I have been thinking over Microsoft’s interest in Facebook … and wondering what it is that is driving their strategic decision making. Sure there are strong customer acquisition drivers which become even more compelling when you consider this post by Charlene Li (explaining that this acquisition price is LIFELONG rather than transient — but how long is "lifelong" in a Web 2.0 world?).

But the more I think on this, the more it makes sense. You see, Microsoft are not really buying customers, they are buying a PLATFORM OF INFLUENCE. The Platform of Influence is a precondition for what Ross Dawson calls "attention profiling" (one of his six trends tranforming living online). Ross explains attention profiling in this way:

4. Attention profiling We are moving to a world of infinite content. The proliferation of blogs, online publications, podcasts, and videos means we are swamped with information. The first phase of the response has been user filtered content or collaborative filtering on sites such as Last.FM and scouta.com, giving us personalized recommendations. The next phase will be to develop detailed profiles of our interests and behaviors across different categories of content, so that we can access or be presented with content in a way that matches our available attention relative to the relevance and interest of the content. The two most promising initiatives in this space – Particls and illumio – have both been launched in the last couple of months. We can expect it to become a completely seamless process to find or be given what we want from an infinite landscape of content.

While I see the value in attention profiling, the very concept raises many questions. You will, no doubt, have others, but mine are:

  • Discovery — there are some things that I like about being pre-emptively supplied with information, services or even products based on my past usage and predictive usage patterns. However, this removes the enjoyment of discovery — something that is the reward for my curiosity. Is it possible that a by-product of this predictive sampling is the dampening of curiosity — or will this human trait simply find a new outlet?
  • Privacy — how many of us will be happy to sign-up for personal profiling? It sounds great in theory, but it presumes integrity and security on the part of the service provider.

I think this is where Facebook comes in and precisely where there is potential value for Microsoft. Not only does Facebook already perform low level personal filtering, it already enables some of the collaborative filtering that Ross discusses. For example, I am much more inclined to join a group, read a post or attend an event that is already on the list of my influencers. This means that the distinction between decision and action is compressed and accelerated — mostly thanks to the influencing power of my personal/professional network. Microsoft has wanted to bring its brand into our lives more seamlessly for years … and this may well prove to be its best opportunity yet.

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