In opening up to outside applications, Facebook could become a transformational brand, altering the Webisphere around it rather than simply being a site du jour. It could become the way the majority of us (i.e., non-teens) project our identity online: the “Google of people,” as BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis put it. With its enforced limits and formal and aesthetic rigor, it calls to mind nothing so much as the iPod/iTunes system, a similarly elegant solution that defied the prevailing free-form logic of the digital era and reshaped the music business to its own ends.
Of course, given the ever-accelerating cycle of innovation on the Web, nothing has tenure. Like MySpace, Facebook has yet to convincingly demonstrate how it can become a full-fledged business, and to date it’s shown almost tantric restraint about exploiting its ever-growing audience. Its iPod-like purity makes the monetization puzzle all the more complex—not a problem for MySpace, which has the formal cohesion of Times Square circa 1977. Potentially, Facebook could follow the Google path and monetize what it knows about its users. Facebook has detailed and deep information about their interests and preferences, but even at 30 million or 40 million members, it’s not clear if there’s enough scale to make Google-style money. In the process, Facebook could lose people like me who came to it precisely because it isn’t a carnival midway. More promisingly, it could use its base to start offering more-advanced e-mail and IM applications, universal search, photo and video sharing.
In the meantime, MySpace is quickly revving up its own open-source strategy, and presumably will have countered Facebook’s gambit in some substantive way by the time you read this. (In July, for example, MySpace introduced a very Facebook-like feature that allows you to track what your friends are doing on their pages. Because you have to click through to a separate page to see this info, however, it’s far less satisfying.) The influential tech/design blogger Jason Kottke has suggested that Facebook’s new strategy is intrinsically flawed. It is, he argues, merely recapitulating the subscriber-era AOL’s failed strategy—often called its “walled garden” strategy—by making most Facebook pages inaccessible to Google search, and generally behaving like a large corporate intranet: in short, “AOL 2.0.” “In competitive markets, open and messy trumps closed and controlled in the long run,” Kottke wrote:
Everything you can do on Facebook with ease is possible using a loose coalition of blogging software, IM clients, email, Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader, etc. Sure, it’s not as automatic or easy, but anyone can participate and the number of things to see and do on the web outnumbers the number of things you can see and do on Facebook by several orders of magnitude (and always will).
I’m instinctively sympathetic to this argument, having thought the same of MySpace, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s wrong. Openness and messiness are indeed the characteristics that make the Web so different from other forms of media, if indeed the Web can be called “media” at all. But it has always been the push-me/pull-you between order and disorder that has made the Internet more than merely a vast agglomeration of stuff. Search engines, for starters, gave shape and order to this infinitude, while also transforming most everything else on the Web by forcing it to compete on a search-keyword basis. The search engine, for example, is why AOL’s subscriber service became vestigial and why Yahoo is in trouble now. Who needs a portal to choose generic pieces of information for you when Google can find you anything you need in a flash?