? You could chat with random, semi-anonymous people in the movie theater lobby (assume you went to a theater). You could find a community of people who are big fans of the director or the book that the movie was based on. Or, if you saw the movie with friends or family, maybe you'll discuss it with them.

Which of these options you choose will probably depend on your situation. Sometimes it's fun to hear what "random" people think. If the movie is a little more niche and you're somewhat of a connoisseur, you may not care what random people, or even your friends, think. On the other hand, going to movies is often more about shared experience than it is about the movie itself. We enjoy spending time with our friends and the movie is just something interesting to discuss.

Ultimately, a single movie may spawn millions of separate discussions among millions of different people, all in different situations and contexts.

However, there's a question that no one is asking: Isn't all that fragmentation bad? Instead of having millions of separate discussions, shouldn't we have a single, unified discussion, preferably under the control and ownership of the movie studio?


I enjoy our fragmented movie discussions, and I suspect that I would hate the single, unified, shouting match that would occur if we tried to unify all of those separate discussions. This issue of unified discussion may seem a little silly, but I keep seeing it repeated in the context of blogs and other online content.

People sometimes complain that specialized communities such as news.ycombinator.com are taking the conversation away from the sites that they link to, but I go to news.yc in large part because it has an intelligent and well behaved community. That community is kind of niche -- they mostly talk about programming and startups -- but I'm interested in those same things, so I like it.

On the other hand, I occasionally read the comments on YouTube, but I would never comment there myself. It's too random and belligerent for me.

Most recently, this issue of fragmentation has been brought up a lot when debating FriendFeed. One of things that people really love about FriendFeed are the comments -- it's the only place on the web where I can easily share and discuss things with my actual friends (to see what this looks like, view the things I've shared or the things that I've liked or commented on).

Although comments are one of our most popular features, they are also our most controversial feature. If you believe that there should only be a single, unified discussion, then the extra fragmentation caused by FriendFeed will seem like a step in the wrong direction. In fact, not only is there a separate discussion on FriendFeed, there may be hundreds of separate discussions within FriendFeed on the very same topic or link (because different people are sharing the link, and different people have different friend groups).

I, for one, enjoy the fragmentation. It's important to understand that FriendFeed isn't trying to replace the specialized communities on places such as news.yc, or the screaming hordes on YouTube. We're creating a third option: discussion with friends. It may not be for everyone, and that's fine, but many people really like it, including people who would never participate in broader forums such as TechCrunch or YouTube.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Good news, everyone!

FriendFeed is officially launching! (and also announcing our funding)

See Louis Gray, VentureBeat ("Friendfeed, the best software for conversations"), and TechCrunch for more detailed reviews.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The most important thing to understand about new products and startups

First, a quote from Marc Andreessen's "Guide to Startups, part 4: The only thing that matters"
If you ask entrepreneurs or VCs which of team, product, or market is most important, many will say team.
Personally, I'll take the third position -- I'll assert that market is the most important factor in a startup's success or failure.


In a great market -- a market with lots of real potential customers -- the market pulls product out of the startup.

The market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled, by the first viable product that comes along.

The product doesn't need to be great; it just has to basically work. And, the market doesn't care how good the team is, as long as the team can produce that viable product.
Conversely, in a terrible market, you can have the best product in the world and an absolutely killer team, and it doesn't matter -- you're going to fail.

Mark's blog post did not immediately resonate with me, because his terms are somewhat different from the way I think. After all, how great is your product if nobody wants it? How great is your team if they persist in building something that nobody wants?

However, his main point has stayed in the back of my mind since then, and I'm continually reminded of how important it is, and how often I see people who clearly don't get it.

In my mind, there's really two points. One: You can take the smartest, most experienced, most connected, most brilliant people in the world and have them build the most stunningly designed and technically advanced product in the world, but if people don't want it, then you will fail. This is roughly what happened with the Segway, for example.

Perhaps that seems a little discouraging. After all, if really smart people with all the right resources can fail, then what hope is there for the rest of us? Perhaps success is random, and maybe startups are more like the lottery than we'd like to admit.

I don't believe that's true though. There is an optimistic way of understanding my first point, and that's my second point: Even if you aren't the smartest person around, and your product is kind of ugly and broken, you can still be very successful, if you just build the right product. YouTube and MySpace are both fine examples of this.

But if your team is so great, why aren't they building the right product? Simply put, they have the wrong attitude. Firstly, they overestimate the importance of their own skills. Engineers think that success is all about fancy technology and complex engineering (hello Google). Designers think that success is all about beautiful design. MBAs think that success is all about knowing the right people, or spreadsheets, or something. If you have especially smart or successful people, then this problem could be even worse, because then the team is also likely to be arrogant and overconfident, which makes them less likely to question these assumptions or the value of their own skills.

It's easy to find examples of this wrong attitude. When Google acquired YouTube, many people inside the company were flabbergasted, "But they have no technology!?" They didn't understand that you only need enough technology to make the product work. Any more and you probably have the wrong priorities. I regularly see similar complaints about Facebook, MySpace, and a lot of other popular sites. Similarly, people will often complain that MySpace or even Google has "no design" or "bad design". Again, they have enough design (or the right design) to work for their users.

So what's the right attitude? Humility. It doesn't matter how smart and successful and qualified you are, you simply don't know what you're doing. The good news is that nobody else does either, though some are foolish enough to think that they do (and that's why you can beat them).

What is the humble approach to product design? Pay attention. Notice which things are working and which aren't. Experiment and iterate. Question your assumptions. Remember that you are wrong about a lot of things. Watch for the signals. Lose your technical and design snobbery. Whatever works, works.

MySpace is a great example of this. I'm pretty sure that their custom profile page layouts were an accident. They didn't know enough to properly escape the text that people put on their profiles, and that allowed their users to start including arbitrary html and css in their pages. This is a common bug, and most people would have fixed the bug and that would have been the end of it (really great engineers wouldn't have had the bug in the first place). But they did something smarter. They noticed that the feature was popular and found a way to preserve it. The result is mostly ugly, but it's extremely popular.

There are many other accidental inventions besides MySpace, but it's important to understand that "accidental" isn't the same as "random". There are clues all around us, we just need to watch more closely.

For web based products at least, there's another very powerful technique: release early and iterate. The sooner you can start testing your ideas, the sooner you can start fixing them.

I wrote the first version of Gmail in one day. It was not very impressive. All I did was stuff my own email into the Google Groups (Usenet) indexing engine. I sent it out to a few people for feedback, and they said that it was somewhat useful, but it would be better if it searched over their email instead of mine. That was version two. After I released that people started wanting the ability to respond to email as well. That was version three. That process went on for a couple of years inside of Google before we released to the world.

Startups don't have hundreds of internal users, so it's important to release to the world much sooner. When FriendFeed was semi-released (private beta) in October, the product was only about two months old (and 99.9% written by two people, Bret and Jim). We've made a lot of improvements since then, and the product that we have today is much better than what we would have built had we not launched. The reason? We have users, and we listen to them, and we see which things work and which don't.

Find the gradient, then follow it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ultra-immersive, long-form video games from the past or future

As our technology and understanding of nature improves, we are living longer, and many predict that this trend will continue to the point that humans will become nearly immortal. When confronted with the possibility of living for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years, most people express several concerns: "Will I still be able to retire at age 65?", and "Won't that get boring after a while?"

Fortunately, technology is also improving it other areas (and not just more deadly weapons). Video games, for example, are getting quite sophisticated. As the graphics and other interfaces improve, video games become increasingly immersive and involved, and we begin to feel as though we are really inside the game. As this trend continues, will we get to the point that the games feel so real that we become completely immersed and forget about the outside reality?

So what will million-year old people do to manage their boredom? Perhaps they will play long, complicated, multi-player, fully-immersive video games. If your regular life lasted millions of years, occasionally spending a hundred years playing some fancy game might seem reasonable. Perhaps you would play-out your character's entire life span, from birth to death, in one "sitting". In order to really feel the experience and keep the game authentic, you would of course make it so that everyone playing would forget that it was just a game (though maybe some people would try to cheat).

The obvious question: Is that the future, or the past?

Once we eliminate the certainty of our perceived reality, then how can we justify our certainty of anything else? Accepting true reality, whatever it may be, requires letting go of everything specific.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Building a great team

Unless you happen to be really great at everything, it's very important to build a well matched team of people who have complimentary skills and can work well together. Unfortunately, that's much easier said than done, and most startups really struggle to find the right people. That's why I'm excited to announce another great addition to the FriendFeed team. Check out my post on the FriendFeed blog to understand why this is a big announcement.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Should Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail block Facebook?

Apparently Facebook will ban you (or at least Robert Scoble) if you attempt to extract your friend's email addresses from the service.

Automated access is a difficult issue for any web service, so I won't argue with their decision -- it's their service and they own you.

However, when I signed up for Facebook I gave them my Gmail address and password, using their find friends feature:

It was very helpful -- I didn't think that I would know anyone on Facebook, but it turns out that I knew hundreds of people.

However, Gmail's Terms of Use seems to prohibit this:
You also agree that you will not use any robot, spider, other automated device, or manual process to monitor or copy any content from the Service.

Facebook can also import contacts from Yahoo and Hotmail. Yahoo TOS says:
You agree not to access the Service by any means other than through the interface that is provided by Yahoo! for use in accessing the Service.

And Hotmail TOS says:
In using the service, you may not:
Use any automated process or service to access and/or use the service (such as a BOT, a spider, periodic caching of information stored by Microsoft, or "meta-searching")

So the question is, should Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail block Facebook (or close the accounts of anyone who uses Facebook's "friend finder") for violating their Terms of Use?