21 February 2012

Will users tire of the walled garden?

If I were starting this blog from scratch right now, I would almost certainly have to include Facebook on my list of Internet giants. In terms of sheer size as well as significance, Facebook deserves a place right up there with Google and Microsoft, and it should probably be listed ahead of AOL and Yahoo. However, Facebook doesn't really fit the "giant" paradigm that I created back in 2007. I envisioned an Internet where big companies were actively competing with each other, user by user, by creating new, innovative, and useful services. I took it for granted that users would pick and choose what services they liked regardless of what company offered them: a user might, for instance, use Google for searching, Hotmail for email, and Flickr for photos. Facebook is different in that it has a core product (social networking) that it builds all of its other services around. If you're not interested in social networking on Facebook, you are essentially outside Facebook's sphere.

Of course, most of us are inside that sphere nowadays. I often hear Facebook compared to the portals of old because of the way it seeks to draw (and keep) users in rather than send them out into the outside Internet. Certainly, it does do that -- you don't really need to leave the environs of Facebook.com if all you want to do is talk to your friends, share some photos, or even enter a sweepstakes. However, Facebook is also seeking to bring the outside Internet in in a way the portals didn't succeed in doing. Increasingly, users login to other sites with their Facebook IDs, comment on blogs that run Facebook Comments, and, when they find something online they think is cool, Like Web content on Facebook. Unlike many of the older portals, Facebook seems to recognize the dynamism of the Internet. Rather than try to keep users confined in the walled garden of Facebook.com, FB is trying to expand that garden to encompass much of the Web. Leaving Facebook.com doesn't mean you actually leave Facebook.

The question is will users actually play along with Facebook. My personal feeling is that no, they probably won't over time. There will certainly always be a need for social networks, but the people who are spending every waking hour on Facebook today aren't necessarily going to be the same people who are spending every waking hour on Facebook a year or ten years from now. Interests, lifestyles, and values change, and people get tired of the same old thing. If you're a daily Facebook user, then Facebooking your way through the Web is an easy and convenient thing to do. If FB is just another website to you, though, you may wonder why your Facebook ID should be your "passport" to the Web. There are huge downsides to letting one ID control your online world: perhaps the biggest is the fact that if your Facebook account is compromised all your stuff is compromised right along with it. Another big one is the privacy factor: how can you trust one company with so much data? I don't see any reason to believe that people want to do everything online on or through Facebook; the recent struggles of F-commerce show that users still see some value in keeping their online shopping antisocial.

And then there's anonymity, that thing that Facebook doesn't like. I actually think Facebook's much ballyhooed "real names only" policy will be a major part of its future decline. Let my own example serve as a cautionary tale. Some years ago, I started getting back into the BBSing scene. Long before I was on the Internet, I used my modem to connect to dialup bulletin board systems to download files, play games, talk on forums, get information, chat with others, etc. BBSes dimmed in popularity as Internet access became more widespread, but many still exist today and are actually accessible through the Internet. Anyway, I made the decision to simply let my real name be my user name on the new BBSes I was signing up for. I thought to myself, "Why not? I don't need to hide behind a user name...I'll just be me." Totally Facebooky, eh? There was no single moment in my BBSing experience that made me decide, "It's really a bad idea to use my real name online." Nonetheless, after a while I started to long for anonymity. There's a kind of burden to having everything you do online attached to your real identity. Every post, every action, linked for all eternity to you...I didn't like that feeling. If you're seeking fame or planning on making a living using your online identity, then "real names only" is a great policy. For the rest of us, it's a weight we have to carry on our shoulders; given enough time, I think many will be eager to shake it off. In a sense, we're already seeing this happen as it's become more and more common for people to create fake Facebook accounts for various purposes. Facebook can either double down on its anti-anonymity stance and push users away or relax it and become a less useful passport for the Web as a result. Either way, I think there are limits to how much of the Web Facebook can encircle.

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