Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Ambient intimacy; thoughts on Facebook's future

Jeff Jarvis meditates on the term, linking to Leise Reichelt. The notion has been at the top of my mind lately, as I've been ramping up my set of Twitter friends and checking my Facebook via mobile phone.

As Jarvis and Reichelt both argue, the (life)streams of updates we get from Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, etc. allow us to keep up with each others' moods, activities, and interconnections in ways rather different from face-to-face contact, email, written letters, or phone calls. That doesn't necessarily mean better, but certainly different. Like Jarvis, I've reconnected with friends and former students who would not be on my radar otherwise. I've also found opportunities to network and think through shared problems.

I find to my surprise that my media hierarchy is tilting sharply toward Twitter. Now I check it before my RSS reader: some of the people I follow on Twitter can be counted on to post the big tech headlines. For a small circle of friends, I receive their updates via SMS, allowing me to anticipate their day and text them condolences or congratulations. We arranged an impromptu game of Mario Kart online yesterday via Twitter -- another killer app that had not occurred to me. And Twitter's direct messaging function allows me to text people without knowing their mobile numbers as well as archive interactions.

The mobile integration is critical here, since (a) I am on the go so much; (b) unlike my computer, I own my phone; it is a more private space; (c) SMS takes so much less bandwidth and is so much less obtrusive.

Okay, so what does this mean for Facebook? Here's the thing: Facebook is to Twitter what Emacs is to the Unix | operator. Facebook has attempted to become a platform in its own right, a place where you can run an  unlimited number of apps and extensions that take advantage of its network effects. Twitter focuses on doing one thing well, with stripped down functionality. It's open API allows it to take in and push out text along a variety of paths (it's how I update my tasks in Remember the Milk, for example).

I recently thought that Facebook's approach made a lot of sense: you supply a platform, you lock people in with network effects. BUT -- people follow my Twitter updates through Facebook's activity stream (via FriendFeed). So what happens over a short period is that Twitter colonizes Facebook, exploiting its network effects. People are setting up Twitter to update their Facebook status. And using Twitter rather than Facebook to direct-message each other. And those apps that you can access through Facebook can generally be accessed through other services too. At some point -- and I have reached that point -- Facebook becomes a dispensible middleman. FriendFeed becomes unobtrusive connective tissue for one's many web services, Twitter becomes the preferred communicative medium.

All this suddenly makes me wonder whether Google's loss of high-profile executives to Facebook is a matter of getting the wrong people off the bus. If Facebook becomes Emacs, it's going to become too restrictive for many users, and Facebook's threatening ad revenue growth is not going to be sustainable. Meanwhile, targeted mobile ads show surprising strength, and Google has a much more realized mobile ad strategy right now. Ask me what I think in a month or two.

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