Facebook vs. AOL, redux  JUL 01 2007

I wanted to clarify my comments about Facebook's similarities to AOL. I don't think Facebook is a bad company or that they won't be successful; they seem like smart passionate people who genuinely care about making a great space for their users.1 It's just that I, unlike many other people, don't think that Facebook and Facebook Platform are the future of the web. The platform is great for Facebook, but it's a step sideways or even backwards (towards an AOL-style service) for the web.

Think of it this way. Facebook is an intranet for you and your friends that just happens to be accessible without a VPN. If you're not a Facebook user, you can't do anything with the site...nearly everything published by their users is private. Google doesn't index any user-created information on Facebook.2 AFAIK, user data is available through the platform but that hardly makes it open...all of the significant information and, more importantly, interaction still happens in private. Compare this with MySpace or Flickr or YouTube. Much of the information generated on these sites is publicly available. The pages are indexed by search engines. You don't have to be a user to participate (in the broadest sense...reading, viewing, and lurking are participating).

Faced with competition from this open web, AOL lost...running a closed service with custom content and interfaces was no match for the wild frontier of the web. Maybe if they'd done some things differently, they would have fared better, but they still would have lost. In competitive markets, open and messy trumps closed and controlled in the long run. Everything you can do on Facebook with ease is possible using a loose coalition of blogging software, IM clients, email, Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader, etc. Sure, it's not as automatic or easy, but anyone can participate and the number of things to see and do on the web outnumbers the number of things you can see and do on Facebook by several orders of magnitude (and always will).

At some point in the future, Facebook may well open up, rendering much of this criticism irrelevant. Their privacy controls are legendarily flexible and precise...it should be easy for them to let people expose parts of the information to anyone if they wanted to. And as Matt Webb pointed out to me in an email, there's the possibility that Facebook turn itself inside out and be the social network bit for everyone else's web apps. In the meantime, maybe we shouldn't be so excited about the web's future moving onto an intranet.

[1] And I'm definitely not, as more than one person has suggested, "bitter" about Facebook's success. Please. Just because you disagree with something doesn't mean you're angry. The only reason I even wrote that post is that I got tired of seeing the same people who think AOL sucked, that Times Select is a bad business decision for the NY Times, that are frustrated by IM interop, and that open participation on the web is changing business, media, and human culture for the better trumpeting that this new closed platform is the way forward.

[2] Aside from extremely limited profile pages, which are little more than "hi, this person is on Facebook and you should be too" advertisements. Examples here.

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