My 20-year-old daughter recently remarked that Facebook isn't as cool as it used to be. Sure, everyone has to be on Facebook, but that very ubiquity removes its mystique. The recently released Google+ is clearly targeted at Facebook and adds some features - particularly "Circles" - that are not available on Facebook. Facebook dominance may be indisputable today, but it is not guaranteed for all time. If I were Mark Zuckerberg, I would fear losing my cool status more than anything else.
All of which helps to explain the relatively radical changes that Facebook unveiled at its recent F8 conference. Some of these new features are clearly designed to remove any perceived advantages of Google+ or Twitter. For instance, the new Facebook allows for a public feed - roughly equivalent to a Twitter feed - as well as custom lists that are similar to Google circles.
The new Facebook will also allow for a new class of integrated applications built on the new Open Graph framework. Open Graph allows more transparent and complete interaction between applications and user activity. It effectively creates a news feed containing all of a user's activities, not just the explicitly shared material. So, for instance, the items you access - video, books, magazines, music - are fed into a news feed that can be consumed by other applications possibly running in a friend's account. This allows the other applications to track your interests, make recommendations or customize your own feed. This can be a virtuous cycle - at least from the business perspective. The more content you consume on Facebook, the greater Facebook's ability to recommend and deliver targeted content to you and your friends, to encourage you to consume more and more content.
Media providers are generally eager to adopt these new interfaces. For example, Hulu, Spotify and the Washington Post all have created open graph applications. Given the huge volumes of Facebook traffic, it's unlikely that many media providers will miss the opportunity to get involved.
As we've come to expect with Facebook updates, significant and worrying privacy policies soon surfaced around the new applications. It was claimed that Facebook applications - including, potentially, any website with a Facebook "Like" button - could post your activities to Facebook even after you have logged out, effectively giving Facebook excessive visibility into your online activity. Following some outcry, Facebook changed this activity and deleted the browser cookies that were responsible. Nevertheless, one is left with the continuing impression that Facebook is trying to push the boundaries of user privacy - and not in the direction of greater confidentiality, either.
The new Facebook Timeline feature arranges all of your Facebook interactions into a chronological history. It extends Facebook from its, "what am I doing now" focus towards, "this is my life." For people of my generation (I was born in 1960) the history is obviously mostly incomplete. For those now entering adulthood, however, a more comprehensive and relevant personal history would be revealed - one that will become more complete as time goes by. With this feature, I think Facebook hopes to further insulate itself against any future "loss of cool." After all, it's easy to switch to another social networking platform if you only want to share present or future plans, but, if your life story is digitally stored in Facebook, you are unlikely to shift.
The new features are simultaneously compelling and a little creepy. As usual, Facebook's desire for you to share all of your activities with your network are apparent. On the other hand, the potential for collaboration and enhanced social interaction is very obvious.