Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
Facebook may be overplaying its hand, but do we really understand the game they are playing?
We’re mad at Facebook because we feel like helpless pawns in an environment we need but don’t control. Even though I’m included in that “we,” I have some sympathy for Facebook because I was once on the other side of a similar divide between the consumer and the company.
At Second Life, we (this time I mean we-the-company) had a seemingly omnipotent grip on the environment our users needed. In theory, we knew our users intimately, knew who their friends were, knew where they went and what they did. We owned their means of payment and communication, we set policy for their leisure and commercial activities. This is a level of control that Facebook dreams of, not in a virtual world but for the entire Web . . . and it’s scary that they actually seem to be on the path to getting there.
Some of our most devoted customers were also our most vocal critics, because they were so deeply invested in the world they helped create – and every change in the service affected their lives deeply. A few critics assumed that since our every change seemed to hurt some users, it should be easy to build a competitor that would satisfy all users. But Second Life “killers” and open-source alternatives never gained traction, while Second Life continues to grow long after the hype cycle forgot about virtual worlds.
One lesson in all of this for me was that most critics and competition never really understood our business. Our operation was so multifaceted and complex that every competitor only focused on the one or two things that they believed were important, and individually or collectively they never assembled a cohesive whole that could challenge our market dominance.
I’m seeing the same thing today with Facebook’s critics. Competitors who think an open (source or otherwise) alternative to Facebook will bring down the giant simply fail to understand the business they are competing against. Open identity, open interests and open social graphs are very difficult to grow and support without an overriding service reason to spur adoption and use: People have an online identity and social graph because of the services they use, not the other way around.