Over the last few months, Facebook has rolled out several significant new features, such as Places and the updated Groups. On Monday, Facebook is holding another event to announce what many expect to be an improved messaging feature. As I’ve watched these changes, I’ve been thinking about where Facebook might be headed.
At first, I started to think Facebook was simply looking to extend its reach by acting as an invisible layer of sorts. Anil Dash once talked about Facebook melting into the larger Web, but perhaps Facebook would end up becoming part of the underlying fabric of the Internet. In past public appearances, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to be the kind of person who was content to remain in the background, and the company’s strategy seemed to reflect a similar style. I’ve mentioned before the idea of Facebook becoming and identity layer on the Internet, and innovations such as their Graph API have made it easier than ever for sites to integrate with Facebook.
But Facebook’s updated Groups feature changed my perspective, since it added functionality that would drive users back to facebook.com. Of course, the upgrade did enable e-mail as a way of interacting with groups. In some ways, Facebook’s overall strategy could be compared to Google’s. Years ago, many sites focused on “stickiness,” trying to keep users hooked. By contrast, Google drove users away by providing relevant links to other sites. But to see Google as non-sticky would be an oversimplification. In fact, the company built a successful ad network that extended its reach across the web. Also, Google has created a number of other products that many people stay logged into, such as Gmail.
And now, people are expecting Facebook to announce a web-based e-mail client that will compete with Gmail. I’m predicting that Facebook will roll out a new messaging system, but it won’t be a Gmail clone or simply another client for managing traditional POP/IMAP e-mail. That’s not to say there won’t be any e-mail gateway, but I think Facebook’s plans will go much further. I’m guessing that at least part of the new system will involve somehow extending private messaging features across Facebook-integrated websites.
In any event, I think Facebook’s announcement will include at least a few surprises for those who have been discussing the possibilities. Facebook has a history of introducing features that aren’t quite what people expected – and often end up leading to practical implementations of ideas that were previously niche experiments. Personally, I think it’s a bit short-sighted to think that Facebook would simply join the market for web-based e-mail without trying to reinvent it, especially given the service’s cautiousness about past features that allowed or potentially allowed spam-like behaviors.
Facebook has also been accused many times of somehow standing in opposition to “openness.” Personally, I think the term has become a buzzword that’s often used without much specificity. And even though I’ve often been a critic of Facebook, I do think many of the accusations aren’t entirely fair. From RSS feeds to developer APIs, Facebook has opened up data in ways that many other sites can’t claim. Today’s Facebook is certainly far more “open” that years ago – in fact, I would argue that the site has at times been too open lately, such as when some user data became reclassified as “publicly available” last fall. But regardless of Facebook’s degree of openness, the company has always been careful to maintain a high degree of control over information and features on the site. This can be positive, such as quickly removing malware links, or negative, such as controversial decisions to bar users or certain content.
Either way, that control has helped the site build a powerful database of profiles that generally reflects real people and real relationships. That’s part of what fascinated me about the site’s recent spat with Google over contact information. In the past, a list of e-mail addresses was about the only semi-reliable way to identify a group of people across the Internet. Now, many sites rely on Facebook’s social graph for that function. In terms of identity, the value of e-mail addresses has declined, and I don’t think exporting them from Facebook would provide as much value as Google might think. On the other hand, Google may realize this and be so concerned about the shift that they’re trying to curb Facebook’s influence. This would especially make sense if Google intends to introduce a more comprehensive social networking product that would need e-mail addresses as a starting point. Regardless, I’m sure Google feels threatened by the prospect of Facebook providing a better alternative to traditional e-mail – a change that would only bolster the value of a Facebook profile as the primary way to identify a typical Internet user.