FACEBOOK, they like to call it “Zuckerberg’s Law”. This is the notion, promoted by Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, that the amount of stuff that people share roughly doubles every year. The social network is certainly doing its utmost to ensure that folk end up revealing more about themselves, whether they like it or not. On September 22nd Facebook, which now has over 800m users, unveiled a couple of significant changes designed to get people to share far more about their life histories and their interests in music, film and other areas.
The first shift involves people’s profile pages, which hold biographical details about them. In the next few weeks Facebook plans to roll out a redesign of these pages. The new-look profile, dubbedTimeline, will allow users to keep far more of the material they share over the network in an easy-to-use historical format and to add photos and other content from their past more easily. Facebook’s goal is to get people to create a complete online archive of their lives that they constantly curate.
At the same time, the firm is promoting a new generation of “social apps”. Users will be encouraged to report to their friends in real time via these apps that they are, say, listening to a piece of music, cooking a particular kind of meal or watching a specific film. Their friends will then be able to click on, say, a music app and listen to the same piece of music. The company has been working with a group of firms, including Spotify, an online-music outfit, Netflix, a video-streaming service, and a range of news organisations (including the Washington Post and The Economist), to flesh out the offerings it will need to make this new feature take off.
The underlying aim here is clear: Facebook wants to deepen its insight into what Mr Zuckerberg calls “the open graph”—a picture of all of the links that people have with other folk and with stuff such as songs, books and articles that they find appealing. The more that Facebook can learn about people’s lives and interests, the better positioned it will be to target advertising at them and to persuade companies to use it to market their wares. With an initial public offering looming next year, it needs to show that it can keep driving up its ad revenue.
The move is also designed to keep Facebook in front of rivals such as Google’s social network, Google+, which this week announced that it was throwing open its doors to the world after a period of beta testing. Some observers think that Facebook’s move could actually help Google+ by encouraging it to focus on areas of differentiation from the social-networking Goliath. Perhaps, but it will be hard to see how Google can resist following Facebook’s lead if the network’s social-app initiative pays off.
At this week’s Facebook developer conference, where the changes were unveiled, Mr Zuckerberg predicted that they would also disrupt many different industries, with the winners being those firms who wholeheartedly embrace the notion of social sharing first. Reed Hastings, Netflix’s chief executive, came on stage with Mr Zuckerberg to say that initially the firm had been wary of sharing data about its users with Facebook via a social app, but had come round to the view that this made sense given the potential power of social connectivity to boost its overall business. (Netflix plans to roll out a social app on Facebook in all of the countries where it offers a streaming service except America, where a privacy law currently prohibits the sharing of information about movies a person rents. It hopes this law will soon be repealed by America’s Congress.)
To some, all this smacks of MySpace’s ultimately disastrous attempt to turn itself into an online hub where people would come to discover all sorts of different content. But MySpace’s blunder was to try to force-feed content to users by completely cluttering their homepages with links to it. With its elegant Timeline design, Facebook is less likely to fall into the same trap.
However, it could still come a-cropper if it is not careful. The more information that people share about themselves with the site, the greater the danger of another big blow-up over privacy. Facebook says users will be offered the option to set privacy controls as they sign up to each social app. That is welcome, but it remains to be seen how robust these controls will be in practice.
Facebook could also face a backlash from folk who worry that the social network is now going to have even more of a Big Brother-like capacity to monitor everything going on in their lives. Mr Zuckerberg made clear this week that people who want to keep their existing, more basic profile pages will still be forced to transition to the new Timeline one.Perhaps Zuckerberg’s Law should really state that sharing less is not an option.