In Your Face
How Facebook could crush MySpace, Yahoo!, and Google.
There comes a time in every young person's life—soon after teething, usually—when she must make a momentous decision: MySpace or Facebook? One's preference is a matter of taste. MySpace, if you ask me, is a spam-infested state of nature. The average user page comes with a crapload of embedded music and video players, some seizure-inducing wallpaper, and a bunch of friend requests from "models" who want to "get to know you." (It also happens to be nearly three times the size of Facebook.) Facebook, on the other hand, is much less customizable but also a lot more reassuring. The interface is comfy, sturdy, and attractive without being showy—the kind of social network you'd bring home to Mom. Think of it as the Volvo of social networking.
But a few weeks ago, Facebook pulled a MySpace-like maneuver. The site tore down its walls and opened its pages to outside developers. A new tool kit called Facebook Platform allows any programmer—a bored student or a multimillion-dollar corporation—to peel back the site's breastplate, poke around, and rearrange the innards. None of the nearly 900 (and counting) programs released so far are particularly life-changing—among the most popular add-ons are a "Graffiti" program (downloaded by more than 3.3 million people as of this writing) that lets you doodle other people's profiles and an "Honesty Box" that lets your friends say, anonymously, what they really think of you. Collectively, though, these programs are hugely significant. If the site figures out a smart way to deploy these mini applications, it will be more than just a social network. Facebook will turn into a do-everything site with the potential to devour the whole Internet.
For all the hype about Second Life, Facebook and MySpace are already the closest things we have to "virtual worlds." Sure, Facebook doesn't have large-breasted 3D avatars and a sky and buildings and its own currency. But the whole point of the Internet is that you don't need all that stuff. If I want to buy something, I go to Amazon, not some virtual store. Even before Facebook allowed outside applications, it had millions of users who basically lived inside their profile pages. The typical Facebooker spends hours each day sending messages, posting "notes" or blog entries, and uploading photos, along with trolling for freshmen girls who love the Decemberists. Facebook Platform simply expands this world. (According to the Wall Street Journal, the site's user base has jumped from 24 million to 27 million since Platform launched.) Now you can check the local weather, feed and nurture a virtual pet rabbit, and see what music your friends are listening to. With just a few more additions—e-mail, an instant-messaging program, RSS feeds—Facebook obsessives will become total shut-ins. Users wouldn't have to venture out into the Internet; the Internet would come to them.
If Facebook does decide to become an all-encompassing portal, it would be a bit late to the party. Customizable homepages like My Yahoo! and iGoogle already let you cram your favorite Web stuff onto a single page; there's also the trendy start-up NetVibes, which Slate's Reihan Salam called "the ultimate mashup." But a Facebook homepage would have a huge intrinsic advantage: The social network is already built in. Sure, the other portals incorporate Gmail and BBC headlines and YouTube searches and podcast directories. By adding a social context to all of this content, however, Facebook would immediately trump its main competition. With Facebook's News Feed, it's elementary to see when your friends sign up for a new product or service. That means the best add-ons become viral instantly—Platform's biggest success story so far, a music sharing app called iLike, started growing at the rate of 200,000 users a day.
It's a certainty, too, that outside developers will fall over themselves to deliver great content to Facebook users. The site's growing audience, sterling reputation, and clean look are catnip for corporations.
What kind of stuff will companies offer to Facebook users? Every major corporation, it seems, is trying to add social networking to their core services. Netflix, for example, allows you to keep tabs on what your "friends" are watching. But it makes much more sense to peddle your services on a huge, prebuilt network—no wonder Netflix users can now check their buddies' queues on Facebook. And we're not only talking about businesses: Just look at Barack Obama's campaign. Thousands of users have downloaded the Obama Facebook application since late May, and hundreds of thousands more have joined Obama-themed groups. Compare that to the relatively paltry 70,000 registered users on the candidate's custom-made social network, My.BarackObama.com. Using the Facebook network as a delivery system, it seems, is easier and more productive than creating the system yourself.
For me, an influx of outside content seems like the obvious path to a bigger, better Facebook. But the recent deluge of applications has created a big backlash. I count 15 groups started in the past month, all variations on a theme: "Enough with the @$#%! Facebook Applications Already!" Even my friends have started complaining. When I added a 12th application to my lineup—I think it was "Pets"—one wall-poster labeled me an "applications slut." Some of this sentiment, dubbed by one developer as "app fatigue," is just a product of the site's growing pains. But it also reflects a real frustration with Facebook Platform, a sense that it hasn't reached its potential. Most of what we've seen so far looks like refuse from an airport gift shop—cutesy Tamagotchi imitations and fortune cookies and virtual presents.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I can doodle multicolored genitalia on my friends' Graffiti walls. But come on, Facebook, where's all the useful stuff? It's reassuring to hear that Facebook plans to add a "wallet" feature for processing online payments. But for the site to really take off, it needs to have an instant messaging system as easy to use as Google's, as well as an embeddable inbox that connects to Hotmail, Yahoo!, and the like. The fact that Facebook hasn't introduced some sort of RSS feed for news—real news, not News Feed news—also borders on inexcusable. It's not clear to me why Facebook hasn't incorporated these seemingly essential elements, and neither their press office nor CEO Mark Zuckerberg (or the guy he probably pays to handle his profile) responded to my inquiries. But I'd be confused and disappointed if these projects aren't in the pipeline, especially considering the rumors that Yahoo! wants to buy MySpace. A merger of that size would dwarf Facebook at the outset. But in the long run, if there's going to be a supernetwork, I'd much rather have it be clean and navigable like Facebook than spam-filled and occasionally creepy like MySpace. If Facebook adds e-mail, IM, and RSS, it's one step closer to becoming as comprehensive as Yahoo! and as popular as MySpace. The rest of the Internet might as well surrender.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.