The Facebook World: A Better Option

September 29th, 2010

Facebook has more than 500 million active users, and half of them use it daily. 350 million of those people are outside the United States. Collectively, those 500 million people use Facebook 700 billion minutes each month, or an hour a day per active user. 150 million use Facebook through a mobile device, and they are twice as active.

That’s rather incredible. Besides television, I am not aware of another form of media people use so regularly and for such extended periods of time. What is more interesting than where Facebook is now, though, is where it is going.

In TechCrunch’s interview last week with Mark Zuckerberg, he described their strategy. He said, “But the basic thing that we’ve found from building social apps and this platform ourselves is that almost any experience or app can be better if it’s social and it has your friends with you.”

That is Facebook’s vision: they want to make the world “social.” This means status updates, checking in, posting photos and videos from wherever you are, whether it is in front of a computer, on a date or hiking in the Sierra Nevadas. This is an incredible advance for certain people—people traveling across the country, or world, can keep their friends and family updated on their progress in a way that was not possible a few years ago.

Facebook wants our lives to be social—which means sharing what we are doing and what happens to us, online, on their platform. What restaurant we are eating at, who we are with, what movie or television show we are watching, what music we enjoy, where we have been, what we are thinking at this moment, what game we are playing—they want Facebook to know about it. Don’t just watch a movie; post your thoughts on it, as it is progressing, and see what your friends think, too. Don’t just go on a date; post updates as it happens, check-in where you go, and maybe even post photos, too.

Why not hook your calendar up to Facebook, so your schedule is posted for your friends to see, and theirs for you to see? Once that information is available, we can do all kinds of fantastic things. Our phones could turn our ringer off if our schedule says we are in a meeting (and it verifies this by checking our location), and when we want to call a friend, our phone could check their schedule and, seeing they are busy, suggest we send a text message instead. Or our phones could see when our friends are scheduled to have lunch and, if our schedules line up, suggest that we have lunch together.

Zuckerberg’s reasoning is not controversial. Things do tend to be better when we have our friends involved in it. Games integrated with Facebook, for example, so we can play with our friends rather than just the computer or anonymous people over a network, have an obvious appeal.

This is a world where everything is socially connected and shared, where the most important network is not the Internet—but our friends network, provided and controlled by Facebook.

To do this, Zuckerberg says, Facebook wants to be on every web-connected device and integrated into every application where it applies. In other words, if our future is connected devices applications based around our friends, Facebook wants to be the social plumbing of our world. They want to be the layer that connects all devices, applications and websites to the new network, the friends network.

It’s About the Map

BusinessInsider estimates that Facebook generated $650 million in revenue in 2009, almost entirely from advertising. This may or may not be accurate, and it is not very valuable without knowing their costs as well.

If it is accurate, and their costs are reasonable, it is quite impressive. Advertising as we currently know it, though, is not Facebook’s future. Their advertising right now relies on a large audience and, most importantly, targeted advertising. Because users share their interests and demographic information, advertisers can target very minute groups, e.g., all men aged 18-30 in San Diego, California, who are interested in Star Wars.

While that is powerful, it is limited, because users first have to look at the ad (rather than their friend’s photo), and if they are interested, act on it. The last part is not very likely when people are using Facebook from a computer.

Facebook’s business future is mobile. If users check-in at a mall, stores can show them sales they are having. Not only can they show this to all users who check-in, but they can target it at their specific demographic (for example, a 64 year-old male likely would not be interested in MAC Cosmetics), or even specify the items shown to them based on their interests. Not only is this incredibly targeted advertising, but because users are at the mall to shop, they are much more likely to act on the advertisement they see. When using a computer, users tend to be trying to waste time, or delay doing work; but when they are out somewhere, they are trying to do something. It is a lot easier to get users that are already somewhere to act.

But that is just a part of it. If Facebook is embedded in all web-connected devices, they can offer an incredibly detailed understanding of how society is structured. Let us say Facebook at some point ends up being connected to our televisions, so we are sharing what movies and television shows we watch.1 Since users are posting what music, television shows, music and—judging by where they check-in, what restaurants—they like, Facebook knows what people in, say, Golden, Colorado like to watch and where they like to go. They can see where people visit for vacation during holidays. They can see what people are discussing each day, so they know what products or topics are popular at the moment. (Think about how powerful that could be for a company launching a new product. They can judge how successful their release is by how many people are discussing it.)

That is a lot of information. As Facebook integrates with more devices and applications, and as we begin sharing more information, they are building a map of society. They are building a map of how people live, what they do, what they like, who they interact with and how, and how society is evolving. Our information is their business, not just our attention.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that. We give third parties detailed information about us daily—just think about how much information credit card companies have about our spending habits and places we visit. In that limited sense, provided Facebook has ample privacy and security techniques, there is no reason we should be reticent about sharing our personal information.

A Facebook World

Facebook, though, is different. The most obvious way is that while other companies collect personal information as a byproduct of their real business (e.g., Apple has a tremendous amount of credit card numbers and personal data, but for the most part, they only have it to facilitate selling you Macs, iPhones, music and applications), our information is Facebook’s business. Whether they really believe that making the world “social” is a good thing or not (and I do not doubt they do), their business case is collecting our personal information. This means that while it is easier to trust other companies with our information because they are only interested in it insofar as it helps them sell more products, Facebook should face more scrutiny. They will be more tempted to violate our privacy than other companies, because it is their main business.

They are different in a slightly more subtle way, too. The implied goal of Facebook’s strategy to integrate Facebook with all web-connected devices, applications or websites where it is relevant is to encourage people to use it all of the time, and not only do they want people to use Facebook as much as possible, but they want them to accept that sharing themselves is a normal thing to do. They want sharing what we are doing to become an integral part of the doing itself. You are not really getting dinner with friends, or on a date with someone, until you have checked in (and tagged your friends, too), updated your status, posted photos and maybe even a video. For Facebook’s vision to succeed, what was once always a part of our private lives must necessarily merge with the public. Any experience can be better if it is social, after all.

Facebook’s future depends on people sharing more and more information about themselves. If people decide that sharing everything about themselves online is not such a good idea, then Facebook’s entire business model is dead. They depend on the public encroaching into what used to be private parts of people’s lives.

In a New Yorker profile of Zuckerberg, Jose Antonio Vargas wrote,

Zuckerberg may seem like an over-sharer in the age of over-sharing. But that’s kind of the point. Zuckerberg’s business model depends on our shifting notions of privacy, revelation, and sheer self-display. The more that people are willing to put online, the more money his site can make from advertisers. Happily for him, and the prospects of his eventual fortune, his business interests align perfectly with his personal philosophy. In the bio section of his page, Zuckerberg writes simply, “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.”

In the same piece, Danah Boyd further describes Zuckerberg’s personal philosophy:

This is a philosophical battle. Zuckerberg thinks the world would be a better place—and more honest, you’ll hear that word over and over again—if people were more open and transparent. My feeling is, it’s not worth the cost for a lot of individuals.

That strikes me as a fair characteristic of Zuckerberg’s thoughts and it is certainly justifiable. Perhaps, if culturally we become more open, we will also be less likely to do things that we would not like others to know about. Perhaps a society where people are more open with their lives is also one where people are more accountable for their actions, and we will all benefit.

A “more open” society, though, also begins demanding this from individuals. If sharing everything we do is the social norm, then keeping certain things private will necessarily become socially abnormal. Individuals who decide not to open their lives to the public could be treated as social outcasts, as people with something to hide. If you are not doing anything wrong, they might ask, why would you hide it?

There is another possible implication of this open society Facebook seeks: the very idea of the individual could be eroded. In August, I wrote that

A private sphere, where the individual is free to act, say and think without regard or even thought for what others might think, allows us to consider things free from outside influence. By thinking and doing free from public interference, we can look at the outside world from an outside perspective—that is, from our own individual perspective—and judge it based on those standards.

To exist as individuals, we depend on private space to think and experiment without judgment by the public, and to judge the public by our standards. It is only within this space that we can define who we are as separate individuals from the greater society we exist in.

As that space decreases—as we begin sharing more and more of our interests, desires, hopes, fears, goals and what we are doing at any given moment—these factors, uniquely ours, will increasingly become the public’s. They will become the public’s to judge, compare, laude or criticize, and decreasingly our own characteristics, thoughts and beliefs. Rather than judge the outside world based on their own standards, individuals would judge themselves by the public’s standards. Individuals would be outsiders to themselves, looking in and measuring by everyone else’s standards.

That is a profoundly different world than we have lived in, or, I think, want to live in. When we think back through history, we tend to think of it in terms of how certain individuals, through their radically-new and revolutionarily-different thoughts changed the course of history. John Locke wrote that God owned us, not the king; Martin Luther King pushed for our nation to make the ideals we were founded on—that every individual has certain inalienable rights and deserves to be treated equally—a reality. Of course, these individuals channeled and built on the thought and work of others, but these changes necessarily resulted from the bottom up, from individuals coming to very different conclusions than their society was currently built on and judging it accordingly.

This open world would be very different. The public’s—that is, the majority’s—standards would be what we judge ourselves and others by. Radical change would be much more difficult, because heretics would either be found immediately and criticized for their views, or would hide their disparate beliefs in the last untouchable place: their minds.

This is an intentionally hyperbolic description of what an open society means. People may never share everything about themselves, and perhaps people will always, to some extent, think as individuals. But to an unknown extent (and I think it will be extensive indeed), our society will move closer to the one described above, and that is not particularly palatable.

A Better Option

The kind of dominance Facebook envisions is theirs to lose. While Twitter has a large amount of users (106 million in April 2010), Facebook’s user-base and breadth of features dwarfs it. Facebook has an incredible network effect at play—most people have a Facebook profile to stay in touch with friends, share photos and invite them to events.

The benefit, then, of integrating new devices, applications and websites into Facebook is incredible—they are instantly a part of the largest network of friends that exists. Developers have a large incentive to integrate with Facebook’s platform and users do, too—if you are trying to get in touch with someone, the first place to look is Facebook. Trying to create a competing networking service is an almost impossibly-difficult task.

Foursquare and Gowalla will see this soon; at best, they will end up as Facebook Places clients. It is difficult to compete with Facebook’s expansive network and breadth of features.

As a result, mobile device companies, software developers and web developers are under incredible pressure to join Facebook’s platform. Facebook Connect, due to this network effect, is a very powerful tool—if a website implements it, Facebook users do not need to sign up for the website. They just log-in using their Facebook credentials. Facebook could well become most people’s single online identity, where they post everything about themselves and use to login to services across the web. Other web services will not die off, but they could become extensions of Facebook’s platform, rather than independent.

Having a single online identity that we can use to login across the web would be a welcome change, of course, but having this all tied to a single company is dangerous. As the web shifts toward a more social nature, Facebook would become as integral to the web as the Internet itself. That is a serious concern.

A more pressing concern, though, is Facebook’s conception of “social network.” Most people seem to build their Facebook networks based on one of two models: either they accept most people they meet, so they can keep in touch, or they only accept close friends.

While both are powerful networks, they limit what services can evolve on top of them. I do not accept people into my Facebook network because our tastes are similar or I find them particularly fascinating; rather, I accept them because I know them somehow and I would like to keep in touch with them. I have no interest in seeing what 95 percent of my Facebook network is reading, watching or what restaurant they are eating at. For this reason, attempts to build recommendation services based on our Facebook network will not get very far. Friends are a powerful thing, but for certain areas, your friends are the last group you want to be mining for information.

There are a multitude of networks I am a part of. Facebook reflects people I have met in real life, my Twitter network is based on people I find interesting because of the work they are doing, Yelp reflects people who have similar tastes in food and restaurants and LinkedIn is based on professional contacts. These networks are more powerful by being kept separate than they are together.

There is no one network to rule them all. If the web is to work for us in the future, we need many networks, each dedicated to a specific function. Of course, Facebook could develop more sophisticated APIs and allow services to build discrete networks on top of their platform and thus still collect the information, and perhaps that is the route they will ultimately take—a social infrastructure service, allowing other services to be built on top of it, and collecting user information along the way.

Even if they take this path, however, we will still be relying on a single company for our social web infrastructure. I think there is a better option.

Rather than a single company providing user identity and social infrastructure, we need, first, an open web identity, much like OpenID. This will provide users and websites with the benefits of a single identity and login. In addition to a user ID and password, though, it should be able to store basic identity information, such as an avatar, a small biography and URLs for their websites.

In concert with this transferrable identity, web services should make their users’ information easily accessible and transferable. This will allow users, first, to easily move to competing services if they please, and second for other services they use to access their information in its entirety. If I am using a new reading social network, for example, it should easily be able to hook up to Google Reader, Instapaper and Amazon’s Kindle so what I am reading can be piped in.

In this way, we will have all of the benefits of a single social web infrastructure—single login, a single depository of our personal information, and access to it through a multitude of services—without a single company controlling this information. That would be rather tremendous: many web services, all operating on a single user identity, and all making their user information accessible to other services the user has. No one company would control the infrastructure and information.

It sounds a bit idealistic, but I think it is perfectly reasonable. Web services ultimately have a responsibility to make a user’s data accessible and transferable; after all, information users add is theirs and they have a right to do with it what they please. The trend, too, is toward accessibility rather than closed services—today, having a good API is almost as important as user-facing features.

Moreover, and more hopefully for me, these services would likely be dedicated toward providing a specific kind of network for their users, rather than a conglomeration. Since their piece of the user’s total information would be limited, they will more likely compete on the quality of their service, rather than how much information they collect from users. This arrangement could very well lead to the same society I described earlier, but at least it would develop in an open way, with competitors battling for users, users in control of their information and free to remove it from one service and add it to another, or to remove themselves entirely.

The “Facebook world” I describe may be inevitable; Facebook may be a result of a societal shift toward complete openness, rather than simply a driver of it. In that case, though, at least the future web will be built on open, distributed standards and services. We will almost certainly be better off for it.

  1. Perhaps that sounds absurd, but is it any more absurd than “liking” web articles and posting them to Facebook? Or sharing places we visit? []