How does Facebook really affect the future of the web? Is the web in the process of being reborn through Facebook? With 200 million people and counting on Facebook, what effect will this new platform really have on the future of the web? As someone passionate about the Internet and web technology, these questions fascinate me.
While browsing around on Facebook recently, I noticed a small design decision that I found fascinating. Perform a search on Facebook for anything. Notice how the results are structured. Specifically, they are broken into tabs, with the default tab being "All Results." The tabs then often go sequentially as follows: People, Pages, Groups, Events, Applications, Web. In other words, the search results are broken into these categories and you can click through each tab to filter the results. Simple and logical. Nothing crazy going on here, right?
Well, kind of. I find it incredibly telling how the Facebook design team chose to put the "Web" as the last tab within the search results. Is the future of search on the web truly relegated to the last tab within Facebook? Probably not. Noone will be dismantling Google so fast. But this design decision is incredible. It speaks to the relative importance that the Facebook team sees the web as compared with Facebook data. In their eyes, there's a clear priority for Facebook data (People, Pages, Groups, etc) over the entire rest of the web.
I could be overdramatizing this design decision. Perhaps it's a simple distinction between internal site-wide data and external site-wide data. But it's difficult not to draw the larger comparison for the broader shift happening. Facebook isn't shy about advertising its central role in the emerging shift of the web. Within the careers portion of their website, they state: "The web is shifting from a vast encyclopedia of information to a social environment that reflects our real identities, and the relationships and information we care about. Facebook is at the forefront of that change." All, true. There is definitely a shift happening away from static information towards a more social web based on people's real connections. The interesting questions are as follows: What is the extent of this change? What will Facebook look like in 15 years when 1 billion plus people are active users? Perhaps more importantly, what will the non-Facebook web look like?
If Facebook emerges as the dominant web platform where everyone spends most of their time, it's inevitable that companies will shift greater effort towards Facebook development: Facebook Pages, Facebook Applications, Facebook Advertising, etc. A sound Facebook strategy will become more important then developing independent websites. Will websites then become relics of the technology past?
The tension comes down to whether or not the core of the web is informational or social. But, perhaps it's both. This tension doesn't have to be a zero-sum game in which a gain for Facebook represents a loss for the web and vica versa. Quite the contrary, both can evolve and grow together with time. The Internet can be both informational and social. These aspects support and reinforce one another. Our social spheres help us find the information we want. At the same time, we connect with new people based on mutual interests. Finding information and connecting with people are both core parts of everyday life and they will remain key aspects of the Internet.
And especially with Facebook Connect, whereby users synchronize their Facebook accounts across different websites, I think the Facebook development team makes an implicit recognition of the fact that Facebook must increasingly play a symbiotic and complementary role with the web, not a carnivorous one.
It's still mind-boggling to imagine how Facebook and the web will evolve over time. The world's greatest investor, Warren Buffett, refuses to invest in technology companies because he knows he can't realistically understand how they will look in ten years.
But it's still fun to wonder. Imagine some distant point in the future of human civilization, say 1,000 years from now, when generations have been born and died using Facebook... When the most thoroughly documented portrait of a person's life can be understood through reading through his Facebook Wall… When the most comprehensive documentation on the activities of civilization in recent history can be understood through Facebook content… What will Facebook look like then? What will Facebook be then?