I've been forced to seriously re-assess my view on Facebook in recent months. First of all, I didn't have an account - and was fairly anti the whole idea of getting one. Everything I had heard about Facebook was that it was a "locked down" environment - both in terms of the software and presentation available to users and the social networks that you could access on it. As someone who has their own blog, who likes to control content, presentation and attached aps, and, perhaps most crucially of all, tries to be open to the Internet and its users, whether I've met them before or not, this seemed the complete antithesis of everything I wanted the Internet to be about. Instinctively I favoured MySpace, which seemed a more open environment, where you had more control over presentation and the information was more accessible. However, I was ultimately persuaded by a younger friend - which seems to be a recurring pattern amongst my peer group - who was using Facebook at university to sign up, and became the proud owner of a profile. And I have to confess that I did find it useful. It is a very convenient way to stay in touch with people or to make new contacts. For the absent minded like myself, the birthday reminders alone made the whole system worthwhile.
We can notice two interesting elements in the development of Facebook, one social and the other technological. Socially, people are using Facebook for all kinds of social activities, moving it far beyond a sophisticated version of Friends Reunited. I was talking to another friend about this. When I mentioned the One Million Strong For Barack campaign (currently with about 310,019 members), she was really put off. Now my friend has a degree in politics, so is hardly disinterested in these matters. However, for her Facebook was a place where she chatted with her friends. Politics seemed to be a nasty, aggressive intrusion. This cuts straight to the heart of the matter. It is obvious to see why a political campaign would want to have 300,000-odd people supporting them online (although the real value of those figures, as I've blogged before, is one of the great mysteries of the modern political process) but there is a different question for average users.
The fundamental issue is this; are social networking sites public or private spaces? Or are they creating some new form of hybrid? Should we imagine a social networking site to be like a busy coffee shop, with people conducting different conversations at different tables, some talking about music, others about film, or whatever else takes their fancy. If we think of it in these terms, it is quite possible to imagine a group of activists meeting in the corner, chatting about which candidate they are going to support and how they are going to be active on their behalf. Even if we do think of a social networking site in this way, there is still one crucial question. Do you arrange to meet your friends before you go there (so are you just importing you offline friends?), or are you able to just drop in a meet new people, based upon shared interests you might have? Or put another way, are you allowed to eavesdrop on other people's tables and, if the conversation takes you fancy, pull up a chair and join in? The alternative extreme to the public space arrangement is to construct a social networking site that is more akin to a private environment. Not a coffee shop, more a like a house party with no gatecrashers.
Historically, this has always been Facebook's greatest selling point. The fact it was locked down was appealing to many users - it made them feel safe, whereas the Internet itself felt like the Wild West. Necessarily, this kind of structure will make a social networking site less useful to, for example, politicians running for office, as they will be much harder to develop a snowball effect in an online environment were people are less connected. As a result, it will become far less rational for politicians to become involved social networking sites of this kind. It probably isn't a coincidence that the rise to prominence of Facebook as a political campaigning tool has coincided with some measure of deregulation on the social networking site. For example, the (slightly controversial) news feed was introduced in September 2006, whilst the site has also started to allow non-students to sign up (Wikipedia has a good article on Facebook including the history of the site). It also, of course, makes the site commercially more valuable too.
These social changes though sink into insignificance in comparison with what Facebook has been up to in recent weeks and its evolving technology. The site now allows third-parties to write applications that can be installed on your profile with a single click - so I now have an del.icio.us feed, so that every item I click on gets posted onto my profile; a graffiti ap that allows you to draw pictures on my page; the iLike ap that allows me to list my favourite songs and tie them to YouTube videos; a built in video player; and (my personal favourite) iRead, which allows me to select books from the Amazon database, indicate whether I have read them, want to read them or am currently reading them, as well as rate them and write reviews. These are then all displayed on your profile. Anyone can click and see my virtual bookshelf.
It is very easy to get carried away about these kind of things. And I frequently do (although I'm not the only one). But I wonder if this might be a really, really, really profound event in the history of the Internet. Let's think back to the 1980s and early 90s. Computers were getting more powerful. It was now practical to have unit on a desk that could do quite a lot of useful stuff. But for the potential of this new technology to be realised a second ingredient was required. That ingredient was - love them or hate them - Microsoft. We went from something like this to something more - bizarrely - like this. Computing became graphical, accessible and, perhaps most crucially of all, standardised and, as a result, entered into every office and a great many homes too.
Let's fast forward. Web 2.0 is in theory here already. Yet how many people are really using it? I can count my (non-Internet studying) friends who use RSS on the fingers of one hand, much less social bookmarking sites. But now, Facebook is giving many more people the opportunity to use these technologies in a practical and accessible way, to transfer, chunk and prioritise information. So maybe Facebook will become the Web 2.0 operating system? Or maybe something else will come along tomorrow that will eclipse it? I don't know. But even in the few weeks since it launched its applications element, Facebook has made it clear that there is a niche for such a presence, and whoever gets it right first will become a very, very powerful organisation indeed.
This should raise some concerns too, as has already been noted by some. Indeed, if this is potentially the third great personal computing monopoly, then it is arguably the most dangerous. People chose MS products because they served a purpose. There were some network benefits (for example the ability to produce standardised documents that you could be pretty sure you could open on most machines), but largely it was about the relationship between an individual computer user and their PC. It was always conceivable that someone could come along with something better, cheaper or easier to use. Google's, the possessor of the second great monopoly, is perhaps on even less sure ground. After all, people choose a search engine because it fulfills a specific function - it gives them the best list of results when they type a term in. Although people might through habit keep going to Google, it is entirely conceivable that someone could come up with a better search engine, and gradually erode Google's market share simply through the quality of their product.
But Facebook is an entirely different proposition. This argument was made to me by Richard Price, the founder and director of a new social networking website for researchers called academia.edu, who I met through a mutual friend at a party a few months ago. Social networking sites, he reckoned, were inherently monopolistic. You don't just join them for the quality of the service, but also because of - perhaps obviously enough - the network that is attached to it. In other words, once you have a really successful social networking site set up, it is quite hard to break it down, regardless of what other products might be out there. Facebook's early lead may already be on the verge of turning into permanent advantage.
An interesting footnote to this post. The argument that social networking sites are naturally monopolistic is based on the argument that the costs of moving from one to another are high - not least persuading your two-hundred friends to go with you. However, there might be technical work-arounds to overcome this problem. The Biving's Report highlights one possible development in this area.