Since my last column, Facebook has admitted that the data of its 2 billion users has probably been taken by unscrupulous applications, for whatever reason. There’s been a lot of lamenting about how a service, which so many people use, took such poor care of their privacy. But the truth remains, most people willingly give Facebook access to information about them in return for a free service, which lets them post words and pictures, and stay in touch with people and organizations doing the same.
It’s interesting to consider what an alternative universe might have looked like, or might arise, in the extremely unlikely event that Facebook disappeared from the scene. What does Facebook really deliver to people on the service, as opposed to what Facebook delivers to its true customers—companies seeking targeted advertising?
First, Facebook lets you post words and pictures to your timeline. And second, it lets you see the postings of those that you follow—friends and businesses—in your News Feed. Those who use Facebook can choose who sees their postings, such as the public, all their friends, or specific friends. And of course, Facebook lets you “Friend” people and “Like” pages, which, by default, means you follow their postings. There’s also the ability to send private messages to specific users via Messenger/Chat.
The reason Facebook has become so popular with its users is that it makes these activities easy, and more importantly—free. Facebook wraps “social networking” in a convenient package and offers it for free. As a result, it has reached 2 billion users worldwide.
Let’s leave Facebook for a moment, and look at web logs, or blogs as they’ve become known. A blog is a place for you to post words and pictures for the world to see. There are free blogging services like WordPress.com and Blogger.com, so you don’t have to pay money for this service, though your words and pictures will be accompanied by ads, since money must be made somewhere. And blogs allow other people to comment on your words and pictures, just like on Facebook.
If you want to see what your friends are posting on their blogs, just as soon as they post it, what then? Tools called “RSS readers” allow you to see every posting on a particular blog. Feedly is a free RSS reader. Assuming that your friends enable the “RSS feed” for their blog, you can open Feedly (or another RSS reader) and see all the blogs you follow that have new content (with greater control than you have on Facebook). Feedly has a few ads, but it also pays for itself by offering a “Pro” version of its tool.
So, with a couple of free tools, I could—sort of—recreate the Facebook experience, posting on my (free) blog and reading my friends’ blogs in my (free) RSS reader. There would still be some ads (because free tools have to be paid for somehow), but I would be free of Facebook, at some cost in convenience and usability. Alas, that cost is probably too high for the average Jane or Joe. This is the same reason AOL became popular: it was simple enough for Mom and Dad to use.
One problem with my alternate world is a way to find friends and their blogs. With two-sevenths of the world’s population in its thrall, this isn’t much of a problem on Facebook. Telling someone to “friend me on Facebook” is easier for people than saying “follow my blog and I’ll follow yours.” Facebook is a modern day White Pages (the telephone book), although if “John Smith” is your friend, it may be hard to find the right one (just like in the telephone book).
Facebook does a good enough job providing the three major functions of social media (connecting with people, creating content, interacting with content from others) that it has become a dominant player. Surprisingly, that success rests on making it easy to find and connect with your friends. If someone had created a “White Pages of blogs,” listing your name, a link to your blog, and other basic information you’re willing to share (just like Facebook does with your “About” page), would it have allowed blogs and RSS readers to supplant Facebook? It’s an interesting question. And people would have the option to remove ads by paying for the service—something Facebook doesn’t offer.
Still, I think the answer is no, because the do-it-without-Facebook approach has more moving parts (a blog, a reader, and a directory). Where tech is concerned, people are drawn to convenience, and—say what you like about them—Facebook delivers it in one branded, reasonably trusted, and not-too annoying package.
Late-breaking addendum: Investor Jason Calacanis announced that he’ll offer seven teams $100,000 each to build an alternative billion-user social network that protects consumer privacy. Stay tuned!
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