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The stream

April 09, 2009

"Controlling the stream" is not just one of the major life-challenges facing elderly gentlemen; it is the center of industrial competition on the realtime social network that we once termed "Web 2.0." Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, gave a speech yesterday before a group of advertising executives in New York in which she argued, as the Wall Street Journal reported, that "banner and text ads are old news." Today, "the new tactic is to blur the lines between marketing and social networking" by introducing commercial messages into "the stream" of realtime status updates exchanged among friends.

Intimacy, whether real or feigned, is gold in the ad world, and it is the impression of intimacy that Facebook and its competitors look to deliver, to both members and advertisers.

In a blog-gloss on her speech, Sandberg gamely tried to convince Facebookers of the value of "the stream" as a means of greatly expanding their friend-set:

Think about the ways you communicate with your friends - whether on or off Facebook. The communication likely falls into one of two traditional types: reciprocal communication or direct communication. Reciprocal communication is a conversation where messages are exchanged back and forth ... Direct communication occurs when you send a message to someone specific, with or without the expectation of a reply ...

On Facebook, there's a third and new way you communicate - through the stream. Every time you log into your home page you see a running timeline or stream of the information being shared by your friends and the other things you're connected with on Facebook. The more people share, the more you see in the stream and the more you learn about your connections.

This stream communication, rather than reciprocal and direct communication, forms your active network. Whenever you interact with a story in the stream - whether you "Like" a piece of content, comment on it or simply click on it - the person sharing it becomes part of your active network.

Because the realtime stream broadcasts all interpersonal communications among the members of one's "active network," Sandberg says, it leads to "greater connectedness" across the network, which also greatly expands "the ability for people to influence one another with more speed and efficiency." By "people," Sandberg means, of course, "advertisers." She explains: "Our Engagement Ads on the home page allow you to take common activities like commenting, RSVPing for an event or giving a virtual gift directly in the ad. If any of your friends have already taken an action, that appears in the ad as well. We've found that interaction with those ads increases 50 percent when someone sees a friend's action, such as a comment."

ReadWriteWeb's crotchety Marshall Kirkpatrick finds this all a little bit "creepy":

Facebook management is acting like a group of cult leaders intent on changing the rest of us into more social, less private people than we might want to be ... Isn't there a lot more to human connection than one liner status updates, photos posted online, "thumbs up" and the other relatively mechanistic interactions that people have on Facebook? What's the end result of all these magical connections through relatively shallow communication? Advertising! ... That's the highlight of all this that Sandberg points to - formerly free-thinking individuals [using] Facebook to turn themselves into players in an advertisement.

So far, the Facebook multitudes seem more baffled by "the stream" than enamored of it. But Facebook's intrusive-advertising strategy has long been one of taking two steps forward and then, when the members rebel, apologizing profusely before taking one step back. Do that enough times, and before long you'll arrive at your goal.

This post is an installment in Rough Type's ongoing series "The Realtime Chronicles," which began here.

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