What Facebook Really Wants
One way to change something big is to get people really riled up about how you’ve changed something small. Repaint the boat, and let them to argue about that. By the time they’ve realized that green is no worse than blue, they won’t have the energy to wonder whether it was a smart idea for you to set sail for Australia.
Inadvertently, perhaps, this seems like Facebook’s strategy this week. Yesterday, the company redesigned the site: pictures are bigger, the “poke” button is gone, there’s a bunch of stuff packed into a column on the right. If you don’t check in often, the company will use math to tell you what in your news feed should interest you the most. Since people go bananas whenever Facebook changes its look, there’s been massive outrage. “What can we help you with?” the company cheerfully asks on its Help page. Users are responding, “I hate hate hate the new facebook layout.” Ultimately, though, we’ll all be fine with the redesign. And we, as we always do, will forget how mad we were.
The important stuff should come later today at Facebook’s F8 developer conference. Here, Facebook is likely to announce major new partnerships with publishers and music and video companies. Magazines and newspapers will be redesigned to be read entirely within the site. You’ll be able to listen to music at the same time your friends do. Perhaps—and given Facebook’s historic indifference to privacy, it wouldn’t be surprising—what you read, listen to, or watch will be shared with all of your friends. The goal is to take everything we normally do on the rest of the Internet and bring it inside of Facebook.
The longtime goal of Facebook, and of founder Mark Zuckerberg—who was memorably profiled here by Jose Antonio Vargas as “an over-sharer in the age of over-sharing”—has been to build a separate Internet. (Also see Ken Auletta’s Profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s C.O.O.) In the minds of people who work at Facebook, there’s the cold, confusing, open Internet that is managed by Google and its algorithms. You go there and you never quite know what you’re going to get. And then there’s the Facebook sub-Internet, where everything is kinder and organized by your friends.
Initially, Facebook was just a place to post photographs and see which of your high-school classmates had gone to pot. Then it became a place for organizing political protests, and wasting time playing games. It’s grown and grown in all these ways. It gets credit from many for helping facilitate the Arab Spring, and it now hosts four per cent of all the photographs ever taken. Now, if Facebook gets its way, it’ll be where you read your news, find new songs, and watch video. It will have eaten a big chunk of the rest of the Internet.
There are great consequences to this. The more our online lives take place on Facebook, the more we depend on the choices of the people who run the company—what they think about privacy, how they think we should be able to organize our friends, what they tell advertisers (and governments) about what we do and what we buy. We’ll rely on whom they choose as partners to give us news and music. Real issues are at stake, in other words—not just the size of photos and whether you can poke.
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