This week the President of the experimental human-hive-mind-project otherwise known to the kids as Facebook – Mark Zucker-borg – announced a bunch of changes designed to enhance the “social web”. As well as changing the profile page to a “timeline” – which allows anybody to quickly cycle back through time to confirm exactly how dull or made-up their life is/was – the big change is around sharing content. On Planet Borg, we’re moving to a world of frictionless sharing where the simple act of consuming a piece of content automatically triggers it to be shared with your friends.
This is kind of a big deal because Facebook now integrates with music services (Spotify, Rdio etc) and video services (Netflix – but not in the US yet). So along with turning your news feed into a cross between e-trade and an Amtrak departure board, it means that people can now not only share but also consume content directly within the Facebook walled garden. We need never leave the safe, warm, poorly-spelled shelter of our Facebook page ever again. Everything we need is there! The Walmart of the Web except we don’t have to feel guilty about Chinese people getting paid 28 cents a week every-time we log-on.
So let’s think about what Emperor Borg has done for us. Pictures? Check – we can share those through Facebook. Music and movies? Check – see above. Communications? Check – Facebook Messenger is making an attempt to replace SMS on people’s phones and become a sly alternative to email. E-commerce? Check – you can now buy over-priced flowers and other essential items straight through Facebook. News? Check – The Wall Street Journal is now offering its content directly through the Hive Mind.
Wait. It kind of sounds like near everything I would normally do on the Web I can now do directly through Facebook. It’s almost like – cue strange Jean-Miche Jarre jingling music in the background – Facebook is creating a parallel Web. One that’s exactly like the **actual** Internet with the small exception that Facebook owns and can sell all the data. Sounds great (if you happen to be a billionaire hedge fund that owns suitcases full of Facebook stock)!
It does – dare I say it – sound like a rather familiar tale. Back in the early days of the Web – a time when people still understood what Yahoo did – another blue-logo with a dream came along to try and build its own Second Web. That was AOL and if you’re as old as I am, you’ll remember that for a long time the name AOL was synonymous with the concept of the Web. From AOL Mail and the AOL browser to AOL Sex and Weather Chat (very popular in the Midwest I hear), every digital need was taken care-of by that faceless, stiff-limbed little yellow-man and his hundreds of millions of free CDs.
Of course AOL was solving a very different problem back then. The Internet was so new that there really wasn’t very much to do. I remember the first time I ever connected to The Web in a dreary UK college computer lab and – once the crackle of the modem died-down – I had no idea what to do or where to go. AOL helped solve that problem by providing a convenient, user-friendly one-stop-shop for consumers. In short it bought order and gave substance to a fairly barren wilderness.
Facebook is doing the same, but from a very different perspective. The problem now isn’t that there’s too **little** content but that there’s too much. We’re looking for ways to filter through the junk and Facebook – with a little help from our friends – is helping us do that.
So will it work? Will this parallel digital universe that Facebook is building supplant the existing, open, free, unrestricted Web that we all know and apparently don’t love that much?
Well let’s start with the “open” part first. Developers care about “open”, consumers don’t. That’s why Apple continues to dominate the cell phone market. As long as you build a user experience that is pleasant to use and works, average consumers don’t care THAT much whether you can play an MP3 on 37 different devices.
But Facebook’s challenge will be to overcome how we perceive sharing. Right now the front yard of my house looks pretty good because I consciously decided to mow the lawn yesterday. The back yard? It’s a different story. Weeds, over-grown bushes and some downed tree branches have left it looking like a scene from Man vs Wild. Now the reason I took care of the front is because that’s the part that most people see. A few neighbors can see the back, but it’s really the front that gets most of the attention.
The point is that as people we generally like the ability to control and define what other people see. That’s because – in all aspects of our life – for every manicured front garden there’s an overgrown back-yard. From music, to movies, to content, to pictures……take your pick…….there are very few people who want everything to be out there for the world to see.
There’s no doubt that sharing is here to stay and it is a powerful way to discover and consumer content. But it’s sharing that we can control and direct that will ultimately win the day. Facebook may succeed in its quest to effectively build a second Internet. Let’s hope it doesn’t provoke its users to consider creating a second identity.