What does Facebook’s continued expansion mean for the future of social media? Are things going to go the way they did for Microsoft a decade ago, and Google more recently? Read on for some interesting insight on the matter from keeward CEO, Cyril Hadji-Thomas.
Recently, Facebook has been making some major moves to step on its rivals’ feet. It has introduced the subscription only feed to counter the infra-media type of communication that Twitter is promoting and it has announced embedded and shared media, a clear incursion into Google and YouTube’s territory.
Even though Google+ has promising functionalities and amazing viral abilities, we are still awaiting the tidal “wave” they promised us. Let’s face it, O Google, master of the web and content indexation, when it comes to “friending” someone, Facebook is still the man.
For marketers, software developers and web site managers, it seems like good news. Among the ever-expanding number of platforms, web browsers, technologies, bookmarking channels and media channels, it’s reassuring that you can stick to Google as a search engine and Facebook as a social media tool to promote your brand and bring traffic to your services or sites when you don’t have the money and time to have them all cover the rest of the lot.
But is it really good news?
If you think about it, Facebook, as well as Google, is not keeping its effort focused on social media tools. New features are encroaching into other aspects of Internet life : eCommerce, Gaming, Media, bookmarking, and probably, when everything else will be covered, yet another Operating System ! (I can bet you they will propose that in the next 24 months)
If you look at it from a historical point of view, we have always needed a dominant actor to set the standard and lower the cost of operating in IT and Internet.
“If you look at it from a historical point of view, we have always needed a dominant actor to set the standard and lower the cost of operating in IT and Internet.”
But do we need monopolies of standards and common protocols ?
The question is not easy to answer since both have been great factors for improvement of the Internet and IT in general over the past three decades.
In the 90s, emerging TCP/IP (the standard protocol for communicating on the Internet that was created in the 70s, but emerged 20 years later) allowed us to get rid of overpriced, incompatible protocols such as ATM or token ring. TCP/IP is open technology, it is a standard that anyone can embed and implement, so are HTTP and HTML. If Tim Berners Lee and the CERN had patented these protocols, the Web would probably have never emerged.
In the 80s, as a software engineer producing a piece of software, you had to choose between 3 or 4 kinds of UNIX platforms, IBM proprietary OS400, BULL, for professional Main Frames, or Minis, Intel 86/ MS.DOS, Atari, Comodore, Thomson, and so many others you don’t even remember for Personal Computers. This meant that you had to be tied into one platform only, betting on its future popularity and sustainability in the long run, or invest twice or three times more man power to make it work across platforms.
The rise of Microsoft powered PCs allowed the industry save billions of dollars. They could now choose one platform, stick to it and spend more on releasing new functionalities for their software or hardware.
10 years later, when the web became the new promised land for service providers and new forms of media, we had exactly the same problem. If you wanted to be known by the few internet users, you had to be referenced on tens of search engines (AltaVista, Yahoo!, Lycos, Google,…), sign affiliation partnership with every high traffic web site to gather at least a minimal audience to yours. Moreover, you had to be bullet proofed on Explorer (each version was different, Nestcape, Firefox, Opera, Lynx). And all that for a bunch of users that weren’t even real customers yet. It was crazy money invested for very low Return on Investment and it ultimately lead to the 2002 Dot-com bubble.
One day, in 2001, a co-worker told me:
– You should try Google, it’s nice.
– Goggles ?
– Googles, G.O.O.G.L.E
– Never heard of it
– Yeah, but it’s spreading fast, try it, you’ll understand.
I did and it was fast, simple, and extremely efficient. As a web developer, you did not even have to register your web site on it. It just worked, magically.
“Google was fast, simple, and extremely efficient. As a web developer, you did not even have to register your web site on it. It just worked, magically.”
This is how, without anyone realizing it, Google’s super-powered search engine came out, indexing everything automatically.
So if you think about it now, thanks to Google, HTTP/HTML, TCP/IP, you can buy any computer (MAC, PC, LINUX, or your own garage-made Unix geek super-machine) and communicate, work, create your own online services (also thanks to virtualization and cloud computing) without having to bother about the technology used by your service provider or anyone you have communicate with.
We are almost in a perfect world where focus is on your ideas or needs, without being burdened by the technology.
So why not all go on Facebook and do the same for Social Networking ? Why registering on Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, Flickr, digg , Myspace and all the others when you can do almost everything through one tool ?
What is the difference between Facebook today and Google or Microsoft a few years ago?
Well the difference does not lie in the quality of the services offered by Google or Microsoft, but in the lack of quality from their competitors at that time.
In the mid 90’s Apple was dying. It lacked vision and it started mimicking PC/MS strategy, but with lesser reach, means and quality. Linux was a very geeky system still in its infancy, that raised some hopes but no one reasonable would have switched to it. And that was that. Microsoft was the best, or the least bad, solution.
In 2000, Google came out with a very good search engine and a methodology that allowed them to crawl the web on their own. They did the job for us and it was exactly what we needed at the time. Other operators such as Yahoo or Lycos, where focussing their efforts on creating mega portals, investing billions into mailing systems and publishing stock exchanges quotations. They did not foresee that the future of the web was lying in multiplicity of web sites and media outlets, and personal pages, instead of giant portals that catered for everything. They were overwhelmed by the huge amount of, what later proved pointless, work to be done.
One thing has always been true: it’s all about quality on the internet. Users want the most relevant answer to their need. It’s not about being faster at introducing new features. Internet users are by definition switchers, because the Internet is about zapping from one channel or service or web page to the other all the time.
Look at how fast the market shifted from an all-powerful Microsoft pre-2006 and the release of Intel based Macs, and nowadays more diversified PC market. People realized very fast that all they required was the best overall solution for their need, and since Internet represented 90% of their daily usage of a computer, they didn’t care about the operating system anymore. The same thing is now happening between PC and Mobile devices. Your laptop is now almost a stationary object, and most of your internet usage on-the-go is happening through a smartphone.
Is Facebook that much better than anyone else? I personally don’t think so.
Because it focuses more on analysing your profile and communicating patterns, supposedly to help you communicate better, but in reality to sell you as processed food of advertisers, Facebook is trying to become the Swiss army knife of Social Media. As Yahoo! did in the old days, Facebook wants to be the Social Media Mega Portal of the 2010s. They want to decimate the competition by proposing every funcitionality its users need in one place.
At first, it started off promisingly with the release of Facebook APIs. The potential offered by programming tools that anyone can use to plug in to the social network was ambitious and bold. Facebook had them from the very beginning. This was the genius idea that overwhelmed the market. Anyone could start using the social networks as they were using HTTP. They could produce their own functioning and interacting avatar inside the social media.
The next stroke of genius was the Facebook button (and Like button) that could easily be placed on other web sites. This particular functionality is something we’ve been trying to get to work for years (I personally took part in a project implementing such a functionality, along with other members of keeward, all the way back in 2000) with very little success. Facebook did a wonderful job in producing a sneaky, spying button that every web site manager wanted on their own site because it was the key to the social network of their visitors. Facebook had us willingly tied in and spied on. Pure Machiavellian Genius!
Because it focuses more on analysing your profile and communicating patterns, supposedly to help you communicate better, but in reality to sell you as processed food of advertisers, Facebook is trying to become the Swiss army knife of Social Media.
But then what?
A social network is not about its functionalities, it’s about the kind of crowd I want to be talking or listening to according to my mood. Now, if I need to get information from people I trust or respect for their knowledge or insight, I’ll be probably look towards Twitter. If I need to follow up on a professional relationship or communicate about our next conference I’ll go to LinkedIn. If I want to share the photos of my last trip to Venice, I’ll post them on Flickr and start commenting others.
So what will I use Facebook for? I’ll use it to discuss things I don’t want to be taken too seriously OR, something like a cause that is very serious in itself. We could say that Twitter is The Guardian, LinkedIn is the Financial Times, Flickr is Time magazine and Facebook is The Sun. You definitely don’t want to publish your annual report summary, or an analysis on the Failing European economies in the Sun! If it became really omnipotent, Facebook could, in a nightmare scenario, become more like the now-defunct News of the World! Now there’s a dreadful thought.
Social Media is sill media. And media feed on competition and diversity. Keeping the competition rich, active and stimulating is the only thing that can prevent us from ending up with the Internet equivalent of Big Brother.
I’ve been posting about what I read or watch or listen on Facebook or Twitter or Ping (yeah I know, I have to try everything that Steve Jobs orders me to!). I tend to think that if my friends and acquaintances want to, they can read or listen or watch the same thing whenever they feel like it. I certainly don’t need to go to Facebook to do everything, I need a good tool to gather all my feeds, wherever they come from, organize them and let me send posts to any social media or network of people I feel is relevant. And I need to be able to change this tool every so often to get a better, cooler one, when it comes out.
We all need diversity, not because we need to get everything at the same time, but to be independent and keep our free will. As an Internet service producer and publisher, I tend to think that investing in communicating onto different channels is like having good house insurance. You don’t want to be left homeless, just because you where too cheap to pay a few hundred bucks a year to get good coverage.
Let’s have the Social Media tycoons compete with each other and come out with great and not so great new ideas. Let them dream about being the master of our minds, they are petty dreams as long as we don’t surrender ourselves to one of them.
And there is another interesting outcome from keeping ourselves out of some of the Social Medias. If G+ or Facebook, for example, fail to get us all in one place, they‘ll need to start exchanging information together. They’ll need a protocol for Social Media Inter-communication. They will need to come out with a non-proprietary, open source, globally managed equivalent to TCP/IP or HTTP for Social Networks.
Then by being stubborn and undisciplined we can make it possible, all together, to come up with the future Internet.