Can Facebook Own the Web?

FacebookWith Facebook Messages, the new integrated communications “not-Gmail-killer” that the online behemoth will be rolling out to users in the next few months, Facebook continues its quest to make you never have to leave it again.

Texting? You’ll be able to do it from Facebook now. Emailing people without Facebook accounts? You’ll be able to do it from Facebook now. And of course there’s Facebook instant messaging, now integrated with all the other ways you can communicate with people who are both inside and outside the walls.

This pushing out of the Facebook territory has been a steady progression. Think about it: You don’t need Evite anymore; you have Facebook invitations. You don’t need Shutterfly anymore; you have Facebook photos. You don’t need Digg anymore; you have all the links that your friends have “liked.” You don’t need a Yahoo Group anymore; you have Facebook Groups. And you don’t need Foursquare anymore; you have Facebook Places.

It’s true that many people are still using those individual services, but for how long? Even if they offer features Facebook doesn’t, the convenience of having everything in one place sounds a siren call. For instance, I’m slowly moving away from Evite to Facebook event invitations for that very reason.

With all your friends in one place, Facebook has a growing monopoly on what you do. You want to push information—whatever it is that you want to share—to that list of friends. Whoever owns the friends owns your activities.

But, according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, social technology is not a zero-sum game. Interviewed at the Web 2.0 Summit this week, he pointed to the Points of Control land map behind him where Facebook’s icon rests on the Union of Social Networks. “Your map is wrong,” said the CEO to summit organizers John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly.

The biggest part of the map is actually uncharted territory, Zuckerberg asserted. By pushing out to those areas, Facebook is “building real value in the world, not just taking value from other companies.”

The CEO explained that Facebook wants to be a platform on which other companies build. “Anything that doesn’t have to be built by us, we’d rather not be built by us,” he said. That includes anything involving content or specific expertise.

Gaming is one example of that. Zynga, maker of runaway hits such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, is probably the best -known company that is making money building applications that work on top of Facebook.

In another example, the CEO explained that Facebook wasn’t trying to build Places the app; the company is trying to build Places the location platform that anyone can plug into, so that all apps can then be location-enabled.

Says Zuckerberg: “Our best strategy and the best thing for the Web would be for us to enable the next set of entrepreneurs to build all those great businesses.”

Whether or not you buy the benevolent ruler vision of Facebook aiming to enable other technology companies versus put them out of business, the fact remains that Facebook is building more and more of our lives into its castle where it retains control.

Sounds to me a lot like Facebook is trying to be the next Web, not just the “best thing” for the Web. Is that good or bad?

Let’s examine the process. As you trust the service with more and more of your information, Facebook continues to push your boundaries for even more openness with it. You might feel slightly taken advantage of and wonder about the privacy implications. After all, Facebook gains territory—and potential revenue—through making you share more.

And what if the site goes down? The service has had recent outages and a bug that temporarily disabled female users’ accounts.

If Facebook wants to be our next Web, it needs to resolve the ongoing concerns about security, reliability, and privacy.

Recently Facebook has gone head-to-head with another technology behemoth that is out to monopolize our online activities in a different way. Google and Facebook have been squaring off regarding data portability, and in general to own what we do online.

I’m quite beholden to Google too—and would be in serious trouble if that company failed. I have so much of my life invested in Google products (Gmail, Google Docs, and so forth). But if one Google service goes down, it doesn’t automatically mean that they’re all down. With Facebook, if something goes wrong, I’m out of luck.

On the other hand, Facebook is not only a one-stop shop, but it’s also where my friends are. And that makes all the difference. I’m usually a Google fangrrl, but lately their products have felt quiet and empty, like going to a deserted amusement park alone. You can still go on all the rides, but you’re not having nearly as much fun.

Perhaps the answer lies in more interoperability.  Zuckerberg said at Web 2.0 that he doesn’t think there will be just one social graph. He thinks part of what Facebook needs to do is make various social graphs more interoperable. That’s what’s going to allow for innovation, he says.

Sounds great, if that means that there’s true interoperability and not just Facebook picking and choosing what information it allows out to other services based on what’s advantageous for itself.

If it wants to be our new Web, Facebook needs to do more than just extend its own reach. The company needs to truly give us an experience where it works together with other services to the user’s best advantage. The question is, is that to Facebook’s advantage?

Photo by Andrew Feinberg

Eva Kaplan-Leiserson first fell in love with technology playing Oregon Trail on an Apple IIE in the 1980s (a passion for all things Apple remains). Her early participation in social networking include ...read more

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