Chronicle of a death foretold

Sometimes little things are very telling. In the case of Facebook, one of those things is "Reply-to:"... or rather three of those things. To wit:
  • When you receive a message on Facebook, it sends you a notification by email. Great. But then you can't reply! Why? Why don't they just set the reply-to in the email header to an address that will send it back to the person's inbox in Facebook? That way you and your friend are still communicating through Facebook but with the added convenience of email e.g. on your mobile. But no, they force you to login to the Facebook website to reply.
  • Similarly, suppose you are logged in to Facebook, and you want to email your friend. You go to you friends profile, and guess what, you can't click on the email address to send them email! Why? Why can't they just make it a mailto link?
  • So ok, you decide to just copy and paste the address, of course. But you can't -- it's an image! Why? Whyyyyy? Why can't they just leave it in plain text, why do they want to go through the extra expense of converting everyone's email into an image?
In short, they are really really going out of their way to discourage you from using your friend's email address. Why? Fear of spam is not the reason, we're talking about authenticated contacts. Obviously the reason is that their business model is such that when you visit their website, they make (or at least hope to make) money from advertising.

The technical ideal here is obviously flexibility: let users exchange emails, SMSes, IMs, everything they want with their friends, with Facebook being the hub of their online universe. Instead of re-inventing separate and more primitive versions of email and IM inside their closed world, they could inter-connect and inter-operate. They could also for example enable you to chat with your Facebook contacts directly even if only one of you is logged in to Facebook and the other is on AIM, Yahoo Messenger, MSN messenger, or Google Talk... If Gaim and Trillian could do that years ago, surely Facebook can. They could effectively unify all the existing message systems into a grand Facebook Open Overlay IM ("FOO IM"). It would be a great service to their users, and a manifestation of the core raison d'ĂȘtre of a social network. And of course, they already have plenty of employees there who are very smart and experienced with this kind of stuff, so they definitely could. But, instead of doing the right thing, their business model is forcing them to instead handicap their users' communications!

Every company must have a way to make money of course. Through some combination of good ideas, timing, environment, luck etc. companies end up with very different business models. Here it looks like Facebook is trending toward one which requires an "adversarial" relationship with the user. We're seeing hints that their need to reach profitability is starting to go against the best interest of their users. Sure you can still make money that way. But that road is ugly. Down that road you end up with health insurance companies whose profits rely on denying coverage to people who tought they had paid for it. Shady calling cards where they put obstacles in your way so you can't fully use the advertised number of minutes. Sleezy subscription schemes that generate profits by making it difficult to cancel even when you are entitled to. Everyone knows that world, those businesses you just hate, the ones you complain about. Those are simply businesses where the company's incentives are not aligned with the users'.

In that sense, Facebook today is eerily reminiscent of AOL in the late 1990s. Facebook is the king of social networks with something like 300 million users. AOL was the king of Internet access providers, with 30 million users paying $20/month! (Here's an interesting side question: I wonder how Facebook users as a percentage of total Internet users today, compares to AOL subscribers as a percentage of total Internet population in 1999? I wouldn't be surprised if it's roughly the same.) And at the very peak of its dominance, AOL was showing the same signs. Instead of letting their users just go to any website directly, they had this limited proprietary system with "rooms", "keywords", "channels", their own content, their own applications, etc. The reason was because they were stuck in a business model of a closed online service from the 1980s. So even though they knew the open network was infinitely better, they were devoted to a doomed goal of keeping the users inside their own closed world. Inevitably their users realized they could get more for less: pay $10/month to a no-name ISP, use a free browser and just surf the web... ("surf the web" sounds so quaint doesn't it?) And they started leaving AOL in droves. Even after merging with Time Warner, AOL couldn't capitalize on the shift to broadband. They remained desperately focused on trying to keep subscribers from leaving the old "America On Line", they became a monster that took adversarial customer relations to a whole new level, before finally giving up in 2006. (By the way all this has little to do with what AOL is today in 2009).

To be sure.... Wow for a long time, I've wanted to start a paragraph with "To be sure ...", and this is the first! But I digress.

To be sure, despite the dramatic title of this post, and despite the fact that I've picked on them once before, it's far from over for Facebook. They may yet decide to give the users the obvious flexibility, and make enough money with higher quality ad targetting when the users naturally come to the site anyway. Maybe they will find new ways to advertise as messages flow openly in and out of their network, or maybe they will figure out brand new business models. Whatever the case is, they do have one great thing going for them. Execution. They know how to get things done. You don't get to 300 million users by being stupid or lazy. They just need to make sure they are not smartly and expertly marching off a cliff.

Ornella Muti, isn't she beautiful?
The title of this post by the way is from a novel by one my favorite authors. Not his best novel, but a great title. And a pretty good movie too.


  1. Could the de-digitization of your email address be partly out of concern for spam after all, since fb apps typically get access to your profile? But yeah, I hope Google eats fb soon, fixes the interface issues you mention, and makes everything on fb searchable (by me, I mean).

    But then we'll still be in the hands of a corporate monopoly. What if someone wrote a benevolent fb app that collected all my data, including friend connections, and made it available for export to a free fb alternative? Could voluntary micropayments fund the hosting/maintenance/development of this alternative? I guess that's just a pipe dream.

    On the other hand, if the powers-that-be-fb become too annoying, I guess the various functions that fb provides will be filled by other web-apps. For example, these days I use fb mostly to share links with friends, and I'm told there exist other social bookmarking services ;) For status updates, there is Twitter. And so on.

  2. krzys, Re: an app that allows everyone to export their data, I think that could be useful as a backup in case something happens to your account.

    As far as creating an alternative, not just like that... not unless somehow everyone switches at the same time. A social network is useless without critical mass.

    But anyway I don't wish the death of Facebook! Just pointing out that it may be on a wrong evolutionary path. And if that proves to be the case, then yes, others like Twitter and Friend Feed can easily fill the need and new needs, just like Facebook overtook Myspace.

    Twitter by the way seems to have the opposite philosophy of Facebook. They make go out of their way to make it easier to integrate with other communication tools.

  3. I guess they were listening.
    Very smart move by FB... Hope they don't make FF more "closed" though!

  4. I wonder how Facebook users as a percentage of total Internet users today, compares to AOL subscribers as a percentage of total Internet population in 1999? I wouldn't be surprised if it's roughly the same.

    Well using the crudest data available, I can tell you FB is about twice as popular today as AOL was in 2000 (in the US alone). But the article is on point and you've aptly demonstrated your prescience.