I am still frankly gobstopped by Facebook’s announcement.  I vaguely caught the news of Facebook Zero but assumed it was just another mobile interface to Facebook.  It was only when I read Erik Hersman’s post about it that I got the whole story.  Not only have they launched a very lightweight mobile interface to Facebook but they have done something only a company the size of Facebook could… they’ve made it free.

They’ve negotiated deals with over 50 mobile operators around the world to make access for Facebook Zero free. Even as we speak MTN have announced that they plans to expand Facebook Zero from the eight countries they have launched in to all of the territories they operate in. This is huge.  As Erik says… this is game changing.

Why is that?  Why is this so amazing?  Because access to communication is not just about increased efficiencies, better access to market information, etc; it’s about innovation.  But innovation only happens when the cost of failure is so low that people keep trying things even though they fail.  And that’s what Facebook Zero is… a zero-pain failure environment for the bottom of the pyramid.

And why is that important?  Because connectedness has transformed the world into a place of serious unpredictability. And the best plan by the brightest minds in the world is doomed to failure because the world is so unpredictable.  Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, argues that trial and error is the only way to cope with an uncertain world.  He says “we are a lot better at doing outside the box than thinking outside the box”. He goes even further than that saying:

This is my mission for the rest of my life: figure out how to build a society in which people can make mistakes that are inconsequential. Want to encourage small mistakes, a discovery; an option.

But don’t just Taleb’s word for it.  Here’s what Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks has to say:

[The] basic driver of what makes the net so innovative, creative, and fast-moving is the low cost of effective action: experimentation, adaptation, failure–very cheap. [The] model of innovation is not the long-term R&D lab in three organizations that are the major players and which one of them wins, but rather tens of thousands, millions, of experiments that are very cheap to try out and cheap to prototype and then implement and then fail and try again.

Not to mention Clay Shirky (apologies for recycling this quotation, it’s just too good not to):

You need a very low cost of experimentation, right? If things are expensive to try people will hold back from trying them and they’ll spend all their time trying not to fail. If the cost of experimentation falls though, and I mean falls precipitously, then people will spend a lot of time experimenting, and instead of not failing, the goal becomes to fail informatively to learn something from the things you tried.

and finally Matt Ridley, author of the recently published “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, who comes up with the beautiful meme of innovation being like “ideas having sex”.  He says:

Evidence suggests that cultural evolution depends on exchange and trade to bring together ideas in much the same way that genetic evolution depends on sex to spread genetic mutations, or in the case of bacteria, on horizontal gene transfer. When starved of access to a large “collective brain” by isolation from trade and exchange, people may experience not just less innovation, but even regress. The capacity for ideas to have sex on the Internet is likely to accelerate cultural evolution still further.

If you can share ideas with friends on Facebook Zero, form groups, propagate memes, then you have an innovation medium that has been custom designed for the bottom of the pyramid.

The irony is that I despise Facebook.  I hate the way they’ve been eroding the privacy settings on my account and I fear what they are doing with my personal information.  But hey, I hate rapacious mobile operators too but they were/are game-changers too.  Facebook is problematic, no question, but the opportunity that they are creating for people who can’t generally afford access trumps those issues hands down.

Erik points out in his post that the mobile operators are laughing all the way to the bank on this deal.  That may be true but I predict they won’t be laughing for very long.  How long will a company like Facebook put up with the costs they are being charged before they decide to do something about.  This is a trojan horse inside the walled garden of the mobile operators.

Finally, what rankles with me is that Google, who have been in Africa for over two years, and in spite of being told (gratuitous “I told you so” available here), have missed the boat on the whole cost of access issue.  Usage of their innovative SMS project in Uganda plummeted as soon as the operators started charging for the SMSes.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the cost of access, stupid!” and Facebook have figured this out.  All is not lost though. There is still a chance for Google to do this for voice in Africa.  Operators are standing by.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data