Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Facebook Face Off

The Facebook vs. ConnectU legal battle between dueling campus social networking sites has finally made it to court this week. However, the controversy over ownership of the original concept for a college-oriented site has been brewing for years, as this 2004 pro-Facebook Harvard Crimson editorial makes clear. As of today, a federal judge sounds skeptical of the intellectual property claims of the smaller rival and has given ConnectU only two weeks to resubmit their claim for a last-ditch effort at a more favorable response. Facebook's supporters point to a better business plan, more rapid launch, and more appealing user interface as the factors that would favor the larger company.

Nonetheless, I would argue that there are two other fallacies at issue in ConnectU's narrative about betrayal by a work-for-hire coder. First, they assume that technological determinism rules the day and that ownership of the better code would dictate the outcome of this corporate struggle of survival of the fittest. In reality better code often doesn't win out: factors like brand appeal, social participation by early adopters, and status for those at the hubs of multiple social networks may be more important for a thriving online community. Second, it's not as new an idea as they claim, since Harvard alumni are on both sides of the litigation and the Harvard Freshman Register has decades of history behind it in print. My own Facebook picture was cut out and pasted in common books and club rosters, where it was annotated, not always favorably.

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