Facebook announced a major redesign today with an odd, half-accurate, overused analogy. "What we're trying to do is give everyone in the world the best personalized newspaper," Mark Zuckerberg said, before showcasing the social network's revamped main product: an organized, sortable feed of every type of content from your friends and favorite content producers.
Facebook extensively surveyed users for this redesign, and came up with what it hopes will eliminate the need to use any other social network. The reimagined News Feed includes news articles along with music, photos, funny links, and your friends' Facebook activities. The feed can be chronological or curated via Facebook's magic EdgeRank algorithm. You can choose to read every single post or just skim the top. "Just like a newspaper, when you want to see every sports story and you jump to the sports section, you can go to a section of your news feed," explained Chris Struhar, Facebook's News Feed tech lead.
There is no pre-internet metaphor for what Facebook is trying to do
The newspaper analogy makes sense in some ways, and misses the mark in others. For one thing, the internet has destroyed the identity of the archetypal "newspaper," so the concept doesn't even evoke a concrete image in many people's minds. Beyond that, newspaper content is mostly professionally-produced, while Facebook's is mostly user-produced. If you really tried to squeeze the analogy and say Facebook was a newspaper, it'd be something like 80 percent classified ads, personals, and letters to the editor.
Unfortunately, Facebook had to settle for the newspaper analogy because there is no good pre-internet metaphor for what it's trying to do. Zuckerberg also may be saying "newspaper," but he doesn't mean the Hartford Courant, he means The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, the authoritative newspapers, the newspapers of record.
What Facebook actually wants is to be the social network of record, the thing you look at before breakfast and curl up with on Sundays, the app you'd take to a desert island if you could only bring one source of information. "There's no other social service like this at scale," Zuckerberg said, in a veiled reference to Twitter and the rest. "There are a lot of other great other social apps that allow you to share one type of content with one audience." He made sure to note that those services "are great," but Facebook allows you to "see all these types of content in one place."
"There's no other social service like this at scale."
In other words, if your friends are talking about an amazing party you missed, you wouldn't go to Instagram and hop around disparate hashtags, or its reverse-chronological feed, in order to find out what went down. You'd go to Facebook, which is organized, and use the new features to drill down into the content you want. That means, all recent photos from your friends, or all recent photos from Jack.
We already knew Facebook wanted to be the one true social network, the definitive one-stop shop for, as Zuckerberg says at the beginning of every announcement, "sharing" and "making the world more open and connected." But this is still a bold move. Facebook isn't just aggregating all the content you're interested in, FriendFeed-style. It's also made the content easier to browse, sort, and search — presenting Spotify or Flickr's content, for example, better than Spotify and Flickr do.
Third party apps — those specialist social networks that Zuckerberg dismissed at the beginning of today's announcement — probably won't like this. It means users are more likely to go to Facebook than directly to their apps, because Facebook has made it easier to find only the updates you want. But they don't have much choice. Facebook is throwing its weight around. Spotify and other social services aren't about to stop posting to Facebook. Remember when Facebook subsidiary Instagram stopped allowing Twitter to display its photos? Those Instagrams will show up big and beautiful on Facebook.
The same dilemma applies to publishers, which have been whining that Facebook buries their posts behind its sponsored content. That doesn't mean they're about to stop posting to Facebook. (And Facebook threw publishers a bone in this latest update, by providing a feed that shows publisher posts in chronological order.)
As for the content that Twitter withholds from Facebook — Vine, for example — Facebook has ways of compelling other companies to give up their data. That will be the next battlefront as Facebook attempts to be the one true social network.
Facebook is a container. A really big container. A container ship
"We're a container for the content that other people create," said Chris Cox, the anchor speaker at today's announcement. This analogy is less elegant than the newspaper metaphor, but it's more appropriate. Facebook is a container. A really big container. A container ship. Users and specialist social networks that don't want to get on board can float along in their smaller vessels, drifting further and further away from each other on the sea of the internet.
That's the threat Facebook is making, anyway. Of course, over the past few quarters, people have been drifting away from Facebook. Facebook believes the antitdote is to become more monopolistic and more all-encompassing, all the content that's fit to like, to the exclusion of all other social networks. At a billion users, it has decided it's powerful enough to formally stake that claim.