Whenever a new product comes out that has the early adopter set all atwitter -- like say, Twitter, for example -- there is a certain amount of discussion devoted to when or if the product will go mainstream. Sometimes we're not even sure if a new web app or service maybe already has reached the masses. A lucky few new web apps will cross the proverbial chasm into the mainstream, but most won't. Some those that don't will nonetheless see their ideas co-opted by a site that is already undeniably mainstream -- Facebook.
A lot of sites that early adopters love probably won't fly with the mainstream because those users are a tougher sell. While most readers of this blog (early adopters) are willing to try a large number of new services each year, month, or even week, most casual users of the web can't be bothered. It takes a lot more to get them to invest time into a new service.
Facebook, on the other hand, has already captured the collective mind share of the mainstream and can take the good ideas set forth by early adopter hits and repackage them in ways that their users are more apt to consume.
A study (PDF) by Yahoo! and Ipsos Insight in 2005, found that at the time only 4% of Internet users had knowingly used RSS, but another 27% used it via start pages like MyYahoo! without being aware of what it was. I'm willing to bet that those numbers have improved, but I am also willing to bet that a similarly low percentage of Facebook users would know what a lifestream was -- even though they use one every day with the Facebook Mini-Feed.
Don't Look Now, But Facebook is Eating Your Lunch
Facebook has status updates that you can update via SMS (watch out Twitter), they have a news feed that now accepts 12 outside inputs (watch out FriendFeed), they have the biggest photo sharing site on the web (watch out Flickr), they have a built in chat application (watch out Meebo). These features were all added as an after thought. Facebook has taken the most buzzed about early adopter-targeted applications, and turned them into features for the mainstream.
But Facebook keeps my data locked up, you might say. FriendFeed gives me an RSS feed of my activity stream, Twitter does the same thing, and both sites have an API. Those are good points, but not for the average web user, who will more often than not respond with, "Who cares?" or "I don't know what the words you just said mean..."
It might be ironic that Facebook is porting data in from outside services, but not making it easy for users to go the other way with data created inside Facebook. But for most users, that thought probably doesn't ever occur. Most users don't care what's under the hood, they just care that a service does what they want or expect it to. Mainstream users aren't asking Facebook for data portability. That their status updates have to stay in Facebook doesn't matter.
In 2006, Marc Canter said, "Users do care [about data portability] if for no other reason than they're lazy and they don't (want) to have to create all those relationships and upload their photos -- all over again." I think, though, that he's actually not right. My unscientific survey of one average web user tonight led me to believe that mainstream users don't care about the things that early adopters do. Even after explaining what data portability was and its benefits, the response I got was, "So what? In the past 5 years I've used 3 social networks -- Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. I change services so infrequently, and the sign up process is so easy, taking my data with me doesn't seem like something I really need."
My guess is that mainstream users, by and large, are fine with their data staying in one place.
Of course that's also not the point. Data portability is important, and some day, because early adopters pushed for it, mainstream users won't say, "So what?" they'll say, "It's really cool that all my Facebook contacts are automatically in Yahoo! Mail," all the while still not really being aware of the concepts behind data portability. In the meantime, though, Facebook is taking the ideas that early adopters love, and co-opting them into features that mainstream users will learn to love, without mucking about with all those things that early adopters demand. (That's the point.)
I'm going to paraphrase something my colleague Sarah Perez said to me in a conversation discussing this post a couple of days ago. Facebook seems to have been built to let the entirety of web 2.0 flow into it. News feed (FriendFeed), status (Twitter), platform (web 2.0 apps/services), etc., Facebook is all about taking web 2.0 to the average, casual web user.
Will FriendFeed and Twitter go mainstream? You bet. But it will very likely be as features on Facebook. A commenter on our post yesterday about Facebook's new profile design noticed that the new design makes Facebook feel like an operating system. That's an astute observation and it seems to be where Facebook wants to go. Web 2.0 will flow through Facebook, and Facebook will become the mainstream everything. Will users stand for it? Early adopters certainly won't unless Facebook makes it easy to get out what we put in, but mainstream users might just let it happen (and probably won't really realize that it is happening).