First, let’s admit why even at a paltry $42 billion valuation Facebook is still one of the most important companies on the planet. The company will eventually cross the one billion user account threshold, making it the largest voluntary association in the history of the world. Only China and India are larger social organizations and, while powerful in their own right, by no stretch could they be considered voluntary.
What can Facebook do with a billion people that it hasn’t already done to make more money and thus impress investors? Chief executive and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg laid out his plan last fall at F8, the Facebook developer conference, when he indicated that the company’s move toward the Timeline user experience had one goal: to increase the number of minutes that you and I spend on Facebook each day.
Minutes of attention. This is the right metric, even if Timeline wasn’t the way to achieve it. There is risk here for Facebook, especially as evidence mounts that some people are cutting back time spent with the site. A relevant case in point: the Washington Post’s initial success with its “Social Reader” Facebook application, in which users can see what articles their friends have clicked on, has waned of late as more people have realized that clicking on yet another Kardashian article will prove embarrassing in front of old high school flames (if somewhat satisfying to them as they see that they aren’t missing much). Thus is the problem hanging over social networking – living life in public has its limits.
Facebook can solve the problem of social networking by giving people permission to exploit what I call private networking. Private networking includes social networking, but goes far beyond it, building on two specific sources of network value: 1) private data storage and analysis, and 2) anonymous sharing of aggregated information across social networks for enhanced life experiences.
The two steps go together, indeed you can’t do the second without the data collected in the first. Imagine that Facebook announces that it is now a universal repository for all of your personal information and that anything you want to add – notes to yourself, journal entries, website bookmarks, calorie counts, cholesterol levels, exercise records, menstruation records, mood diaries – will be protected behind ironclad firewalls that your Facebook friends can’t peer beyond.
By the way, all of these things are currently being tracked by millions of people via dozens of apps. Evernote and Springpad track notes and journal entries and web bookmarks, Loseit! and MyFitnesspal track calories, InsideTracker coordinates and monitors cholesterol blood tests, MapMyRun and RunTracker follow exercise events, Period Tracker tracks the obvious, and a whole host of other apps provide many overlapping services, all of which amass a tremendous amount of personal data which is of interest when analyzed in isolation but is potentially life-changing when aggregated.
You as an individual could use the Facebook dashboard – everpresent as it is on any device you own – as a way to interact with all of these personal information sources individually but also as a way to analyze how they fit together. What do your runs do to your moods, how can you connect the recipe you found on Pinterest to the research you’ve recently read about raw foods while then tracking the energy levels you felt after eating similar meals? By aggregating and privately reporting back to us information about the multiple dimensions of our lives, Facebook can become a personal counselor in areas other than just how to most effectively waste time, which is what it seems to specialize in today.
That’s all just stage one. Stage two involves Facebook then sharing our aggregated, anonymized data with everyone else. Imagine that the Post’s Social Reader app doesn’t show me what Ryan read this morning, but instead says that 13 percent of my friends have read a particular article. And when I later vote that article down, the app now knows that I no longer value the input of those friends so it knows not to recommend their readings very highly next time. Suddenly I have a world of social content recommendations that are learning from me and from my friends and leading me to much more interesting content – and I’m more comfortable letting my behaviors feed back to the system to help other people in their decisions.
This also allows us to subscribe to people without personally friending them. If I find the ideal news article on the Post Social Reader, I should be able to click on a button that says, “subscribe to readers who liked this.” This is akin to Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought this,” feature, but it will persist beyond that single article. By linking to these anonymous people whose tastes I have deemed compatible with mine, I will now be able to benefit from whatever behaviors they engage in in the future that might also interest me. This will extend my social search capabilities far beyond my own personal circles and it will do so without making my personal life visible to others or require that I pretend to be “friends” with people that I am not interested in getting to know but would still like to benefit from our shared interests.
Now go the next level. Tie into all the personal data that Facebook will have available on people and imagine every Facebook page for a business, charity or bestselling book had not only a “Like” button, not only a “Subscribe to these fans,” button, but also a “learn from these people,” button. That would allow me to call up a set of personal metrics about those people so I can see what their moods are, how successful they are, what they value, and what kinds of interesting things they do that I might consider exploring. All without violating their privacy or exposing my life to them in uncomfortable ways. This source of aggregated, filtered data would allow me to make connections between the kinds of things people read or do and their life outcomes. Then I can decide what I want to read or do in order to avoid or achieve similar life outcomes.
Think about what this means to Facebook page owners who could then track metrics like percent of fans that subscribe to our other fans or have a free source of customer metrics that includes deep life outcomes as a source of insight. These are metrics that can only lead to more intelligent decision making for the company sponsoring the page. And Facebook would make this information available for free to the companies, without revealing our individual identities, preferences or weaknesses.
This is social networking squared, maybe even cubed, but it only happens when you engage in private networking, that secure layer of personal information storage and analysis that enables true social networking to occur. It would make my social experience an order of magnitude more valuable, which in turn would cause me to spend – you guessed it – many more minutes using Facebook.
That’s how Facebook can get to $100 billion and beyond.