A human embryo is a strange thing. If we observe it, it doesn’t seem to have the properties of a real person. “It’s missing the ears! How is that a person if it has no legs?” This is very easily dismissible as not a real person.
A robot on the other hand can be carefully designed to approximate all of the features we would expect to see in a real human. “Let’s give it a head. Let’s have it make noise out of its mouth. Maybe we’ll make it bipedal so it can walk properly.”
So which one makes for a better human? “Hmmm… if we nurture it these cells seem to continue to grow… they seem to have encoding in DNA for how an ear could be formed, let’s see where this goes.”
The embryo experiment has been played out billions of times so we’re pretty willing to deal with the “uncertainty” of an embryo turning into a human.
I have a tough time thinking of a successful startup that attempted to build the robot from scratch. The great ones seem to always have started as embryos.
I write this as I’m on a flight to London where I have booked a private room at an AirBnb. For the uninitiated, AirBnb is a marketplace for people to lease space in their apartments to weary travelers such as myself. I enjoy the more authentic and local experience than a hotel can provide while my hosts make some extra money. I’ve stayed at many AirBnb’s in the past, but I haven’t ever run across a friend from my social graph while looking for a place to stay. If I had a friend who happened to be leasing out a place in London that was available for the time period I need and fit my amenities requirements, then I’d love to know about that. I’d probably choose that flat! But more important to me is to solve for the utility of finding a place to stay even if no friend or friend-of-a-friend is leasing a flat that fits my requirements. The web continues to enable the connection of something much more powerful than just a social graph. The “people platforms” enable me to search and discover people who I want to interact with for some reason, often because of a shared interest or transactional utility even if we’re not friends.
When entrepreneurs and visionaries talk about “social platforms” for the web, what they really mean is a specific use-case of what I’m calling “people platforms”. The web was originally built as a people platform and we’ve recently discovered that social connections as a means of content filtering and discovery are really powerful. We’ve collectively learned what was hypothesized for a while and what seems obvious at this point: one of the most interesting use-cases of “people platforms” is in connecting people to their social graph for the purposes of sharing content with friends — pictures from that recent jaunt my friend took to Santorini or photos from the recent company party are frequent stories we observe in the newsfeed. This is content filtered by one of the premier use-cases of the “people platform” — the “social graph” use case.
But the “people platform” is much bigger than just what people wish to discover from their social or friend networks. The “people platform” of the web extends to all interactions an individual could have with others. The “people platform” allows strangers to find each other for a shared context or transaction.
Another example of a fantastic recent product built for the “people platform” of the web is Quora. People conflate Quora with social search. While it does have some aspects which use the Facebook social platform to bootstrap a fantastic first-time user experience, most of the long-term value to Quora doesn’t come primarily from the existence of the social graph. Rather it comes from the identity-information graph which they are assembling. If I ask a question about the best places to sightsee in Prague the question becomes visible to lots of people who are good candidates to answer with appropriate information. In fact, we could be separated by more than the oft-referenced “6 degrees of friendship” and they could still be useful for helping get the utility answer I require. Quora is building for an information retrieval utility problem, but happens to be bootstrapped off of the real identity and interest graph which Facebook had already assembled.
Now this idea of “people platforms” isn’t entirely new — I certainly didn’t invent it. Electronic forums, IRC, and email predate the web itself and there are plenty of embodiments of utility people platforms which have been alive and thriving on the web for over a decade such as Craigslist or Ebay. But there is a need to revisit the “people platforms” now that we’ve had such rapid evolution and depth of build-out of identities on the social web. There has been lots of change and we haven’t seen as much evolution in the non-social people platforms of the web which can be made significantly better by the access to strong identities which Facebook has assembled.
What are the “people platforms” missing from the web? Facebook has a very powerful position in the current embodiment of the “social platforms” world. Most of the opportunities for “people platforms” will come from what’s newly enabled by the existence of information assembled with the build-out of the social graph. Such things as peoples’ “likes” and interests, location meta-information, or other data residue has been assembled by Facebook as a side-effect of growing the social platform which they own today. That data can be remixed for rapid assembly into applications which form new components of the “people platforms” which the web continues to enable.
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