MySpace has over 200 Mln registered users. Facebook follows fast with 140Mln registered users, and they are adding an astonishing 600.ooo new users every day. A rough estimate suggests that more than half a Billion people are registered in social networks worldwide. That is half of the entire Internet population. Clearly there is a need to be participating in social networks. The need is interaction.
While social networks undoubtedly have brought us many great things I find that the current setup is undesirable. Techies might consider Facebook and MySpace web 2.0, but their strategy is very much 1.0. They are silo’s. You are either in, or out. Or as Doc Searl puts it, Facebook is the Borg. Once in, it is hard to get out. You should realise that it isn’t Mark Zuckerberg or a talented developer providing you cool features that keeps you locked inside a social network. It is their choice of business model. MySpace and Facebook have only one mission, and that is to become the single silo everyone uses as their communication platform on the web. It allows them to execute their free, advertisement based business model. In this business model the network is more important than the user. In other words, the business model becomes more effective when the number of users increase. This is not to be mistaken from the network effect Tim O’Reilly often speaks about in referral to web 2.0 services. Web 2.0 services improve as more people join, in other words, the quality of the service improve as more people use it. In the case of the free advertisement based business model the revenue stream increases when more users are joining, but the overall value provided to the individual user is not 1-1 related to the number of users.
For that reason social networks make it super simple for you to add new friends. At the same time it is nearly impossible to leave the network, taking your data with you. And it is a service violation to export your Facebook contacts to another service. Getting in is easy, leaving is out of the question.
In order to keep the silo the most important platform, new services are added all the time. Facebook is not just a social network anymore, it is a platform of services. It provides users so much functionality that there seems to be no reason leaving it once you are in. A whole generation is now growing up thinking that Facebook is the Internet. And while Facebook and other social networks continue to add new services making this sound very reasonable I see a few reasons why this is undesirable:
- There should not be a single company having so much power over our web experience. Especially if such a company leverages our (private) data in their business model. Diversification is good, building one platform and closing everyone into that platform sounds more like an old fashioned communist-like scheme to me
- Privacy needs to be controlled by the user, it should never be controlled by the company that exploits all data and interactions of that very user
- People are largely ignorant about possible dangers of the information they are sharing through social networks
- The business model involved is mostly destructive as hardly any value is created. Facebook has a gazillion pageviews every day. While we are interacting with our friends, they display advertisement to us, thus trespassing through our relationships. The advertisement is largely ignored by all of us. No value creation there. And the sucker that ends up paying for this “value”? The advertiser, unaware of the bottomless hole he is throwing his money into.
Social networks are there for our desire to interact. But that interaction comes at a cost, we lose our privacy and diversity. While that might not sound like a big deal now I believe that in the end this will not be beneficial and even dangerous for us. The nearly unlimited growth of social networks will stop at some point. As we are all on MySpace or Facebook, it will become less valuable and cool to be part of it. Human nature simply doesn’t like captivity.