EIF debate on the evolution of social networks

18 June 2012 Author: EIFonline

James Elles (MEP and EIF Co-Founder) hosted the 29 May EIF dinner event on the evolution of social networks.

Click here to see the programme of the event

The first speaker on the evening's programme was Julien Codorniou (Head of European Gaming Partnerships at Facebook). He presented the Facebook platform as an engine of economic growth. As he put it, the Facebook ecosystem is the most powerful software distribution engine ever created. He boasted that Facebook had invented the concept of social discovery. Codorniou went on to expand on the Facebook application ecosystem, taking Zynga and Wooga (represented by the next speaker in the lineup) as his examples. He said that when Facebook launched its development platform in mid-2007 no-one anticipated the rapid uptake within the social gaming industry. He underscored the notion of Facebook as maintainer of a key ecosystem nurturing nascent software companies, noting that as a platform company Facebook only wins when that application ecosystem is thriving. He highlighted the importance of the Facebook economy to Europe, asserting that within a European context Facebook alone was responsible for nearly 15 billion euros in economic activity and about 230,000 jobs. He pointed out that historically distribution outside one's own country was a major barrier to growth for European software vendors but that since the advent of Facebook's application ecosystem that was no longer the growth bottleneck it once represented. Hence, he said, now you find a rapidly growing demand in, for example, Berlin for the types of talent that would have previously gravitated inexorably towards Silicon Valley.

The next speaker was Philipp Moeser (Chief Technology Officer at Wooga). Moeser launched his talk with a bit of personal history, explaining how it was that he came to found Wooga. His career path was, as he described it, somewhat circuitous but the determining factor was a desire to continue working in a more technical role. After several funding rounds Wooga now employs (counting both inside Europe and abroad) about 200 people. Although Wooga is a German firm (based in Berlin) more than 50% of its staff are non-Germans and so the company working language is English. He commented that at present talent recruitment is "the" major challenge they face as a company. He then went on to address common misperceptions about social gaming, saying that Wooga's market is actually much closer to a typical weeknight sitcom audience than it is the the young man living in his parents' basement who stays up all night playing first-person shooter games. Wooga tries to position itself as a provider of entertainment rather than testosterone-fueled competition. So, why do it on Facebook rather than on a standalone site? Well, Moeser noted, of course they "could" conduct their business on a site of their own but that Facebook delivers three key business advantages: the social graph, the concomitant distribution network, and an internationalized payment system. Of course, Facebook does take a cut of revenues but at the end of the day Moeser sees the value Facebook provides to its market participants as justifying that cost. He closed with an appeal to policymakers not to cling too tightly to the precautionary principle but to be a bit optimistic and recognize that opportunities may "also" come along with innovation.

Next up was Kate Day (Social Media and Engagement Editor at the Telegraph Media Group). She opened by posing the question, why does a traditional newspaper even need a social media editor? In face, she said, for several important reasons. For one thing, the average Telegraph reader is 55 years old. Reaching out through social media enables them to draw in a younger audience. Second, interacting with that social media audience actually enriches the quality of the Telegraph's reporting by putting reporters in touch with a fuller contextual backdrop behind each story. Lastly, (and perhaps not least of all) advertising sponsors increasingly demand to see an integrated approach across print, traditional digital media, and social sites such as Twitter, Facebook and BuzzFeed. She went on to (unavoidable) describe her typical working day. She said she begins by reading the news coverage from both the Telegraph's traditional print media competitors and also the latest from various social media sites. Then Day goes into a meeting with the editors plus sales and advertising representatives. They typically discuss online traffic and reader comments on the previous day's news coverage. After that, she goes into an exclusive meeting with the chief editor where they go over reader feedback in greater detail - things the paper perhaps missed and additional background material that might be helpful in conveying the unfolding news stories. After that, Day typically meets one-on-one with individual journalists to coach them on their social media conversations and help them to better understand their readers' desires as part of commissioning new stories. Next up is the traditional daily meeting where reporters pitch potential stories to the editor for discussion and vetting. After that pitch meeting, the bulk of her day is devoted to providing strategic social media-oriented guidance, helping to finalize the selection of the next day's stories, and giving pointers to the editors and staff how best to promote those articles. Day closed by observing that newspapers have "always" been good at building a sort of club among their readership and that well-grounded social media integration only serves to make that linkage stronger.

Closing out the evening was Carl-Christian Buhr (Member of Cabinet of Vice-President Neelie Kroes, European Commission). Buhr opened his talk by asserting that, from a policymaking perspective, the future evolution of social media poses a much bigger quandry than even the data protection question. As a foundation for his talk he underscored Commissioner Kroes' optimistic stance towards innovation and the Commissioner's willingness to look toward the potential advantages of change. Buhr noted that policymaking almost invariably lags behind actuality and so his talk would be rather speculative in an effort to spur the conversation towards more long-term questions. He devoted some time to the definition of key terms, observing that social networks and social discoverability have long been with humanity and that the key differentiator now is that these cultural phenomena are increasingly shifting to digital communication platforms. Buhr confessed that he was a rather early adopter of Facebook. He outlined how the techno-historical migration from home computers towards mobile devices as social media access paths had transformed the nature of the medium itself. "Ask yourself," he posed, "is it natural what you're doing, sitting hunched over your mobile phone staring at the tiny letters?" Ten years ago all this was but a dream. Perhaps, Buhr suggested, it would be helpful to try and imagine where this progression would go over the next ten years. He led the audience on a flight of fancy into a future filled with heads-up augmented-reality displays, neural sensors that could detect thought patterns, the final perfection of voice-recognition technology, and clothing embedded with an array of environmental sensors. What challenges, he asked, does this likely future hold? What should policymakers be concerned about? Buhr identified three key areas: new hardware, additional bandwidth, and data protection guarantees. Europe, he said, stands at an inflection point whereby it may, if it chooses, take an international lead in R&D for the integrated circuit and processor designs that will drive this revolution forward. That hardware has, he observed, a very real potential to be more green than what we have today, perhaps harvesting the energy it needs to operate from the kenetic movement of its owners. Bandwidth is needed, not only for mobile devices, but also for the long-haul connectivity between the wireless basestations and cloud-based data-processing centers. Policymakers should, Buhr cautioned, take this into account as they promulgate new regulations on electromagnetic spectrum. Lastly, data protection reforms are badly needed, in Buhr's view, to allay consumers' fears about potentially nefarious uses of their personal data. He gave as an example the computational problem of voice recognition on mobile devices - mobile phones lack the CPU horsepower to do good voice recognition on their own but with sufficient bandwidth they could seamlessly transmit voice recordings to a cloud-based compute cluster and in turn receive the recognized text output. In order to make this kind of innovation acceptable to a European consumer, Buhr advanced, it would first be necessary to have in place strong legal protections concerning what processors could and could not do with personal data and informed consumer consent.

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