Facebook Wins

Out of all the social networking competitors, we all know by now that Facebook has come out on top.  For a while, other players like MySpace, various incarnations of Yahoo’s friend lists, Friendster, and all of Google’s plays from Orkut to their recently aborted attempts at bolting a social aspect into GMail with Wave and Buzz, have been vying for a top spot.  Other niche sites like last.fm, Digg, Plaxo, Classmates, and Dodgeball buzzed around the scene, but never made a dent, instead dominating in their particular niches.  In the end, it has only been Twitter that has given Facebook a run for its money.  The difference between these services is what has determined the winner.

In the beginning of social networking, status updates were the only real services provided.  Each site held a slightly different appeal, which meant that different people would gravitate to different services.  Having friends in different networking silos meant that you needed to join many sites and visit frequently to update and check for updates.  Sites like ping.fm and Friendfeed tried to tie together all these into one visible river of news.  The problem was, although you could update all your status from one place, how could you see the interaction with friends on your statuses at all places at once – the main purpose of social networking – without spending all your time visiting sites?  It became too much to keep up with the whole social networking scene and customers began to lose interest in the different sites.

Social networking sites eventually evolved into providing more services beyond just status updates.  MySpace allowed you to customize your page and make it more like the old Geocities home pages.  It became a gaudy and different looking site with every page you visited.  I found it practically unusable and most of the time its seizure inducing effects pushed me away.  Twitter was very simple, but interesting at the beginning, but without being able to talk to people close by or search for friends, I found it nothing more than shouting into a vacuum at strangers.  Without filtering who you were hearing from at different times, or who you were shouting at, the enormity of the population made it overwhelming to keep up with.  Plenty of external third-party sites cropped up to unofficially add functionality, but this only made for a fractured and uneven site, and even opened things up to security holes.

Facebook’s ability to define circles of friends and limits on who and how you were paying attention has made it a very manageable service.  While some of the fun stuff on Facebook is annoying (poke, poke), the way they adopted games and chat made the social interaction much more fulfilling.  While Facebook has now come into the spotlight with everyone and their grandmother having an account on the service, the tipping point happened a long time ago (in internet time).  Once Facebook added Like buttons all over the internet and Facebook Connect, it then became a landslide.  Now anything on the internet can be part of the monolithic service and be shared between friends.  Most importantly, Facebook’s infrastructure guaranteed that they would be able to expand to meet the demand of customers unike the Twitter Failwhale.

Nowhere is Facebook’s power more visible than in the poor way that Apple released Ping in iTunes 10.  Initially intending to take advantage of Facebook’s vast user base, Apple pulled the plug on the feature due to a disagreement between the two giants.  Instead, by setting up their own service to Follow, Apple repeated the mistakes of the past and set up another silo of friends to manage, disconnected from any other social group.  Without that backbone that Facebook provides, iTunes’ Ping service will die off.  Facebook has almost become the DNS of identity, something that we’ve been trying solve for years with everything from vcards to oauth.

Facebook has other reasons for its success.  It is now many things to many people.  One of the big things I’ve always been a proponent of on the Internet was the RSS reader, providing a way to aggregate news and information onto one screen.  The Monkeychow RSS reader that I maintained for so many years had performed that duty well, but many complained it was just too plain.  RSS was just too hard to unite under one umbrella – subscription often involved looking at the side of the site for a cluster of buttons that matched your reader and clicking the right one to get it into your stream.  This was far too complicated, when a link using something like rss:// could have been tied to your installed reader for easily adding a site to your life.  Facebook’s Like button is essentially the simplification of subscribing to RSS, and the Most Recent view is just another river of news view.  By allowing you to subscribe to friends and commercial companies, Facebook has given you a way of keeping up with everything in your life and sharing it, in a way that cruising around home pages could not.  With Facebook now available in some for on many mobile devices, we now have this interaction everywhere we go.  While I’ve since moved to Google Reader for my RSS needs, I won’t soon be giving Facebook a chance to be my RSS reader – it’s still too clunky for the almost 300 feeds I subscribe to.

But there are places that Facebook cannot win, due to its limitations.  Its search service is well below useful, meaning much content is lost beyond the immediate past, killing its use for posterity and research.  While things like higher education schools and work place are more fully supported, lower grade education and other organizations are more loosely supported.  Still, there is space for real identity services, as is done by LinkedIn, to give a more professional appearance where required.  A person’s profile should be more customizable, revealing only certain information to those who should see it, something which may be too confusing for most without some sort of templates.  Posts, links and other notifications all look different when seen on a page, meaning its old simplicity is slowly being replaced by a more jumbled appearance.  The short nature of status updates is no replacement for blog entries on sites, which could be done with Notes, a barely used feature of Facebook.  As much as the service may be loathe to allow, following links to external sites is the only way to experience the richer functionality of the internet.  Facebook’s social banter can never replace the technical document aspect that still dominates.  At best, it is a glue that finally brings the internet together in one place.  It’s a portal that leads us to other services on the internet that Facebook cannot yet provide.  This was true about services like Plazes and Foursquare until Facebook added Places.

Facebook is another level of information aggregation that evolves the way we handle information on the internet and changes the way we interact with it and others.  How we work with Facebook and interact with it will determine how that itself evolves into the next level.