Facebook's Purchase Is Bid to Own Social Media

By Chadwick Matlin
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Facebook just bought the rights to nearly everything you do online. And it cost them only $47.5 million.

Facebook's purchase of FriendFeed, an obscure social-media platform, is potentially momentous. To understand why, we must understand FriendFeed, a start-up that is ubiquitous among techies and unknown to everybody else. It's a sleek application that acts as a clearinghouse for all of your social-media activities. Post something to Flickr? That will show up on your FriendFeed page. Digg something? FriendFeed will know. Post to Twitter from your phone? FriendFeed will syndicate your tweets. Once you initially tell it where to look, it will collect everything and tell it to the world.

The goal is to make automatic that which is all too annoying to do manually. If I like an article enough to Digg it, why should I then have to tell all my friends via Facebook or Twitter, as well? The social-media landscape has become disparate enough -- so many start-ups controlling so many different pieces of our lives -- that we need a central place that will organize all of our actions for us. That place is FriendFeed.

Facebook has recently shown that it, too, wants to be that place. For all of its genius in harnessing the collective procrastination of an entire planet, Facebook has usually asked you to come to it. For example, want to post photos on Flickr but not Facebook? Good luck telling your Facebook friends about it. In the past, while Facebook was building an audience, this walled garden helped it build its audience. If all your friends were on Facebook, then why not post your pictures there? After all, the point of digital photography in 2009 is to relive memories with the very group of people that lived through them in the first place. That group is most likely found on Facebook.

But now Facebook's user base is big enough for it to start looking out. There's a Twitter application that synchronizes your tweets with your Facebook status message. And then there's Facebook Connect, the company's convoluted and potentially brilliant attempt to make Facebook the official login for the rest of the Internet. Sites that support Facebook Connect -- about 15,000 and growing -- let users log in using their Facebook credentials in order to do things such as leave comments on articles and blog posts. That activity is then pumped back into the author's Facebook profile, which then promotes the site where the comment was left. Everybody wins -- especially Facebook, which gets more content and more of an off-site footprint.

So here's a theory: FriendFeed is going to become the companion to Facebook Connect; Facebook Connect pipes Facebook out to other sites, while FriendFeed's technology pipes other sites in.

How do I deduce this? It's reasonable to assume that Facebook won't somehow combine FriendFeed's user database with Facebook's. It's likely all FriendFeeders are Facebookers, and the two networks aren't set up to be compatible. And unlike much of the tech press, I don't believe this acquisition is about real-time search or a competition with Twitter.

Instead, I think this is about social aggregation. Facebook bought FriendFeed so it could become the Huffington Post of your social life.

Right now the majority of your news feed is filled with updates that your friends have (for the most part) made within Facebook. Status updates, engagements, zombie bites -- it all shows up in your news feed. But those are all internal to Facebook; everybody spends plenty of time outside Facebook, as well. And in order for you to track your friends' activities you either have to subscribe to all of their different feeds or hope that they tell you when they add content to one of their other profiles. That's a hassle.

What you need is an aggregator -- a place to come that gives you a news feed not just of what's happening inside your walled garden, but also what's going on elsewhere, too. A Facebook/FriendFeed mash-up -- FaceFeed, we (and many others) will call it -- would be exactly that.

To understand the allure of this kind of aggregator, one only has to look to successful news aggregators. Take the devilishly popular Huffington Post, for example. For better or worse, the site's mash-up of news from disparate sources has struck a cord among its 7 million monthly visitors. Its home page is a mix of links to blog posts from Huffington Post contributors and links to outside stories from the news media. Rather than hunt and peck through all these other sites, people go to the Huffington Post to be delivered a smattering of links. Aggregators work because they do all the hard work for you.

So now imagine a social aggregator with the size and sway of Facebook. Users would love it, because it would make their lives simpler and more streamlined. The other social-media sites stand to gain as well, since Facebook would be pointing more users to content off-site. News sites will get more traffic, because people will be clicking through on more links. Facebook, of course, would be the biggest victor: It would be able to get people to check in more often and stay longer. Ad rates can then go up, which helps the company's bottom line.

If this happens, Facebook will be the one portal to rule them all. Other than Google, that is. Google long ago took over much of our Internet usage: Gmail, Google Docs, Google search, etc. Facebook and Twitter, for now, are the two holdouts, bastions of independence in an increasingly consolidated Internet. (To be more precise: the user-generated Internet.) And Twitter may already be too integrated to count because of the way Facebook pipes it in.

That leaves two mega-conglomerates that will compete to be the portal of everything we do on the Internet. Google has long tried to get into the social game, and Facebook surely wouldn't mind expanding into some of Google's territory. (Real-time search is the likely entry point.) It's as classic an American struggle as Pepsi vs. Coke. Two companies, one market. Regardless of which side you choose, I'm sure Facebook will be happy to air your thoughts on the matter. Even if you write them on Blogspot, Google's blogging network. After all, that's why Facebook bought FriendFeed. So it could own you.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company