This past week, Facebook released a series of changes to the way it manages sharing and privacy controls. You can read more about them here.
The short story is that they are giving their users finer control over their sharing and how others tag them in photos and updates, and building the concept of friend lists more fully into the experience. One other interesting change, which made its way into the blog post as little more than a “by the way,” is that Facebook has removed the places feature from its mobile applications.
In response to these changes, Matthew Ingram over at GigaOm wrote a great piece asking, “Are Facebook and Google Splintering the Social Web?” His analysis focused on the much-talked-about Circles feature from Google, along with the similar changes from Facebook, and questioned whether or not people would actually use these features.
Are people really going to spend the time it takes to create groups or lists or Circles and then choose from a pull-down menu every time they want to share a piece of content? I don’t think so (even Mark Zuckerberg once said that people hate lists). And my fear is that people will share less as a result, or will turn away from these networks in confusion, or because the settings are too cumbersome.
I’m less concerned than Ingram is on this point, but to answer the question in his title: Yes, the social web is splintering, but it is not Facebook or Google doing the splintering – it’s Instagram, it’s Foursquare, it’s any network that is purpose-built for a specific behavior, a specific community, and a unique set of privacy expectations.
Facebook and Google are merely responding to the “splintering” that they are seeing outside of their walls. My friend Nina Khosla wrote a great post that neatly elucidates why this might be happening:
“Therein lies the paradox of the social network that no one wants to admit: as the size of the network increases, our ability to be social decreases.” – The Social Network Paradox
Size is one reason why these communities might be losing value in the eyes of users, but I think something else is at work.
Last year, when Facebook’s Places feature was released on mobile phones, I wrote that they would ultimately “lose location” to Foursquare, since on Foursquare we had the opportunity to rebuild our networks with location-sharing in mind.
Speaking more generally, I believe that social networks built with a purpose in mind have two distinct advantages over larger catch-all networks like Facebook:
1) Functionality: it’s easier to do one thing well than to do many things well (just ask Yahoo)
2) Social context: every type of sharing has a unique privacy expectation associated with it, and unique social context in which that sharing makes the most sense
Users have shown that they prefer the switching costs of rebuilding their networks elsewhere to the costs of managing their existing networks in order to make them more suitable for the kinds of sharing they want to do. In other words, users would rather build a network from scratch, with a particular use case in mind, than mold an existing network to make it fit one additional use case.
The bottom line: Users are going elsewhere to share their location. Users are going elsewhere to share their photos. Facebook will continue to do a few things well (birthday messages?), but they will more and more find themselves unable to compete with these smaller “splinter networks.”
Yes, the social web is splintering, and we should celebrate.