Justin Smith has an article up this morning (well for me anyways ;-)) in which he suggests that Facebook isn’t trying to be the biggest content or entertainment platform, but instead tries to dominate as a communications platform. In his words, Facebook wants to “own”communication with your friends”.
Justin is, in my opinion, only half-right about Facebook’s intentions (more on that in a second). Communication is important, more important than anything else. Last year Tim O’Reilly mentioned a comscore report that showed that people on Facebook spent most of their time browsing heir own or other people’s profiles, followed by interaction with Facebook applications. Shelly Farnham just published research results in which she looked at the success of Facebook applications. Why do some work and others not?
Her research shows that people interact mostly with applications for communication needs. Or as she says it:
In reviewing the dominant types of applications, it is clear that most of the applications are helping users achieve social goals such as improved communication, learning about the self relative to others, finding similar others, improving self-presentation, engaging in social play, and engaging in social exchanges via gifts and media. Despite its shifting demographics, Facebook is still very much a social arena in the private, personal domain, not the professional domain.
I believe in interaction. Communication is just one aspect of interaction. But interaction is what’s most important. It’s what makes us tick so to say. Now back to the article written by Justin. He feels that Facebook wants to own your communication with your friends. While I think he is right about that, I doubt that Facebook is setting that as an end-goal for themselves. Facebook isn’t a communication platform first.
Facebook is a social graph data hogger. Their sole purpose and existence on this web is to own the biggest social graph in the world. If communication gets them that graph, then they will use that. but only as a means to an end. Owning the biggest social graph helps them to maintain their business model. Justin touches the subject a little when he says:
While I hope Facebook can co-exist with and reward developers of communication-oriented Platform applications, I think Facebook is smart to want to own the most important channels used to communicate with your friends. While it may take a while to figure out how to monetize these new communication channels most effectively, people will always stay most engaged with services that provide the most value, and core communication tools are some of the services that can be most enhanced by ownership of the social graph.
Facebook wants to hold the largest walled garden social graph they can get their hands on. It is the main fuel for their business model, serving ads. But I don’t believe in that business model within the context of social networks. And the main reason I don’t believe in it is precisely because of the way people use social networks. They use it for interaction. And advertisers have no purpose or any value in interactions between friends. They aren’t part of the conversation, they are merely trespassing.
The irony in this off course is that Facebook doesn’t really “own” the social graph. The social graph only exists because of the users within that. If it is “owned” by anyone, then it should be owned by the users that create it.
Facebook only gets to see a small part of that graph anyways. I have many friends I communicate with (both on-line and off-line), none of which are on Facebook. While Facebook does have a mind blowing amount of users worldwide, the amount of communication that actually passes through their platform is infinitely small.
Let’s see. According to this site there are currently 1.3 Bln Internet users worldwide. Facebook has some 33Mln users according to Mashable. So some 2,5% of the Internet population is on Facebook, a pretty impressive number I’d say. But there are a few interesting things to note. First of all, I suspect that much of our communication is spread over a lot of different communication channels. We have physical communication, mobile phones with SMS and voice calls, e-mail (probably more than one address), IM, and at least 5-10 different social networks where in 2,5% of the cases Facebook is one of them. So an average person probably has at least 20 different means to communicate. We probably interact anywhere between 100-1000 times a day over those means (unless you are cut off and isolated from the world around you). Just think of all the e-mails, SMS, IM’s, voice calls, physical conversations you have on a day to day basis. I would argue that less that 5% of our communication goes through social networks. It means that 95% of all communication of those 1.3Bln Internet users worldwide isn’t passing through social networks. Even e-mail, already dead and buried by most web 2.0 evangelists sees way more interaction than all social networks together. So let’s burst this “Facebook want’s to own your communication with your friends” bubble right here and right now. They can’t and will never be able to own that.
Another interesting thing to note is that the Internet growth is dominated by Asia, Africa and Latin America. These are all regions where Facebook is not dominating social networks. I seriously doubt that Facebook will “own” the biggest social graph in the world. Google’s Orkut, for example, is much more popular in these regions.
The thing with any walled garden service is that user’s find ways around that. Where Facebook and other social networks try to lock-in their users, the users simply use other services to get around that wall. It’;s human nature. We like freedom and will always find ways around any old-fashioned web 2.0 walled garden business model.
Facebook won’t “own” my communication with my friends. If they try to do that they will fail. My interactions with my friends belong to us. Anyone that doesn’t understand that and tries to interfere with that will not provide users with value. And a business model without user value is sure to fail.
If you want to enter this communication arena then you first need to get rid of the destination based business model. If I have to go to Facebook to communicate then Facebook has already lost the fight before it started. The web entrepreneur that puts me in the center of my communication needs allowing me to communicate any where, any way, any time using the means that fits best will provide me the best value. Owning a social graph or a walled garden isn’t really what matters. Allowing the user to interact any way he wants is what matters. Fred Wilson understands this. Read his post called everything, everywhere. That is where the real value lies. I guess I will say it just one more time. It’s about interaction stupid!