Rebuild Facebook

May 8, 2010 holman

It seems like every day this past week there’s been some new story about privacy issues and security holes at Facebook. People are starting to get really pissed at the company. I’m not; I find the whole thing fascinating. Here we have a massive company who has grown far beyond what anyone had anticipated, and it’s experiencing some growing pains as it transitions from the site people signed up for yesterday to the site people will use tomorrow.

This is classic opportunity, guys.

Hacker News is all aflutter about building peer-to-peer proxied distributed neutral neural private interconnected nodes having sex with each other to replace Facebook. I know, right? The whole point of Facebook was that I connect to non-nerds. The moment anything gets even the slightest bit complicated, you start losing them. That can be surmounted in a lot of sites, but for social networking you need to retain as many users as possible in order to exploit the network effect.

The easiest and quickest way to build a Facebook-level of replacement is to just blatantly copy Facebook. Not the Facebook of 2010, of course — today’s Facebook can hardly be called Facebook — but the Facebook of yesteryear. Tap into the primal urges that got people really excited about the site in the first place. My university was in the first half-dozen of schools added to Facebook, and I remember this new site out of nowhere hitting roughly 90-95% student penetration within a couple of weeks. That’s absurd… but not completely unexpected.

When Facebook first came out, people were excited about person-to-person communication. It was especially enticing for those graduating in my class of ‘08; we were in our first two weeks of our first year of college when Facebook debuted, and it was the perfect service to connect ourselves with both our newfound college friends and our old high school friends from back home. It had some features like class scheduling and planning, but it was most exciting as a simple, straightforward way to keep in touch with your new and old friends.

Eventually Facebook broadened into what many of us would classify as “true” Facebook: friend connections, photos, status updates, possibly events. And it was good. And then they added their API, and it slowly sank into what it is today.

The ironic part of this is that there’s a huge opportunity for a new player in the exact space that Facebook just vacated. Facebook used to be about connections: how are my friends doing? What are they doing? And what are they planning on doing? Today, Facebook’s more meta-personal. It broadcasts information that I never wanted to see or know: here’s how I scored on a game. You should play this game. You should see this link.

It all serves to dilute the information that really matters in life. Oh? You had a baby? I didn’t notice because it was sandwiched between fifty Farmville notices. You visited San Francisco last week? I read my newsfeed much less nowadays, so I missed it and missed your visit. Even stupid shit like you threw a monster kegger last weekend. Awesome! I want to know about that, because you’re significant in my life, and I want to stay in touch with you. This is how you’re living your life, which is far more interesting than your 7th top score on Scrabble.

Facebook’s proven there’s a huge, huge market for superficial interactions. I’m not knocking that; it’s gotten a lot of people into casual gaming, and millions of people enjoy mini-games and the social atmosphere surrounding the Facebook app ecosystem. It’s just not for me anymore, and judging from the backlash lately, lots of other people, too. The beauty of it is that I think these are two separate markets now. Facebook’s moved onto some weird amalgamation of games and APIs and graphs and crazy. A smaller, simpler experience can coexist with that.

Make it simple; follow Twitter’s lead. Make it focused; follow 37signals’ lead. Make it social; follow Facebook’s lead. Make it private; follow, well, that might be where you have to blaze a trail, but it shouldn’t be hard… just don’t be a dick with other people’s data. If you can resist the temptation to toss the kitchen sink in it, there’s a good chance you can develop a following. From that following, build it up into something meaningful. I’d love to see a killer new startup tackle these issues.

There’s a lot of excitement in personal, direct relationships that no one’s tapping right now. Twitter’s too open, Facebook’s too broad. Let people rediscover through text and photos the real, physical connections that have been pushed aside in the last few years. A big, lumbering giant with privacy concerns is too big of an opportunity to pass up.

Here: a poke for good luck.