The Facebook Conspiracy Theories are Wrong
It feels like every few months, Facebook makes some changes, and some group or another rises up and declares it is a massive Facebook attack against them. Sometimes it’s developers complaining that the open graph giveth and taketh away, sometimes it’s that Facebook is hiding posts from pages/advertisers to get brands and advertisers to spend money, or its others saying Facebook is greedily just trying to hoard the social graph all for itself and block innovation. I still hear from many developers and investors that Facebook will go out of their way to go after other companies if they start to get big because of the platform.
I think this is all pretty much wrong. It’s true that Facebook’s #1 priority is Facebook. Don’t forget that. To ensure the long term success of Facebook, they need to make sure that every day, more and more users are happy with Facebook and coming back more and more frequently. Facebook’s bigger mission is “to give people the power to share to make the world more open and connected” and this only happens if people are really using Facebook.
Given how fast the world changes, and how many companies are gunning for users’ time and attention, this is not a given. Facebook has to keep innovating as fast as anyone, and keep improving and changing the product just to keep up.
Facebook has 3 primary products: 1) News Feed: the best way to see what is happening with your friends and the things you are interested in. 2) Sharing/Posting/Messaging/Chat: the best way to share what you care about with your friends. 3) Timeline: the best way to collect and share all of the things that matter to you. (I’m over-generalizing, but think that photos, events, etc all fit into the feeds of what others are doing or sharing)
What they have done brilliantly is opened up each of these features to others - developers as well as brands, press, pages. For developers, they have unprecedented access to information about people they did not have to collect, including knowing who their friends are. With that information, they can encourage people to share and message things to their friends that may be interesting to them. And if a developer gets this right, this can drive enormous traffic and users back to an application and to other content and experiences. For brands, press, pages, they have built ways to get followers so that you get permission to push content into the news feed of a user who is interested in you. If that is interesting content, they can engage as part of this news feed experience they do many times a day.
Note that all of this is about getting permission from the user, not a right or a grant of space to developers, pages, etc. At the most basic level, News Feed tries to give you content that it thinks you will find relevant for one of a few reasons: (a) the content is something shared by a friend you are really close to (b) the content is something that a lot of your friends are sharing or find interesting (evidenced by also sharing the same link/video, likes, comments, etc. or (c) the content is something the user often finds interesting (evidenced by frequently sharing the same type of content or clicking on it to engage, such as with certain games. When users stop being interested in what they see, they act with their feet and stop using Facebook.
Now all of this said, the key complaint is Facebook has to make money. But this is the same challenge that Google had in the early days of search before AdWords became such an obviously lucrative model. Facebook’s model is pretty simple - it shows ads on the site and within the News Feed. Rather than only showing organic content, it determines that some portion of the screen should show the best targeted paid content. Sometimes this improves the user experience by introducing the user to something they missed or did not know about, and all the time it helps sustain Facebook so that it can keep providing its service. But I don’t think they would ever hide content that users would ideally most want to see as part of the organic algorithms in hopes that content will be paid for. I’m pretty confident that the company is still fundamentally product and user driven, not money driven, and I doubt that ever changes, or at least while Mark is in charge.
If Facebook ultimately succeeds with what is trying to do,it’s going to get the next billion users on board, and the first billion using Facebook even more often, and that will create even more opportunities for brands, press, and developers. But that doesn’t mean anyone should rest on their laurels and depend on something working today also working tomorrow.
A few disclaimers: I worked at Facebook on the platform in 2008-2009 and have quite a few friends at the company. And Greylock where I work now was an early investor in Facebook. What I’m posting here is just my opinion and I don’t know anything about Facebook’s current or future plans.