Facebook's fatal attraction

Once upon a time, a company named Yahoo! found its core value proposition: providing a browseable and searchable directory of the Internet. Later, it tried to cement its position as launch pad for the Internet by adding e-mail, contacts, and other handy tools.

Other search sites made it feel vulnerable, and people started talking about portals. "The [portals] future of the [portals] Internet is portals," the experts said. "Portals portals portals. And, to sum up, portals."

But what would ensure that people would come to Yahoo!'s portal, instead of someone other vendor's? "Content!" the management team exclaimed. And as a result, Yahoo! tried to position itself as a content provider, instead of an Internet directory, or the place where you got your e-mail. Yahoo's front page mutated into a confusing mish-mash of news and entertainment niblets that you didn't care about, getting in the way of the stuff you actually wanted, because Yahoo! had created a business model that depended on shoveling crap (i.e., advernewstainment) at you.

That story didn't have a happy ending.

Flash forward several years. Technorati became a successful company with name-brand recognition among people interested in the nascent world of social media. As a blogger, you could track your success at reaching your audience, and you could discover who linked to your posts.

And then, for whatever reason, Technorati decided that wasn't enough. Instead, it needed to become a content provider. Today, if you go to Technorati's home page, it looks eerily like the average Yahoo! home page right after they decided to become a content company. Technorati got so excited about shoveling crap at you that, on launcing the "new Technorati," the old tools for bloggers only partially worked. (At least Yahoo! kept the e-mail and contacts features turned on.)

I can guess where the Technorati story is heading.

Now, Facebook wants to continue accruing users who will start their Internet browsing with Facebook, and continue checking into Facebook throughout the day. Amongst their weaponry is...Wait for it...Wait for it...Using Facebook as a news reader.

Now, that idea could just stop at the point where people add RSS feeds to their Facebook pages. Makes sense: If you're going to hang around Facebook all day, you might as well use the site to read the news that interests you.

On the other hand, it might not stop there. The siren song of being a content provider may lure another victim onto the reefs. It's not hard to imagine Facebook trying to monetize these sorts of feeds, or giving you a raft full of "friendly suggestions" of content that might interest you (a.k.a. a busy page of advernewstainment). Facebook has already embraced other forms of cheesy advertising, such as the alerts that suggest you should go do some micro-transactions to keep Facebook application providers in the black.

If there's any risk of the content provider tragedy happening again, someone in the PM team at Facebook needs to speak up now. Why do people use Facebook? To connect with friends. The applications are cute ways to connect with them in more ways than just posting and poking. Anything that interferes with that activity dilutes the core value of Facebook.  (And news feeds aren't the only source of potential dilution, by the way.)

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