Facebook’s recently-released roadshow spells out the social network’s mission clearly: to become a general-purpose website. A general-purpose website would imply that users use a single social network for most of their online interaction, irrespective of its format or nature. Some may argue its already well on its way there.
When Facebook started in 2004, it was aiming to be a personal platform where college students could be updated about their friends’ lives. Since its launch, Facebook’s focus has been on these personal interactions. The turning point in Facebook’s journey to becoming a general-purpose website came when Facebook allowed third party applications to be integrated with the website. Today, Facebook hosts applications like BranchOut (which has come to be known as the LinkedIn for Facebook), The Social Reader (your source of news on Facebook), and fan pages to almost every small and big musician, movie, café, and anything else you’d like to tell your friends about. Facebook has become a social media mogul that wants its users to be able to reflect their offline lives in the virtual world with complete transparency. This doesn’t come as a shock; after all, everyone has heard Zuckerburg talking about how Facebook is aimed at making the world a better place by giving users a platform to be themselves. Facebook’s justification for this path is clear: if they want 900 million people to express themselves with ease, Facebook needs to have apps that facilitate the process.
So, what are the results of becoming a general-purpose website? For users, they’re not all good. Consider BranchOut for example. BranchOut is an app built on Facebook that lets you use your personal connections for professional networking purposes. But herein lies the contradiction in becoming a general-purpose website: to invite people to BranchOut you need to be Facebook friends with the invitee. This means one would have to be friends with their boss or professor to add them to their professional network. The Facebook team would defend this and say that everything about Facebook is an opt-in, which means users have autonomous control of every aspect of their profiles. They have the power to limit their pictures, their status updates or their wall altogether. While this is definitely helpful, two problems still prevail. One is that since everyone is an expert Facebook user, you can easily tell when you are added on the infamous ‘limited profile.’ Second is that despite all the controls it hampers your interactions in the personal realm. For example, if I want to have a profile picture that will be a laugh-riot amongst my friends but inappropriate for my boss to see, the fact that I am not openly expressing to my friend circle is limiting my personal interactions and hence contradicts the notion of complete transparency.
This is where speciality social networks win. With LinkedIn you’ll never have this problem. This is because you aren’t expected to bring your entire identity to the website, but only a part of it. Zuckerburg has famously said that you only have one identity. We’d like to politely point out that one identity doesn’t mean a person cannot have different roles. In fact, in an article for Tech.Li, Andrew Torba writes that real life requires you to have different roles that are often kept exclusive of one another. This is the point where a general-purpose website becomes problematic because it isn’t in sync with real life. It is unnatural for people to share a large chunk of their personal and professional information at once. When a general-purpose network tries to put all these roles in one online profile, it has to be cautious.
The best way for general-purpose networks to coexist with speciality social networks is to understand that the zooming lens for the two will always vary. Facebook will be the network that reflects different facets of your online interactions and creates a picture of your identity, while speciality networks like LinkedIn will provide detailed information in one particular role. You do have only one identity, and if we are to reflect the complexity of our real life dynamics on the web, we require the co-existence of general-purpose and specialty social networks on the web.