What if Facebook was the Master Switch?

by Ian Rosenwach on 3.21.2011

In this post I’ll combine concepts from two books I read recently – “The Facebook Effect” (review here) by David Kirkpatrick, and “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu.

In “The Master Switch” (review here) Wu mentions Facebook three times, each in passing.  He doesn’t choose to go into how the FB phenomena will impact how we consume content, and how information empires shift with these changes.  I’d be curious to hear his take on Facebook as the next “Information Empire”.

The first “Master Switch” was switchboard operators.  People called over the phone, told them what they wanted, and they connected them.  Sound familiar?

Then Google automated this.

Enter Facebook

But what is people didn’t need to even know what they’re looking for anymore, but were being automatically connected constantly to relevant information?  Your friends become the switchboard operators.

Nick Carr has a good quote in today’s NY Times about how Silicon Valley historically disrupts the state of media:

The story of the last decade or so has been a huge shift in value from the media companies, which produced the content, to Silicon Valley, where companies like Google and Netflix came up with newer, more convenient and far less lucrative — at least for the media companies — ways to distribute it.

The content distribution continuum would look like this: Cable TV -> Google -> Facebook

With Cable TV consumers got a wider choice of TV channels, beyond just the big three (NBC, ABC, CBS).  With Google, a huge swath of content at your fingertips.  With Facebook, content is filtered by your friends to remove the need for a keyword.

A New Master Switch

Facebook is accessible on a web browser with an Internet connection, same as Google.  So that part of the network doesn’t need to change.  There are some complications around mobile (apps and browsers) but it’s essentially data delivered over a network directly to a single consumer.

FB drives content consumption in two ways:

  1. Friends as a referral source to find new content
  2. Friends as the content creators themselves.

People use FB to get a combination of #1 and #2.  With #2 they add value that Google does not today, and where there’s the most open questions.  But which one will drive Facebooks future?

A Prediction

One key to Facebook’s success may be how effective they are in bringing professional content onto Facebook.

I think FB they will start getting more aggressive about letting users view pro and semi-pro content within Facebook.   In terms of video, audio, and more.  Facebook Q&A was a start of this.  Today image content (friends pictures) is a huge part of their business.

The best way to reach FB users as a Media Company today is probably a Facebook App.  But my sense is Media Companies is having a hard time to cut through the clutter.

FB may want to start cutting deals with the major content companies to get their content in Facebook and in front of users.  There’s also the fact that FB extends its social graph to 3rd parties to improve their service, including big Media.  This is the operating system model, and fodder for another post!

Content created by friends may be fun, but it also could hamper growth in the long run and make it hard for FB to take on the role of the Master Switch.

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