It used to be that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. Design a successful product or service, and clones would spring up across the world, aiming to tap into the torrent of your success. Today, though, it’s not imitation but integration that’s the greatest tribute: the acknowledgement by would-be-rivals that the system you’ve created is simply too big for them to out-compete, and that their best hope of success is to become part of your shiny new order.
Facebook’s IPO marks the apogee of the second kind of success. Of all its potential foes, only Google has dared take on 28-year-old Mark Zuckerberg’s baby at its own game (and that with mixed results). From integration with Microsoft’s Bing to the pandemic spread of its “like” button, Facebook has become an integral part not only of millions of lives, but of millions of products and services.
For most of us, Facebook’s flotation sets the seal on a new digital order. Here is a social software platform that by population would count as the world’s third most populous country. Whether you hope to buy shares or not, if you hope to succeed online in 2012, you can’t afford not to make Facebook a part of your considerations.
What, though, lies ahead for the world of a publicly-floated Facebook?
Facebook, as founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to point out, sees itself as more than a mere company. Both the CEO and his firm are on a stated mission to make the world’s information infrastructure resemble the “social graph” — a network “built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date”.
Up close, the vision looks something like this. “Social” will become a part of everything we do online — a substrate underlying everything we look at, the services and applications we use, the way we work and play, and of course the ways in which we buy and sell (and are sold to).
Technically, it makes sense. Facebook is already making moves to challenge the likes of Apple and Google by extending its reach onto mobiles, allowing payments and apps on any device running any operating system. And of course there is the rumoured arrival of the first “Facebook phone” by early 2013.
Absent, however, are the answers to two nagging questions: what people will actually feel about this bold new integration between online identity and everything else; and where turning Facebook’s proprietary “social graph” into the world’s dominant model of knowledge leaves everybody else.
As internet lawyer and activist Lawrence Lessig, among others, has pointed out, introducing a universal identity system for the web is one thing — but letting this unifying global system belong to one private company is quite another.
And, for all its CEO’s admirable talk of sharing and openness, much of Facebook remains a garden with extremely high walls. No less a critic than the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has repeatedly written about how the web “evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles and because thousands of individuals, universities and companies have worked, both independently and together... to expand its capabilities based on those principles”.
It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how different the present would look if Berners-Lee had clung onto his brainchild rather than giving it away - and if, instead of freely exploring the web’s trillion-plus sites, everything we now did online meant logging into the private fiefdom of a single trillion-dollar corporation.