I can’t speak to the question of evil, but I do have a mental benchmark for the next Google, and it isn’t simply about being the next giant tech company. The next Google would have to create an entire sector of economic activity, keeping a dominant position worth many billions of dollars while also creating many billions of dollars of value for other companies.
Before Google, the commercial Web was motley mix of emerging media, with some interesting economic opportunities in portals, ecommerce and auction. Google created and dominated search advertising, but the utility that search brought to the Web was a major driver in the overall economic growth of all advertising on the Web, including display advertising. Today the entire commercial Web runs on advertising, and Google helped create many more billions of dollars than it captured for itself.
If Facebook merely becomes the world’s best ad network, they would not be the next Google. They would simply be the biggest winner in the economy that Google helped create. They could even suck all the oxygen out of Google’s room and thereby kill Google, but that wouldn’t make them the next Google any more than John Wilkes Booth was the next Abraham Lincoln.
I think Facebook’s ambitions go far beyond advertising. I’ve got no crystal ball showing the future, but the analogue from the past that seems relevant to me is television. TV was once a wondrous new technology, giving rise to a new world of entertainment and news media. Businesses quickly hooked the economic engine of advertising to the media of television, and decades of fantastic growth followed. It once seemed a given that television would hold a central place in our media lives forever, and that it would always be free.
And then cable TV came along. You might not remember this personally, but cable TV was initially a terrible affront to consumers. People had become accustomed to getting a huge amount of media for free, and now these horrible new companies wanted outrageous fees every month for the same kind of media. This could be very painful for a consumer with devotion to a particular kind of content, for example a sports fan seeing important sporting events disappear into the hole of paid TV.
Could the same thing happen to the Web? An entire generation has become accustomed to Web media as free media, and assumes that will be true forever. But cracks in that assumption have appeared recently. We’re seeing a new wave of paid content efforts on the Web. More importantly, we’re seeing platform owners make good money from Web-like content, like Amazon with Kindle and Apple with iPhone/iPad.
Amazon and Apple have shown that you can make money from digital content if you own all the important parts of the value chain, from digital content rights to an ecommerce store to a payment service to a physical device. Facebook could be about to find out whether you really need the last link of that chain. They might not need control over the physical device, because they have something even better in the social graph and identity management.
Facebook knows who you are and knows who your friends are, and they own that information in a way that no one ever has before. Add in the right content relationships, a payment system, and a universal interest indicator, and that becomes a complete enough platform to enable more paid content on the Web. A hidden key may be that their payment system is a prepaid credit system, which allows small transactions that would otherwise have burdensome costs and usability barriers.
That may sound a little abstract, so I’ll offer up this fanciful example: I go to visit Pandora for music, and Facebook and Pandora immediately know it’s me. They know what kind of music I like, and they know what kind of music my friends like, so they are able to recommend some really great music for me. Right there I have already participated in a content transaction: I have offered my valuable tastes and contact information to Facebook, who handed that info over to Pandora – you have to think that Facebook gets paid for that.
And Pandora was glad to pay, because I really like that music they recommended. In fact, I liked it so much that now I’m going to sign up for a Pandora subscription. I’m about to reach for my credit card when I realize, hey, I can pay for this with Facebook credits! Oh, I see I’m a few credits short. No problem, I’m going to go this this Facebook game, SheepWorld, and rack up the extra FB credits I need – then back to Pandora to pay.
A bunch of little transactions happened in that scenario, and none of them actually involved me pulling out my wallet. In fact, it seemed like fun, it didn’t seem like I was paying at all. I was able to participate in a new economy because I’m a Facebook user, and now I’m getting used to paying for premium content. And when the New York Times puts up its paywall, I’m not going to care so much because I’ll be paying with Facebook, which separates the media consumption experience from the payment experience.
Sound a little farfetched? Could be. But there was a time when I couldn’t imagine paying for TV. Both free broadcast and paid cable television still bring in a lot of money, but cable is a much better business. If Facebook enables new revenue opportunities on the Web for content creators, they will enrich themselves and enrich others even more. I won’t like it, just as I didn’t like it when I started paying for TV. It would be the end of the Web as we know it.