As I have been thinking about my upcoming presentation at Web Directions South there have been a lot of interesting maneuvers out in the commercial web space.
First, a while back Facebook opened their platform to developers allowing content from other providers to interact with Facebook profiles in Facebook. This, coupled with the enormous media coverage that this move got, is in part the driver for Facebook’s phenomenal growth of late. ‘Facebook as a platform’ has made Facebook ‘sticky’ and given everyone who uses Facebook more reasons to go back to look at their profiles on a very regular basis. Whilst most of the Facebook applications are only marginally interesting (do we really need another chain letter-style application?), the best ones are those that turn a Facebook page into an aggregator of personalised content from other sites – Flickr, travel maps, Last.Fm, RSS feeds etc. People who have completely tricked-out Facebook profiles could (and this is what Facebook hopes) feasibly use Facebook as their home page and access everything they need via Facebook.
Now, Netvibes has come along and flipped this. Netvibes is a personalised aggregation portal a bit like iGoogle (formerly MyGoogle). We have been experimenting with it for the Culturemondo network (see the public Culturemondo Netvibes aggregation as an example)
Netvibes has developed a very nice Facebook widget, to bring Facebook’s own data into its network meaning that Facebook-specific data – notifications, friends and data from your profile can now be aggregated into Netvibes, making Netvibes the one stop ‘attention’ shop for tricked out Netvibes/Facebook users. As Mashable points out –
Facebook is now one of Netvibes’ biggest rivals. Before Facebook, who offered to aggregate your friend’s Flickr photos, YouTube videos, blogs and the rest? Netvibes, of course. In fact, Facebook profiles are now a lot like a Netvibes startpage.
So now that Facebook has stolen some of that sheen, they’d [Netvibes] obviously like to create a mini-Facebook within Netvibes, rather than losing users in the other direction. They want you to use Netvibes as your homepage, and visit Facebook only incidentally, rather than aggregating all your stuff at Facebook and never returning to Netvibes.
The tension is indicative of what’s happening with aggregators: they’re all motivated to keep you on their own platforms for as long as possible, rather than giving you absolute freedom to take your identity wherever you like. Right now, it’s hard to make money without owning the user’s identity in some way; user lock-in remains the strongest business model, even though superficially they exist to hand more control to you.
What is interesting here is that what is happening is much more than a battle over attention between two competitors. Facebook can close access to Netvibes but then risk a small proportion of users leaving its network (mostly the super tech-savvy, bleeding edge experimenters). On the other hand, Facebook’s own survival likely relies on them further opening their network – the initial steps towards openness, coupled with usability, is at least part of the reason why some users have started migrating profiles from MySpace, which remains defiantly closed.
The reality is, in the future, both Facebook, Netvibes, MySpace are all better off letting their users move freely between networks – that way they remain at least partially relevant, although in deep competition. Otherwise new audiences which are so critical to their business models and desirable to their advertisers, as Fred Stutzman points out, will go to whichever is ‘coolest’ at the time. Ross Dawson also comments on this, too, spotting a trend ‘towards openness’, pulling recent moves by Plaxo into the picture as well.
I’ll be coming back to this theme over the coming weeks. There are enormous opportunities for the cultural and non-profit sector here – if we can all adapt fast enough. Ideas of attention and brand are just as relevant for us as anyone, possibly more so with the limited budgets in our sector,