There wasn’t a lot of outright prophecy emerging from the Dreamforce conference three weeks ago, but Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff did say this:
“Facebook is eating the Web. And the Web is getting smaller now, and we’re trying to get our heads around it, and we’re seeing it in Arab Spring.”
What this means is that Facebook is not a true citizen of the Web (despite its http:// address), but an agent of revolutionary upheaval, upsetting the dictatorial establishment. This from a company whose own name ends in .com.
Well, that didn’t take long, did it? Thomas Jefferson once believed the world needed a good revolution every few generations or so just to shake out the cobwebs; online business apparently needs at least an artificial one every four to five years to keep attendance up at conferences. The idea that Facebook is “eating the Web,” as opposed to “Facebook is the Web,” comes about because American businesses do not actually perceive the Web as interconnected. Facebook, by contrast, is.
Earlier today, my colleague David Strom demonstrated the similarities between the Facebook of today and the AOL, or “America Online” as it was once known, of 20 years ago.
The problem is that the Web, from the perspective of business, never really took AOL’s place. It was never a single meeting place for prospective customers. Instead, it was more like a digital planet, and any customer acquisition that took place there required building one’s own storefront and doing one’s own marketing. Google came along at the right moment with a system that professed maximum fairness, by giving everyone equal access to a platform, equal space and time to make its pitch, and an equal share of the cut for those who helped promote the platform. But as Marc Benioff would probably be too happy to profess, socialism didn’t work out the first time, either.
Facebook offers businesses its own brand of access and indeed, a better branding tool. Your prospective customers are all here in one place, gathered together under the illusion of a social fabric; never mind whether they’re actually talking with one another or not, never mind whether the carrots or cattle they’re raising in Farmville are real.
The proof, Benioff pointed out, can be seen in TV commercials: Where businesses once posted their Web addresses, they now display a big, bright, blue “f.” Facebook is the connection point, the type of nexus that AOL was in its heyday. They’re here, their minds are open to new messages, and they’re all just itching to click “Like.”
Facebook’s perceived value to businesses has nothing really to do with its being a social network. Thus, any competitor seeking to dethrone Facebook — whether from Google or elsewhere on the Web or from another planet — does not need to be a better social network. It just needs a better value proposition, which may be why Facebook revolutionizes itself every six months or so. It’s not just to shake out the cobwebs and incite revolution, but to pre-empt evolution from rendering permanent Facebook’s social status as the next AOL.