Has Facebook jumped the shark? It’s churning out platform changes faster than you can say “f8”. Yet, we don’t know today whether the changes will weave Facebook into the fabric of our lives even more tightly than today, or whether they will, on the contrary, turn out to be undigestible.
The most significant change in years, I believe, is the Subscribe feature: a full and irreversible move to the asymmetrical model (see my 2010 post about platform choices and personal policy), as if to say that the folks at Twitter (and Quora, and Google+) have been right all along. I think that recognizing this – better late than never – will be a big win for Facebook. Starting from today, my Facebook profile is open to subscribers; at least at the beginning, the majority of the content will still be shared with friends only.
Of course, it’s not enough to make a winning choice of relationship model (asymmetrical vs. symmetrical) for a social utility to win: you have to get a million other little things right. Google Buzz floundered on the wrong defaults. The TimesPeople feature on nytimes.com, one that I liked and used, appears to have been quietly rolled back last summer. Friendfeed, one of my personal favorite sites ever, was terminally mothballed after its 2009 acquisition by Facebook. (This will sound sentimental, but I haven’t loved a social networking site the way I loved Friendfeed since the pre-bubble days of SixDegrees.com). Yet, I maintain that, as I wrote last year, “asymmetry is the right choice for this type of application: it allows you to follow whoever you want, key opinion leaders to behave normally, and the community to grow more fluidly.”
The other major change in the Facebook platform, and the one that got the most hype this week, is the much deeper integration of media services such as Spotify, Hulu and Netflix. I’m starting to see in my Ticker what some of my friends are listening to. There’s probably a rather robust algorithmic tweak in progress to prevent our feeds from being overrun with meaningless chatter about songs, TV shows, products and God knows what else: I joked a few days ago that “if [Facebook] turns into MySpace, I’m gone.” Your genuine friends risk being squeezed out by a minority of oversharers drip-feeding you every song that they sample, every video they watch, every product they put into a basket. Of course, you can unfriend the oversharers (… and they can follow you without you following them back): however, as has already been noticed, it is entirely possible that some of your nearest and dearest friends may have poor musical taste.
To Facebook users outside the U.S., these changes won’t make a major difference. Since the media rights landscape is hopelessly fragmented on a national basis, most services such as Spotify, Hulu and Netflix are either available in a very restricted set of countries, or only available in the United States. If you are, say, Italian, you will hardly notice such updates, unless you have a lot of friends in the U.S. and they use these services a lot.
What will Facebook do to vertical sites built around media and entertainment consumption? Will it swallow them slowly, keep them alive on life support, or just make them irrelevant? I don’t have the answers for you. I’ll keep my eyes open; in the meantime, do enjoy the new Facebook.