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Initially, Facebook touted exclusivity as the benefit that fueled growth. People at Harvard wanted in because only people at Harvard were allowed in.
Then only students from Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale could join. Later, anyone with an .edu e-mail address was allowed to sign up, then high schools, then schools worldwide.
In September of 2006 -- just four years ago -- Zuckerberg threw some giant lever in Palo Alto, opening the gates to allow anyone in the world to join.
Facebook lost its exclusivity, but retained exclusion. And exclusion remains Facebook's main benefit. Let me explain.
You could launch a blog or start up a Twitter account. You could set up a Web site or sign up for an e-mail address. The default mode for all these services is that anyone in the world can access them. Anyone with an Internet connection can read your blog or Twitter feed, look at your Web site or send you an e-mail.
Facebook got huge by offering the benefit of exclusion as the default mode. Until recently, if you set up a Facebook account without changing any settings, nobody could see your posts, nobody could send you messages and nobody could see your personal information. The default was to exclude every human being on the planet. Now *that's* exclusion.
Today, Facebook has tweaked these settings to make more information public by default. But excluding people is still very easy, while elsewhere on the Internet it's very difficult or impossible. Exclusion remains by far the biggest benefit of Facebook.
It's not that friends and family can read our status updates, chat with us and send messages; it's that nobody else can. And we can even "Hide" the posts of friends from showing up in our News Feeds. That's why we're on Facebook.
Exclusion is valuable because we all suffer from information overload, spam, scams and not enough time to do the things we want to do. Anyone and everyone can steal our precious time and attention. Facebook exclusion gives us control.
Facebook today announced new features to the social network. One is the ability to download all your personal content -- photos, videos and posts -- then upload it all to a competitive service. This is something Google has been nagging them to do, and they've finally done it.
The company also announced a "dashboard" for application settings where you can change or revoke permission for applications to show up on your Facebook page.
And the biggest announcement is that now Facebook users can easily segregate friends, family, business colleagues and so on into separate "Groups." (The new Facebook "Groups" concept replaces the old "Groups" feature.) The idea is that you can create a group, such as "Widget Corp.," and then include or exclude your posts from being available to that group.
Now you can create a "Friends" group and post, "Whoo-hoo! Playing laser-tag today!" but post on the "Work" group, "Big project coming up -- working from home today."
The last two features are welcome and powerful because they extend the power of users to exclude. And it's extending the power of exclusion that will enable Facebook to rule the online world.
How Facebook Can Rule the WorldTo demonstrate the power of Facebook exclusion, let me share with you a few killer ideas:
If you set up an e-mail account on Gmail, Yahoo Mail or some other service, the default mode is that anyone in the world can send you e-mail. Spam filters try to guess which e-mails are spam by looking at the content. But still, spam gets through and in generally enormous quantities. Panda Security reported last week that a whopping 95% of all e-mail sent worldwide is spam.
Facebook can solve this by launching an e-mail system that excludes by default. In e-mail parlance, it would be called a whitelist-based e-mail system.
Here's how it would work: Facebook would dole out @facebook.com e-mail addresses, which you could use as your main address. By default all your friends and only your friends could e-mail you.
However, you could manually grant permission to people outside your list (for newsletters, business associates and family members not on Facebook, for example.) You could send to any e-mail address from your Facebook account, and optionally auto-whitelist people you send to. In other words, if I send you e-mail, your address is granted permission to e-mail me back -- permission that I could revoke later, so be nice.
In fact, it turns out that Facebook may be working on exactly such a system. Called "Project Titan," the system has been hailed as an end to e-mail marketing (if Facebook ever launches it). But that's not the case. It would only fix e-mail marketing, because Facebook could then roll out .
Pay-to-SpamYears ago, tech pundit Esther Dyson proposed an outrageous solution to the spam problem: Make each message cost something to the sender. Want to send me an e-mail? You have to pay me money.
At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous idea. But now I think it's brilliant.
Imagine the e-mail system described above, where nobody can send you e-mail unless you've given permission in advance. Now imagine an opt-in system where companies and people can pay you for e-mailing you.
You should be able to set your own rate, and Facebook gets a matching amount for delivery. So if you're willing to open an e-mail for 10 cents, it would cost a company or stranger 20 cents to send you the mail. You get half, and Facebook gets the other half. The money is transferred to a PayPal-like account that Facebook should own when the message is actually opened.
You would ether get left alone, or get rich. Either way, you win.
This system would enable Facebook to hand over the e-mail addresses of users based on any criteria the spammer wants. Let's say they want to reach women between the ages of 18 and 60, who charge any amount less than a quarter to be reached. The spammer enters the message into the system and Facebook delivers without revealing the address. The user gets paid. Facebook gets paid. And spamming becomes much more expensive.
The world would be a better place.
Friend-only callingMany people lose control of their phone numbers. You sign up for services, hand it out to various people. Next thing you know you're getting marketing calls during dinner, or creepy calls in the middle of the night from who-knows-who. This is another problem Facebook exclusion could solve.
Imagine if you could hand out a phone number that could only be dialed if you were Facebook friends? Here's how that could work.
The service would work like Google Voice, but owned and operated by Facebook. They would give you a Facebook-specific phone number. To dial the number, the caller would have to initiate the call either from the Facebook site or a Facebook cell phone app. (Google Voice already does this: When you call someone from the web, it calls your number, then it calls the other person to connect the call.)
Here's the powerful benefit: The call would only be placed if the caller was already on your Friends list. In fact, everyone's profile would have a "Call me" button which, when clicked, would initiate a phone call.
You could hand out your Facebook number without ever revealing your actual phone number, and without giving up control over who can call you. And Facebook friends could call you without knowing your number.
Business-card bar-codesFacebook announced today the easy ability to segregate contacts into "Groups," including the ability to maintain separate business "friends."
Incredibly, people still carry around business cards. However, they present more of a problem than a solution. Anyone who meets a lot of people in business ends up with a giant box full of business cards, and no time to process them. Most business cards are never added to a contacts application.
Facebook could solve that. Imagine if Facebook launched a real contacts application, and automatically put friends in there. Then imagine that each Facebook user got a unique QR code that could be printed on the backs of business cards. (A QR code is a fancy, "3D bar code.")
Now, when someone hands you a business card, you could use your Facebook app to snap a picture of the QR code, which would automatically add your contact information to their Facebook address book, and theirs to yours -- but only after you approved the swap next time you logged on to Facebook.
In other words, handing someone a business card would initiate a mutual Friend request, automatically designate that person as a business "friend" and populate each others' Facebook address books with contact information.
It's easy to imagine how Facebook could leverage the power of exclusion to provide features and services that just about everyone wants, but that are currently unavailable from major companies.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook could achieve what Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and many others have been trying to achieve for years: To create a platform so compelling and necessary that to cancel your account would be equivalent to withdrawing from society.