How important is Facebook?

2010-08-03

in Geek stuff, Internet matters

Facebook now has over 500 million users – a larger population than that of all but two nation states – as well as an upcoming movie. Perspectives on the site differ sharply, from those who see it as a successor to MySpace, and similarly doomed to eventual irrelevance, to those who see it as a key part of the future of the internet.

I think two things fundamentally distinguish Facebook from the rest of the web, and are important in combination. Firstly, there is the degree to which it is almost universally used. The great majority of my friends and co-workers have Facebook profiles. That creates powerful network effects. As with the telephone and other communication technologies, Facebook has become more useful and captivating as a larger and larger share of the population signs up. Secondly, there is the way in which the site imposes simplicity and standards. The internet is often a jumbled, confusing, technical place. By restricting the scope of what people can do, Facebook ensures that it will remain comprehensible, even to people without a great deal of technical knowledge.

Maybe the biggest thing Facebook has done is increased the level of social transparency in society. It has made the high school and college reunion largely irrelevant, since it is now easy to check what any particular former classmate is up to. Indeed, you probably don’t need to do any active research: their latest travel, relationship changes, photos, employment decisions, and more are likely to be displayed to you automatically if you sign in often enough. Suddenly, ambiguous romantic situations are perceptible to anyone who cares to investigate, and a much wider swathe of personal information has become readily accessible to future employers, co-workers, romantic partners, and friends.

Before the internet really emerged, I think a lot of people imagined that it would end up being much like Facebook – a centralized location for interpersonal interaction, in which physical location is not important. Clearly, the wider internet has developed to play many other roles, such as serving as a mechanism to gain access to specialized and niche products and information. That said, it does seem like Facebook is now a core part of what the internet does, taken all in all, and that the economic and social consequences of that could be significant.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan August 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm

I think a key question is, if Facebook’s dominance is to be enduring, how can its monopoly be broken and replaced by an open standard, such that users could have a choice of clients, and privacy would not be dependant on a single corporate interest?

It seems to me that expropriation is the only reasonable course of action.

Alison August 3, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Expropriation of FB by various courts really doesn’t seem likely, although maybe you have evidence to the contrary (e.g. surrounding privacy & the law).

Dispossession in a social sense – people in droves moving away from FB for an alternative perceived of as better – is the realistic thing that could happen. In this case people have to be convinced that they care about how FB uses their data. I gather either most don’t care, or don’t know how this happens.

I’m a bit confused about the “open standard” for social networking are you referring to or suggesting. Facebook is interactions and brand. I don’t see an industry consortia like the W3C moving in and saying “we’re going to standardize this stack that makes social networking”. Even if that could happen there’s no guarantee it would be in the “interests” of users.

I would agree that a F/OSS platform for FB would be better than the current FB. I could imagine a case where privacy would likely be significantly better and dependent more diverse corporate interests (i.e. those interests that fund F/OSS).

BuddyRich August 3, 2010 at 7:11 pm

I agree with Alison. I think FB is entrenched until the next big thing comes along to draw people away. Though really for different purposes, Twitter had the potential to dethrone Facebook but it stagnated. Another, though I don’t think it lived up to its hype, was Google Wave (and to a lessor extent the newer Google Buzz). However, at that point you are trading one corp for another, though at least Wave was open source.

But its not the client that is the issue, its the data being collecting when connected to the server-tier… and the only way to get around that is to go to a decentralized distribution model like p2p, but when you do so you lose the whole interconnectedness that makes Facebook what it is.

Tristan August 4, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I think the pre-cursors would simply be other anti-trust cases. I’m not suggesting facebook be shut down. I’m suggesting that facebook become a “standard”, so that anyone can write a facebook client, and that facebook won’t be allowed to arbitrarily change that standard to screw 3rd party clients (ala Microsoft vs Netscape).

I think this kind of standardization could come either through industry co-operation, or through legislation.

Alison August 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm

What you’re proposing won’t work, because FB has no incentive to give up their IP. Maybe parts of it – but only to extend their authority.

An important thing to remember about IT standardization is that it’s controlled by very powerful actors .

A common way of extending power by standardization is when a company invents something and then seeks to make their invention the standard as a way to control the market. OOXML, a Microsoft standard that both as proprietary elements *and* was developed into an international standard, is an example.

As for the browser wars you allude to, Microsoft’s involvement with the W3C‟s HTML standards development process – and near full implementation of HTML (I believe around 1994) – played an role in the company’s capture of the browser market.

The key point is that standardization and access to the standardization process is highly political. Standardization often extends the scope and technical authority of powerful entities. Even if FB did enter into this you can be sure it would be about dominance. That’s why I note that standardization of the kind you’d like to see on FB isn’t perfect or likely.
Legal channels could promote more effective change.

R.K August 4, 2010 at 4:25 pm

What could lead to Facebook getting eclipsed, now that it has become the standard almost everywhere?

Alison August 4, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Something sexier – and hopefully more open.

Dave Worthington writes:

Anything less functional [than Facebook] wouldn’t be a compelling enough alternative for users to make the switch.

Disapora: An open source alternative to Facebook?

Tristan August 4, 2010 at 6:41 pm

The Diaspora project looks interesting. Much more exciting than google buzz.

Milan August 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm

As with all circumstances where network effects dominate, there is a huge built-in barrier to switching.

If all your friends are already on Facebook, and not on some other site, there isn’t much reason to join the new one.

The most commerciallz suicidal thing Facebook could do would be allow other sites to integrate with it, so that their members could interact with Facebook friends.

Tristan August 6, 2010 at 1:29 am

“The most commerciallz suicidal thing Facebook could do would be allow other sites to integrate with it, so that their members could interact with Facebook friends.”

This is exactly what anti-trust legislation could force them to do.

Alison August 6, 2010 at 9:13 am

Tristan: is there currently an example of anti-trust action at FB, and if not, can you give an example of what it would look like and why it should happen? FB is ubiquitous and has powerfully branded interactions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it engages in practices aimed at shutting out competing social networking platforms.

It seems to me like a different space than Microsoft, whose “bundling” of IE and Windows, and domination of standardization processes (e.g., OOXML), was undoubtedly resemble monopolistic strategies.

Tristan August 6, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Everyone likes to forget that Microsoft was constantly changing its OS to cannibalize Netscape.

Facebook could open to competition by allowing other platforms to interact with facebook users. Facebook is the de-facto “social networking OS”, and it needs to be stabilized or opened to allow competition.

It doesn’t take much foresight to figure that as soon as projects like diaspora try to allow users to interact with facebook users on another platform, facebook will pointlessly modify its protocols to sabotage.

Alison August 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm

A correction to an earlier post: It looks like a W3C incubator group has started about social networking – this group could plant the seeds for (possible) future standards and guidelines. More information is here on the Social Web Incubator Group Website.

As a side note it also looks like individual membership to the W3C is now an option. This didn’t use to be the case with the W3C . I’m assuming you’d be able to join for the price of a non-profit group, but you’d need 7,900 USD to spare (“W3C does not have a class of Membership tailored to or priced for individuals”).

Despite the membership costs, their process is still transparent and if you’re really into this sort of thing, it’s possible to track the development of W3C policies and standards because they post IRC logs and drafts publicly . There are also ways for non-members to give feedback to W3C committees.

Milan August 9, 2010 at 11:24 am

A related question:

Is Facebook important enough that governments should regulate it as a utility?

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