I had thought that Facebook would go the way of Friends Reunited, Bebo and MySpace: hyped today, sidelined tomorrow. But what if Facebook became the new Google? That’s now the company’s objective and it is backed by some substance.
One of my major criticisms of Facebook has been that it is a closed platform. It lives behind a firewall so you must log in to access. It holds on tight to your personal details, which, when combined with repeat visits, provides mass eyeballs and user intelligence that equates to value for the company, not least because of the targeted advertising it facilitates. I considered that the walled platform was in the longer term shaky. I rated Facebook’s business model, rightly, as unsustainable because the future of social media on the Web is going to be based on pervasive, open, connecting, access.
But suppose your presence on Facebook followed you everywhere on the open Web? Suppose it added a personalised social experience to your surfing? Suppose it provided added value as you surfed by leveraging your own social connections by revealing your network’s collective experience, enabling you to fiddle and create links, by building upon your network’s common interests?
In that scenario your own network’s collective surfing would help you navigate the Web better than hyperlinks do today. That’s exactly what Facebook’s social plugins (buttons to you and me), Open Graph, and Open Graph API intend to do:
Whoever knows what your interests are right now and can package them up for advertisers has the chance to make a lot of money. Of course, Google does this right now every time you declare your interests in a search box and it offers up matching ads on the side of results. But Facebook and Twitter are trying to capitalize on the shift from search to sharing. Your interests are expressed by what you follow and react to (“like,” “retweet,” etc.), not only what you explicitly seek out through search. (Facebook to Twitter Back Off, We Own People’s Interests – Tech Crunch)
Facebook aims to be the leader of deciphering and knowing what our interests are. In effect, Facebook aims to offer us a service that will provide relevant content via a web of feeds that we share with like minded people in our networks and in theirs. Of course, success for Facebook would depend upon it acquiring monopoly or near monopoly status by virtue of its mass and usefulness, the way Google does today. But with 500 million users and growing fast, Facebook is already well positioned.
Of course, as Jack Schonfeld explains here the plug-ins are not new, but the vision is:
We’ve reported on all of these new features before, but today [April 21] Zuckerberg put them into context: “we are building a Web where the default is social.” How is Facebook doing this? First and foremost, Facebook has redesigned its Graph API for developers so that not only can they see the social connections between people, but they can also see and create the connections people have with their interests—things, places, brands, and other sites. Zuckerberg calls it the Open Graph (as opposed to the Social Graph). It is really an Interest Graph.
One thing going for Facebook is how inept Google has proven to be at leveraging its presence to facilitate social networking. Its recent Buzz launch flopped embarrassingly, partly because of privacy concerns related to its link to the G Mail email service and partly because social networking was not part of the original bargain. Privacy is also one of the big challenges facing Facebook, but its starting point is social networking.
The trick will be to maintain one’s reputation in a business that relies upon consumers trusting a company to respect users’ rights – but in the realistic expectation that consumers must trade in some of their rights to privacy in return for the services they mostly get for free.
Anyway, in a digitally connected world, privacy is no longer what it once was, or at least as possible as it once was. However, a good deal of most people’s browsing needs to be done in private. Also, the young are already aware that they need to be more guarded in their use of social networking than the likes of Amanda Knox.
For a very useful discussion about how this is a social and commercial challenge rather than a technological one, I recommend reading Rethinking Privacy and Trust, by Norman Lewis. He looks at the difference between trust in people (interpersonal relationships) and confidence in institutions, in a way which I find refreshing as well as useful in my work as a PR. It’s my opinion (and a point not lost on the always insightful Heather Yaxley) that for the likes of Google and Facebook their reputations are really going to matter more than they do for most companies and that’s going to be great news and big business for PRs.