Facebook is an infrastructure

Inside Facebooks Prineville Datacenter (photo by Pete Erikson/ Wired.com)

With more and more Facebook features and -acquisitions, it appears increasingly plausible to me that Facebook could become “the internet” to many people around the world. It’s becoming so big and so comprehensive that they would not go anywhere else to surf “the web”. They would do all the messaging, news reading, picture browsing, gaming, shopping on Facebook. In many of today’s ads you find links in the form of f/mycompany instead of the former www.mycompany.com. Is Facebook becomming the new “web”, leaving the www and soon technology like a webbrowser behind (or for the geeks)?

What if Facebook went away?

This could be just another observation from the ever evolving media ecosystem but this shift has/would bring a remarkable change: the www doesn’t belong to anyone (although it’s dominated by the US), while Facebook is privately owned and dominated by Mark Zuckerberg (holding 28% of the shares and speaking for 57%).
He can change the terms of the service as he likes (and so he does) and he could just turn it all off when he got sick of it. Poff — the internet, deleted.

Or imagine it the other way round: Facebook in financial troubles, filing for bankruptcy. This would put so much business, entertainment industries, media channels, personal data, image collections at risk, that it would appear as a public interest to keep Facebook alive — too big to fail.
In his Wired article Can Anything Take Down The Facebook Juggernaut, Steven Johnson called Facebook more an infrastructure than a business by its nature.

Johnson sees two challenges to an all Facebook-internet: it tends to become a walled garden, trying to force users to stay inside its network, e.g. by intercepting links to the “outside” with a “we have an App for that” dialogues. And all walled gardens to date have failed. But in contrast to walled gardens of the old web, the community pulls all the content into Facebook themselves. And, even outside the Matrix Network, you are inside the Network, tracked by beacons, like-buttons or exposed by sponsored stories.

The other risk, according to Johnson, is a break up of Facebook due to monopoly considerations. This would be a spectacular and stunningly bold move by a government: slicing out essential parts of the Facebook code and infrastructure to put it into the public domain, to create a public infrastructure as the www is today. Given the influence of Facebook as a media outlet, this sounds like a Hollywood-movie show down to me. Since presidential election campaings increasingly rely on Facebook, it might never happen.

Consequences of an all-Facebook world

Facebook has made the web less information centric and more people centric and social (sharing sharing sharing). The ease of sharing and staying connected works best when you have a single identity on the web, ideally identical with your offline identity and when your online friends are your offline friends. You can no longer decide yourself to play different roles in different contexts. You can try to funnel certain information into certain social groups (or facets) but this requires extra work and might be overruled by a Facebook update.

But the “Open Graph” goes beyond our intuitive understanding: it reveals connections among people and strengths of links that even the people forming these links might not be quite aware of (or could you easily name your 120 closest friends?). It makes interests, hidden wishes, intimate information accessible through data mining. Maybe not to the public, maybe not to you, but in any case to Facebook.

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