Not too long ago, you would fire up your browser, point it to www.google.com, and that little search box would take you anywhere you wanted on the Internet. You’d read up on the news, see what the world was up to, check your emails, and maybe indulge in a bit of forum flame-war on the side.
Today, the first port of call for many is not Google, but Facebook. We wake up in the morning, check our mobiles or our laptop, and Facebook tells us what our friends are up to and what they think of what you thought or said or did.
Our news we get from our social newsfeeds, curated by those we connect to. Convergence theory comes into play here, pointing out that we are more likely to share interests in common with our friends, and so for many, these human-curated newsfeeds are exponentially better than any RSS feed or Google Alert. Our forums have died out; now we argue across pages, comment threads and instant group conversations. Our emails are still hanging in there, but most of that has now moved to Facebook chats. Unless it’s something official, it just makes no sense to go to a second site anymore.
Indeed, for many, Facebook is the representation of the web. In Sri Lanka, there are thousands who, when queried, will say “Internet na (I don’t have Internet access) habai Facebook yanna puluwang (but I CAN go on Facebook).” In their minds, Facebook is so self-sufficient that it literally is the be-all-end-all of the Internet.
Facebook is on its way to become even more self-sufficient now, thanks to recent features that let publishers post their content directly onto Facebook itself. Incidentally, it also is now an advertising behemoth, getting advertisers to pay and promote content on their pages. And while Google has its moonshot projects like Loon, Facebook has its own utterly-out-of-the-box projects – including Internet.org, the quest to connect everyone on the planet for free. So far, Internet.org connects 1 billion people – about a seventh of the world’s population. It’s buying startups left, right and center – WhatsApp, Occulus, the works
Google is famous for “knowing everything”. But Facebook knows everything personal: what your friends are thinking, what they’re reading, watching, where they’re been, who they’re dating.
In order to understand where they stand, we have to examine the foundation on which these two companies are built. Google is built on a search engine. When is debuted, there were other search engines, but Google did it exponentially better. Google is built on the core tenets of finding information.
Facebook is built on the power of humans connecting to each other. There were other social networks when Facebook debuted, but like Google it was exponentially better than the competition. Facebook is about sharing information as opposed to finding it. You don’t necessarily search for stuff. You are shown stuff. A social network and a search engine are two fundamentally different things (and despite Google’s effort’s to integrate the two, they seem to prefer being separate. On is a search for knowledge. The other is validation of your existence.
While Google’s structure mirrors an librarian, Facebook represents the chatter that you get when a group of friends meet and hang out, combined with phone calls, combined with perhaps a touch of a public assembly and some tabloids thrown in for good measure – in short, it mirrors society better than the library. The information there is often nowhere near as accurate as the library, but it the emotional connecitons and the social weight it carries often trumps the clean, precise and algorithmic selection of knowledge that Google offers. At some point, this mirror world becomes large and powerful enough (in its functionality) that it begins to fulfill most of our needs – communication, validation, discussion. The search for facts becomes less and less important – how many of us, after all, have picked going to the library over hanging out with a few friends?
We’re standing on the verge of a paradigm shift. While it’s ridiculous to suggest that Facebook has the kind of traffic Google does, more and more people are willing to lock themselves into a network within a network because all their needs are satisfied.
And Facebook, showing the kind of brilliant, moonshot thinking that characterizes Google, is pushing even harder to become the nexus for all things. Soon, if things go this way, your connection will likely be subsidized by Internet.org. Your news articles you will get from Facebook – published directly inside the platform, without having to even click a link to an external site. Entertainment? Why, have you not noticed Facebook’s apps? They’ve built a complete entertainment ecosystem, virtually killing Flash gaming in the process. Nobody goes to Miniclip.com anymore: everyone goes to Candy Crush or Farmville. Facebook has even replaced business websites, to a certain extent: a Facebook Page is faster and cheaper to set up, easier to operate and fulfills the needs of most small businesses these days. Facebook, in short, is becoming an Internet unto itself.
I wonder how long it’ll take before the entire world’s population is connected to Facebook (via www.internet.org) for free and all the content you could ever want to read is also on Facebook, so that you wouldn’t need sites anymore. I wonder what happens to search then.