How Facebook Will Rule the World

Facebook could achieve what Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others have been attempting for years: To create a platform so necessary that to cancel your account would be equivalent to withdrawing from society.


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Posted October 6, 2010

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

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In the highly fictionalized movie, The Social Network, the highly fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg invents Facebook so he'll have control over something as "exclusive" as Harvard's social clubs. It's a dumb premise for a smart movie.

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.

A service that offered exclusivity as its main feature now offers zero exclusivity as the key benefit. Before, people signed up because most people weren't allowed to join. Now people sign up because everyone else already has.

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 World

To demonstrate the power of Facebook exclusion, let me share with you a few killer ideas:

Exclusive E-mail

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….

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Tags: Facebook, email, spam, barcode, Facebook marketing

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