Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's social media manifesto delivered at the company's F8 developer summit last week was both hailed as a move towards making Facebook a central platform for online sharing and panned as a potential privacy violation on a massive scale. One thing is sure, however. The new Open Graph initiative, which aims to spread Facebook infrastructure and "like" buttons across the Internet, is only the latest evidence that the Web has entered a new and different stage where sharing and social interactions become the key focus of user interactions.
The phenomenal growth of Facebook and business networking site LinkedIn is the strongest signal. But look also at the wildfire rise of social sharing services such as mobile check-in services FourSquare and Gowalla which take the social microblogging theme established by Twitter a step further. And the rocket-like growth of social discount shopping site Groupon, which recently got a massive injection of VC funding at a shocking $1.35 billion valuation (and also has attracted literally dozens of clones).
None of this is to say that these concepts had not been tried before. Social shopping has been around since the dawn of dot-com. Twitter is basically text messaging poured through the Internet and made easier, cheaper and social. Facebook came after a number of social networking start-ups had already rolled out. What has changed, rather, is the mindset of the users and how they view the Web. At some core level, the Maslovian hierarchy of online needs has shifted from locating information to sharing information.
New Culture of Sharing
Much of this shift is, of course, driven by the rise of smart phones and the corresponding ability to interact over the Internet with others anywhere at anytime. But much of it has also arisen from the utility that Facebook, Twitter and others have added to the nascent Social Web. Sharing information securely and easily and, most importantly, broadly wasn't very easy, what with clunky technology protocols (also known as APIs) and the general lack of familiarity with designing Web sites for the social future. A developer of a site on drag racing, for example, would have struggled to import all of his fan's preferences in a single sign-on system and then allow them to layer on top their "likes" about specific drivers, their purchases of drag race memorabilia (social shopping) and updates on races they were attending (twitter, microblogging) -- all in a simple, easy to install package.
Now that switch has been flipped and it's off to the races not only for Facebook but also for dozens of other businesses built to reflect the new culture of sharing. The theory goes, also, that Facebook will enjoy a huge revenue advantage because it controls the technology underpinnings of much of the social web and can therefore do things like target ads based on ever-changing personal profiles or conversations. Facebook even plans to do things like launch its own online currency system, concurrent with PayPal and others. While Facebook is the initial front-runner, the nature of a social Web can make it easier for other technology platforms to create similar network effects and that is already happening with moves by Google (GOOG)and Twitter to create similar social technology platforms.
Of course, sharing on the Web has always been a core value proposition. Blogs, emails, instant messages were all about sharing. However, to date sharing has not been omnipresent, as flexible, or as lucrative as display or paid search advertising, for example. Or ecommerce. That situation is likely to change in the next five years as the power of sharing and community unlocks a massive financial engine that had been idling in the driveway, waiting for Joe Public Internet User to get a Facebook or Google Buzz account and go into share superdrive.
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