Facebook Becoming the Big Box of the Internet

Remember back in mid September when Facebook made a myriad of changes and everyone was complaining and threatening to leave, many for Google’s new rival social network Google+? Well apparently people were more bark than bite. Though Google+ did receive a spike of interest from Facebook’s format change, which virtually coincided with Google+’s Sep. 20th public beta launch, the trend was very short lived, with Google+’s usage going back to the same levels they were at before the Facebook changes within a few days.

Meanwhile many of the services that had people worried about privacy issues, ones that if you used your friends could see the activity, had huge spikes in subscribers. Spotify gained over a million users, and MOG grew by over 246% after the redesign. But one major Facebook tweak that went by without drawing much interest or ire was the de-emphasis of links in the news stream that lead to websites outside of Facebook’s format, and an extra emphasis on personal pictures and embedded video that keep you in the Facebook fold.

In other words, instead of seeing a link to an in-depth album review or interview from Saving Country Music, you see the picture of a cat vomiting with an ironic statement below it. Instead of seeing a link to a website petitioning for social change, you see a picture of a hardline political statement that leads to nowhere but a friend’s Facebook picture gallery. Facebook’s policy change on links has cut traffic to this website from Facebook three fold.

Facebook has made it clear that they want to become the only place you go on the internet, with all other sites running through Facebook’s format, i.e. CNN for news, Spotify for music. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said many times he doesn’t care about making users happy, he cares about what improves the number of Facebook users, and the amount of time they spend on the site.

As a small independent website owner, this has me just as concerned as a small, independent business owner would be if a big box store like Wal-Mart was moving into his town. As evidenced over and over in America, the intrusion of big box stores into communities means the downfall of many small, independent businesses, and the sense of community they create, and the local flavor they contain; a trend that has become an indelible theme of modern American life. Facebook, or any large website that is able to assert ultra-dominance over what you see and how you behave online could spell doom to the microservice, specialization, and just simple charm that independent websites above the hobby level are able to offer.

Of course, ironically, one of the ways a small, independent website can make itself known and create a following is through social networking, and many sites have been successful doing so. However with Facebook’s downgrade on outside links, and dominance of the social network landscape, this dynamic could change dramatically, and also stunt future websites who were not able to get the word out before the current and future changes to how links are handled.

Meanwhile every day there seems to be a new concern over privacy and intrusion with the Facebook format. The State Data Protection Agency in Germany is suing Facebook over their facial recognition feature. Another lawsuit points out that Facebook tracks users through cookies even when they’re logged off. Earlier this week concerns came up that Facebook stores your data, even after you delete it, possibly making them the largest holder of personal data on individuals the world has ever seen. And then just in the last few days, the widespread porn spam that pervaded Facebook raised new concerns that with so many Facebook users, it has created a computer mono-culture that with one hack could infect the entire country.

Nobody wants to shop at Wal-Mart, just like nobody wants to use Facebook. Unfortunately, left with no alternative, people still use it. And as big of the promise of Google+ was, and the fact that since Google is the advertiser, they have no reason to sell your data to another party, it simply hasn’t taken off, and the format still contains many of the same challenges and concerns that Facebook does when it comes to data sharing and privacy.

I would hope that the lessons we’ve learned from the physical world about how letting a few large national entities dominate our buying and eating habits robs us of community and individuality could be translated to the online world. In many communities, the big box phenomenon is in its latter stages, and urban renewal is happening as people decide to reinvest in community instead of giving their money to foreign entities. Hopefully with the internet, we will never get where renewal is needed, but it will only happen if individuals understand that every click is like a vote cast and a dollar spent, and small, independent websites are one way we can keep the individuality and charm of the internet in a global format.