I've spent part of the week haunted by the specter of the Winklevii.
You know the ones - the identical twins - immortalized in "The Social Network," who just can't give up the ghost on feeling they deserve more of Mark Zuckerberg's cajillions? Here's the Cliff Notes version of the beef they have to pick with Facebook, which was partly detailed in the somewhat true parts of the Oscar-nominated movie:
1. Twins come up with idea for Harvard social network.
2. Twins hire Zuckerberg to execute said idea.
3. Zuckerberg comes up with what is then called The Facebook.
4. Twins sue Zuckerberg because they think he stole their idea.
5. Twins go rowing.
6. Twins eventually win judgment that makes their current stake in Facebook worth $165 million.
7. Facebook keeps growing; twins decide to sue some more.
8. Judge tells them to get lost.
9. Twins' lawyer files petition to see if they can sue some more.
I've also been haunted by the specter of Arianna -- and no, I don't think I have to tell you her last name. She was sued this week herself, in a class action that pits 9,000 of her unpaid bloggers against the fact that her Huffington Post was sold to Aol for $315 million. The blogger who is leading the charge, Jonathan Tassini, reckons that all told, the bloggers deserve to divide a third of Arianna's payday amongst themselves. Yes, allusions to Arianna's blogger-slaves have been made.
So what do these two legal briefs have in common? They both prove that the path of social media is as unpredictable as the humans who create it. The Winklevii may have had a point, originally, but along the way social alchemy took over. Through the hard work of Zuckerberg, thousands of Facebook employees, and the daily input of hundreds of millions of members, Facebook became something that even its inventors -- all three or four of them -- couldn't have imagined way back then. At some point, it stopped being the creation of a handful of people and started becoming something that Facebook and its members built together. Who knew?
And the same holds true for the HuffPo. As a writer, I want all of us all to get paid. Handsomely. (Full disclosure: I do a weekly column for my local Patch site, which is owned by Aol. I get paid, but the money sure wouldn't pay the mortgage.) However, the truth remains that the unpaid bloggers, and Arianna herself, probably couldn't have imagined that what at one point was a me-too news aggregation site would become one of the premier destinations on the Web. Not to mention the obvious: that unlike slaves, these bloggers actually volunteered to contribute without pay, including receiving any spoils from the HuffPo's sale. In fact, as the site has become more popular, its value -- even to unpaid bloggers -- has gone up. If the currency for the unpaid is visibility, then the site's success has increased their visibility. Who knew?
I'm not the first columnist in the last few days to make this connection. Jack Shafer of Slate looked at the two suits together and declared: "Just as the twins were happy with their settlement until they realized that the money pot had grown, Tasini helped himself to the HuffPo platform, no questions asked, until he saw a Brinks truck arrive with the AOL cash."
Hmmm. Makes me think I should sue Shafer for having the same thought as me but saying it better than me. Makes as much sense as anything I've written in this column thus far.
Actually, I see these two events somewhat differently. Looking through the lens of the brief history of social media, these two suits are just the most recent in a long line of events in the industry that show social media is an untamable beast. You can be sure that no one is suing News Corp., or Myspace founders Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, right now because they didn't get their share of the site -- surely not after TechCrunch obtained the Myspace pitchbook to potential suitors this week, revealing it stands to make only $109 million in the fiscal year, on expenses of $274 million.
Still, you have to say, "Who knew?" Who knew that Myspace could fall so far so fast? Even though its decline has been well documented for the last several years, it's still hard to put a finger on the swiftness of the decline.
On a happier note, you can look at Twitter and say, "Who knew?" as well. Most of the people who are tweeting as I write this probably don't know that it started as a communications tool to find wayward engineers back when Twitter's founders had that silly podcasting company. When its inventors first felt they were onto something with Twitter, according to Shel Israel's "Twitterville," they were going to position it to the enterprise market -- not Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen.
I could go on from here, but I hope my point is clear: this social media thing? Don't try too hard to predict where it will go -- and if it goes somewhere you didn't predict, please, please, don't sue.