Facebook: Social Network King, Content Network Aspirant?

Some believe that Facebook’s recent privacy changes are an attempt to make more money by sharing this data with other businesses, or by presenting more targeted ads. But Facebook could have achieved the same by leaving privacy as it was, and just changing the Terms of Use to indicate that they could share the data with other businesses (for purposes of advertising).

I think Facebook’s motivation in moving to less private defaults is more ambitious. They don’t want to be just a keep-in-touch network, but also a content discovery network.

Content Discovery Networks Keep-in-touch Networks
Flickr, Twitter, Yelp Facebook, Email, IM
Optimized for propagation of content.
Goal is to allow best content
to surface to the top.
Optimized for non-public communication.
Users want their communication
to be widely read.
Users expect their communication
to only be readable by a trusted subset of users.
Allows formation of new connections with people you may not know in the real world,
allows one-way connections
Mirrors your offline relationships
Relationships, Content is public by default to make discovery easy Relationship and Content are not visible to everybody.

All social networks fall on one of the ends of a spectrum.

On one end are content discovery networks (Twitter, Flickr, Yelp). In these networks, engaged user communities share news, ideas and opinions. Content is public by default so it is easily discoverable. You can connect with people you don’t know in the real world. The focus is on enabling users to connect with content most relevant to them. Think of these as specialized search engines.

On the other side of the spectrum are (for lack of better word) keep-in-touch networks (Facebook, Email, IM). The purpose is communication between people as an end in itself. Connections mirror your real world relationships. There is an expectation that communication will not be public (only visible to people you trust). By this definition, Facebook, while being more public than Email/IM, is still a keep-in-touch network.

Keep-in-touch networks will always have more users than content discovery networks. There are far more people interested in non-public communication, than people interested in sharing  news/ideas/opinions. Even people who want to share ideas or opinions have a need for private communication. Which is why Twitter will never have as many users as Facebook. And yet, because content discovery networks play in the search space (they’re specialized search engines), I suspect content discovery networks are more profitable than keep-in-touch networks.

It’s hard to straddle both ends of the spectrum. Just ask Google, who tried adding a content discovery network (Buzz) to Gmail (which is a keep-in-touch network). Content discovery networks require more public defaults. Keep-in-touch networks require otherwise. It’s tricky to provide mechanisms for both types of communication.

And yet, Facebook is trying to do exactly that. They’ve always had some viral features typical of a content discovery network  (you can re-publish a status update from your friend as your own, you can become a “fan” of entities). But most users don’t use Facebook for content discovery – they use it to keep in touch with their social network.

Still, Facebook has kept at it. Facebook wants to be a content discovery network for web pages (like Twitter is). Make no mistake, the recent “Like” platform is an attempt to let users connect with entities that are relevant to them. Of course, to be successful, it needs to be viral, so one user can discover relevant entities (by looking at another person’s “likes”). This motivates the shift towards making a users “likes” public (which is also something Facebook did recently).

Will Facebook succeed? What do you think?

Update 11/1/2010: Dave McClure is saying something similar in his post titled: “How to Take down Facebook – Hint: It ain’t Twitter“.

3 responses to “Facebook: Social Network King, Content Network Aspirant?

  1. Pingback: Will Facebook become a successful Content Network? « the human in the loop

  2. Pingback: A Short History of Content Discovery on the Web « the human in the loop

  3. I think Facebook can do well both.

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