The Future of Facebook Lies Outside the Walled Garden

On Friday I enjoyed a conversation with Hooman Radfar, CEO of Clearspring. During the conversation I asserted that the future of Facebook is not within their platform. Hooman agreed. We didn’t get the opportunity to discuss the topic in depth but I didn’t stop thinking about it after our brief discussion. Facebook is currently the fastest growing social network/platform on the internet and chances are that it will continue to be for the next six to twelve months. As that happens we will face increasing clutter on the platform primarily coming from the continual growth of new applications.

We witnessed the exact same thing occur with websites almost fifteen years ago. At the time, the web was becoming an increasingly cluttered place. Yahoo! and Alta Vista were making an “attempt to exert some kind of order on an otherwise anarchic collection of documents” (source: Wired). If you remember Geocities, the primary site at the time for generating personalized homepages, much of the content was useless junk that simply contributed to the “long-moribund fields of knowledge.”

Within 5 years, a new version of search arrived and with it came a breath of fresh air. Google provided the most effective model for searching through the once painfully disorganized fields of content. While the total number of applications on Facebook and the recently launched Bebo platforms are nowhere near the millions of pages on the internet 15 years ago, the clutter is once happening again. The clutter isn’t just happening on social platforms (as I wrote yesterday) but the social platforms are making a significant contribution.

The new issue isn’t just clutter but organization. Our information is now distributed across the web. We have pictures on multiple websites, videos uploaded to youtube, bookmarks saved in del.icio.us, Last.fm tracking the music we listen to and a number of other sites that provide valuable services for our daily digital lives. The newsfeed is the new search engine providing us with the ability to easily make sense of our unorganized digital interconnected identities (the mini-feed is how we will monitor our personal distributed identity).

Facebook must extend beyond its confines. Here’s why:

Initial Viral Tactics Are Becoming Irrelevant
Given that Facebook launched months before any of the other social platforms, the site is currently the most effective source for predicting the future of social platforms. Application invites have become as effective as the chain letter mail that once cluttered our inboxes (and for some still do). The newsfeed has become an effective resource for determining what events to attend or for receiving updates on our friends’ relationship statuses yet not as effective for determining which applications to install.

Search Remains King
At the moment, for smaller scale operations, building a Facebook application is less cost effective than building a website and promoting it through Google Ads. Smaller organizations do not require the same user base as larger applications such as SuperWall. A local tanning salon website should never need to surpass 1,000 users a day (although it would be nice if they did).

If local sites intend to attract users, search is still the most effective model for discovering those local businesses. Unless everyone ends up on Facebook, Google will always provide businesses with a greater exposure opportunity (total # of individuals using Facebook < total # of individuals using Google).

The Walled Garden Is Limiting
Application developers are currently building within the Facebook chrome but much more opportunity exists outside of the walled-garden. The combination of social web services and search engine optimization is powerful. After the launch of the platform users immediately began to experience a massive influx of spam from applications. This was simply the result of a poorly optimized news feed. Thanks to the more than 15,000 applications currently on the platform, Facebook has been able to test their news feed optimization and can soon expand to the rest of the web.

Imagine what it will be like when many of your behaviors outside of the walled garden are tracked. Facebook will suddenly be forced to start filtering through user actions that are an order of magnitude greater than within Facebook’s wall. This is a challenge that Friendfeed is already attempting to overcome. A few years from now when we turn on our computer, whatever our default homepage is set to, it will most likely include a friendfeed of some sort.

Soon, websites will be able to add a widget similar to the mybloglog widget on the right hand side of this site that enable us to see which of our Facebook friends (and other Facebook users) have visited that site. Individuals will be able to post comments around the web using their Facebook profile.

Eventually you might even be able to make purchases using your Facebook profile. As long as Facebook stores the largest amount of information pertaining to your real identity, its future will always exist beyond the walled garden. The question is not “if” but “when?” When do you think we’ll start seeing the extension of Facebook to the general web?