Thought provoking as ever, Stephen Johnson has written a piece for Wired Magazine on the Unstoppable rise of Facebook, in light of its IPO. I think it’s with supreme irony that Facebook could not have existed without the open nature of the internet, and yet it has constructed a closed environment of its own.
What the Facebook platform has done is to demystify how we interact in the digital world. As Johnson eloquently puts it:
…the bigger we make the platform, the stronger its gravitational pull. The Internetâ€”meaning everything from email to file trading to voice-over-IP phone callsâ€”was always technically larger than the web, but the webâ€™s mass adoption managed somehow to overwhelm the vessel that contained it. The web became the main attraction; the packets and DNS lookups became the plumbing, essential but invisible. Facebook now threatens to perform that same jujitsu against the web itself.
In the last Google Firestarters, Cory Doctorow spoke about the dangers of having the views of the an influential minority dictate how we use software and hardware. It’s the open architecture inherent within them that allows us to explore, to experiment, to evolve. Facebook seems intent on doing all that within its own walled garden and yet still relies on growth in numbers to sustain its social graph.
It’s questionable whether you can sustain continual growth within a closed network. History has taught us otherwise, as John Willshire expands upon the fate that met the Easter Island inhabitants. The inhabitants continued to build statues right to the point when the island’s resources could no longer sustain that activity.
So the only meaningful way Facebook can maintain its value is to become a destination of compelling content. But there’s a problem, it relies on that content either being sucked in from outside e.g. the web or internally through a preferred partner e.g. brands or apps.
Arguably it’s not a place where anybody can create something new and wonderful. In my last post, I spoke of the positive benefit of connecting the dots between different sources of inspiration. It’s the space between these dots that gives rise to something new or different. Yet the social graph on which Facebook is built upon takes the opposite view. It seeks to close the spaces in between these dots, by assuming our social bonds remain fixed.
But let’s go back to Stephen Johnson’s view that the bigger the platform the bigger the gravitational pull. Because when something gets too big and collapses under its own gravity, that’s a black hole.