I’ve been thinking about Facebook recently, mainly because I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand it’s a blindingly simple idea that has been around for a long time, but has such a low barrier to entry that everyone uses it (more about that later). It has no business model to speak of and will undoubtedly become a victim of the recession. Then again it has meant that I have managed to get in contact with and be contacted by people I have known and lost track of.
So I guess I like the fact that something can pick up the threads where I may have dropped them, but I also feel it’s simply hiding my short comings in terms of maintaining contact with people. What I don’t like is that relationships are not defined by a “friend” link, in the way you can look at your address book and understand the difference between the colleague you worked with once and the friend you’ve known since primary school.
Last night I ended up kicking this one around with a few people, and it occurred to us that Facebook is simply the latest generation of the “social” systems. Prior to this we had BBS, irc, ICQ, MUDs, talkers then web forums, and now Facebook/Bebo/… . Each of these systems had their own barrier to entry, which in turn meant that the community around that system had a certain level of expectation about the members of that community.
Removing all barriers hasn’t been quite the nirvana that some might think, we now have a community that is based around some strange metrics which include the number of “friends” you have. Suddenly we’re all baseball cards/football stickers, to be collected and put in an album. It’s the primary school playground again. The common purpose is difficult to see and leads to lots of cliques. It’s much harder to determine purpose and direction then somewhere like Flickr, which has the core purpose of sharing photos. Flickr has a working model behind it which will see it survive for quite a while.
The core of all these “social” systems was some sort of interactive discussion. In the list above I haven’t mentioned Instant Messaging (IM), but undoubtedly it is part of the same pantheon of systems. Even in Facebook, you can have an IM conversation via the web interface. So what would replace Facebook when it eventually crumbles ?
For some reason there is an Application Diaspora from the desktop in favour of Web Applications, I think we’re going to be seeing the reverse soon enough and so I’d go with the concept of an enhanced IM client that allows offline messaging and some form of topic/discussion board, essentially a cross between Thunderbird, MSN and Skype. The Business model ? Well have core features “free”, such as the IM, e-mail and peer to peer calls, but charge for “extras”: Calls to mobiles, voicemail, Crackberry support, virtual spaces for interactive sharing, dedicated services, corporate support and so on. Maybe we’ll all end up using QQ 🙂