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.
So far, betting on social forces has proved a more potent strategy than worrying about openness. In the space of less than a decade, Facebook has proved its astonishing capacity to bring together hundreds of millions of people, giving them something they urgently want in the process - each other.
Now that they’re connected, though, the great question becomes what they do next - and how much they do, or don’t, want other people to know about all of this.
There is, you might say, a digital “yuck” factor involved: a question of what exactly people are and aren’t comfortable with. Clearly, most of us are hungry for there to be digital equivalents of the ties of curiosity, affection, interest, envy, love and lust that make the human world so richly fraught. Do we really, however, always to be “us” online - as the basis of everything we do, in the eyes of the world, as a condition of entry to all digital services and knowledge?
Facebook reckons that we do - and beneath almost every aspect of its future business model lies the insistence that being online means being “you”, watched by and watching others through a digital lens. It is, in effect, a digital ID system, and one into which much of the world has poured a great deal of itself.
I can’t help but wonder, though, about that lurking “yuck” - and whether the biggest fly in Facebook’s ointment may prove to be neither privacy nor openness, but something more elemental: what happens if not having to be “us” online starts to feel like a better deal than the alternative.
I can feel it starting to happen to me already: an increasingly intense urge to stem the flow of friendly updates, reminders, glimpses of my own automatically-logged-in profile beneath blogs and shopping sites, invitations and exhortations to like and share, friends’ and acquaintances faces popping up in unlikely web spaces.
At what point does the desire to be “social” in the Facebook sense run out? To me, it’s a bit like meeting new people at a party. It’s fun at first; you chat, show off, argue, flirt, and perhaps swap details to stay in touch. Eventually, though, you’re exhausted and it’s time to leave.
And if everybody you’d just met followed you home into your living room, kept on talking and talking, and promised that wherever you went and whatever you did they would never again be out of earshot, you’d be appalled.
At least, I think you would. Which is why I’m betting that much of human knowledge may prove curiously resistant to the lure of personalization - and that the future of the social graph has a few more kinks in it than Facebook’s 24-hour-party-people would wish.