Making User Profiles Public: The Case Against Facebook’s Acquisition of FriendFeed

friendfeed-facebookBefore I play devil’s advocate, I will state that I am a fan of Facebook’s acquisition of FriendFeed from both a business and strategic perspective. Most tech journalists have already provided great coverage on the value of the deal from an acquisition of talent, feature capabilities and search functionality perspective- so I won’t rehash it here. That being said, only Marshal Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb commented on the potential downside of the acquisition as it relates to Facebook’s other big move from the same day- launching improved search functionality across its website. With these two announcements, Facebook officially entered the fray in the battle with Google and Twitter over real-time, socially relevant search.

In the process Facebook also signaled its intent to make user profiles and associated content more public- and therein lies the potential problem. Facebook’s success as a social networking platform has been built on the philosophy of having users connect with one another using their real digital identities, which is in contrast to MySpace and many other social networks that allow users to create anonymous identities. This has led to Facebook evolving into a platform where people connect and share their personal interests and experiences with actual friends and family. This creates a sense of privacy within and beyond Facebook’s walled garden (Google can’t index the site’s content for search purposes) that isn’t found on MySpace, Twitter or FriendFeed where user profiles and content are publicly accessible.

By introducing ways for strangers to initiate and participate in conversations with other users in real-time and enabling search along these same lines, both core strengths of FriendFeed’s service, Facebook risks alienating the core audience that has made it the largest social network in the world. We’ve already witnessed the privacy backlash Facebook faced over Beacon, which attempted to push users’ activity from across the web into Facebook. So it’s not a reach to think users might react similarly to their data being made available outside of their social graph on Facebook.

Since Facebook’s core audience of college-aged users are more interested in extending their current relationships online than meeting new people outside of their school and personal social circles, the company is left with a data set problem. Facebook needs its users to expand their social graphs to include casual connections as well as enable consumption of additional content channels (creating additional link value) to better position its social search results with a richer and larger data set than is available today (just do a keyword search on Facebook and compare the results to that of Twitter’s to see the current data set disparity).  As Facebook attempts to broaden its reach and associated monetization opportunities, it risks compromising what has made it so popular and differentiated from other social networks. The worst case scenario for Facebook is that the push to make users and profiles more public creates the larger, richer data set to compete with Google and Twitter but in the process drives Facebook’s core, more private, users off the platform, neutralizing the growth of its public data set.

Luckily for Facebook there isn’t a viable alternative to the site that could capitalize on this potential opportunity in the near-term (we know teens and college kids are under-represented on Twitter due to the same identity and trust issues present on MySpace). That doesn’t mean Facebook can’t or won’t be overtaken someday as Friendster and MySpace were before them. It will be interesting though to watch the timeline for rolling out FriendFeed features on Facebook and whether the next generation of social network users (high school and junior high school students) flock to Facebook or look for alternatives. At the end of the day though, maybe Facebook doesn’t care about these younger users as it becomes large enough to focus its efforts on the older portion of its audience that controls the discretionary spending advertisers are so eager to reach. Time will tell how this case is resolved.

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