Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is Facebook a Gateway Drug?

I was reading an article on Techdirt this morning on "Why Facebook Can't Become Twitter: Its Closed Nature." The article talks about how Facebook's privacy features prevent it from becoming more like Twitter, since Twitter is all about openness while Facebook tries to ensure that you are communicating only to the people you choose to communicate to. In Techdirt terms, this is a weakness of Facebook -- "closed" is synonymous on that blog with "bad." They are so adamant on that point that they continue to assert that Apple is missing out on huge opportunities by controlling their software and hardware -- the same Apple that makes billions by ensuring the quality of their customer experience. But I digress.

It is correct that Facebook is more closed than Twitter. It is also true that this fact keeps Facebook from adapting in certain ways, and could act as a restraint on their ability to evolve. But the same closed nature makes a platform like Facebook far more attractive to a certain type of consumer.

I spend time on Facebook, and I dabble in Twitter, but my wife does neither of these things. She's not a Luddite, per se -- she loves her iBook -- but she's not into technology or the Web the way I am. Every now and then we talk about online services, and her primary concern in this arena is privacy. Her personal connections tend to be few but quite close, and she's repelled at the idea of just anyone being able to read what she writes or view her status. Something like Google Latitude scares her to death.

My wife, in short, will never use Twitter. Not only does she not see the point, but she would never want to broadcast little facts about her life to anyone who happens to follow her. But I could see her, in time, moving to Facebook. If Facebook were not a closed platform, she would not be willing to make that move.

In this way, I think, Facebook -- and other closed services -- are like gateway drugs. They give you a taste of what's possible, but they protect you from falling too far down the rabbit hole. If you find that you like it, maybe you venture a little further out into the many ways that the Web allows you to publish your life. But for many, many people, Facebook will be just fine. They'll be happy with that degree of disclosure and no more.

Techdirt's big blind spot is they assume that everyone is the same. They take it for granted that we'd all be using open source software and building our own PCs from components if we had the chance, but the truth is that most of us would rather not bother. We buy Apple computers because we like that some decisions -- the ones we find to be boring and aggravating -- are made for us, by people we've learned to trust. We use software with built-in limits because those limits contribute to an overall experience that we find attractive.

We like our gateway drugs, not in spite of their limitations, but because of them.