A not really review of ‘The Social Network’

Ok – confession time:  I didn’t see the movie, I don’t plan to, and this isn’t a film review at all.  I am merely using the subject matter of the film as a device to further what, for me, is the more central and important lesson of this tale … and that is that ideas are cheap.

I will defer to the wise and eloquent Lawrence Lessig to provide a nugget of wisdom in a way that my mere mortal brain cannot.  The following is a quote from an article/review he published in the New Republic about the “Facebook Movie” – Its an amazing bit of insight:

But from the story as told, we certainly know enough to know that any legal system that would allow these kids to extort $65 million from the most successful business this century should be ashamed of itself. Did Zuckerberg breach his contract? Maybe, for which the damages are more like $650, not $65 million. Did he steal a trade secret? Absolutely not. Did he steal any other “property”? Absolutely not—the code for Facebook was his, and the “idea” of a social network is not a patent. It wasn’t justice that gave the twins $65 million; it was the fear of a random and inefficient system of law.

Whatever your ideas are about intellectual property, or whether or not you feel sorry for the “downtrodden” defendants in the film, execution is what matters, and real, successful execution isn’t just technical prowess – it requires a deep set of skills like vision, perseverance, and adaptability (for advice on how to acquire these illusive skills read Eric Ries – but, I digress).  When Zuckerberg launched  “Facemash”, the pre-cursor to Facebook, it was Oct 2003. I had been working on the internet and related fields,  at that time,  for nearly 6 years, and I can tell you — “social networking” on a large scale was going to happen –  it was already happening in many proto-FB  forms.  Also, I can’t think of a product where the Network Effect has more of an impact on success than for a social network, so the winner was always going to be the one with the most users, period.  Lets not also forget that Facebook improved and became bigger and better BECAUSE of its users (again… network effect) – - the product grew and adapted, not because Mark Zuckerberg gave glorious birth to every feature in advance of demand – -  but because he was smart enough not to.

So cheap, it can’t be good.

Here is a common cheap idea life-cyle that I’ve seen occur so many times within my own world of digital media:  The user AND company expect “A” which is appealing, if it works, but it doesn’t work, because the business model / the marketplace / the legal system / current technology don’t support “A” – the company proceeds anyway, because they still cling to the possibility of reaching the unrealistic, but appealing “A”,  even though there are significant barriers out of their control or lack of funding or whatever.

Truly good ideas, IMO, have depth … a path … a unique signature.  In a way, an idea is like a snowflake, and initially, only the owner of that idea has that version. To take this idea to the extreme, I could say that I have an idea to build a time machine.  Hell – from the demand side, that’s a smashing idea… just think of it! The fact that is violates the laws of physics (well, maybe not technically, but that’s for another discussion) makes it absurd, but even beyond that, if you were to press me on my thoughts on getting from A-Z (concept to launch), my only option would be to grin back at you and say .. “A Time Machine, Man! Just Think of it!” Its not a bad idea… its just an extremely cheap idea… so cheap as to be asymptotic to 0.  The point is that give me any one or two sentence ideas, and I have no doubt that there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of people who have thought of this “half-idea”, but it is the entrepreneur with the vision and insight to see a real path to execution that makes the idea into a good one.

Zuckerberg Jr.

Another internet magnate who has been much maligned for NOT having ideas, but rather, copying/stealing ideas is Mark Pincus of Zynga. Now, don’t get me wrong… there are some lawsuits out there that accuse Zynga of literally stealing code and doing things that violate contracts and break the law – I don’t condone this at all… if they are found guilty, they should suffer the rule of law, but I do think they get a bad rap for some of the “copying” charges. I found this anonymous gamer post on message a board pretty salient:

Zynga was pulled into court for making Mafia Wars, by the original makers of Mob Wars. Mob Wars is an inferior and much lesser-known game to Mafia Wars, even though Mob Wars came first (which is sad). Zynga just has an amazing dev team and knows how to market.

That being said, Zynga is a total copy cat…they just cross-promote the hell out of their games, which makes them so popular. At this point, they’re crapping gold…no matter what new game they make, it becomes an instant hit.

I don’t know scientifically if this is the “general feeling” out there, but if you take it on the face of it, and lets just say “ok – he’s right” – well, Zynga is good at developing and good at marketing… 2 pretty darn important pieces of the puzzle, don’tcha think? I think the really sad thing is that the Mafia isn’t getting their cut… I mean, weren’t they what made these games possible in the first place? Maybe Coppola should have sued Scorcese for making Good Fellas. Being a “copy-cat” in the sense described above may be seem unethical or anti-innovation, but I disagree on both counts, and in an innovative economy, its absolutely necessary.  The internet and software is all about copying, iterating, and improving… the whole industry evolved this way – its Hayek’s  emergent order in its most virulent form.

So, I’ve given up on my time machine, but there are idea men out there who never stop…