Facebook the Swiss Army Knife

Swiss Army Knife

In the tech press, there’s a running narrative that goes something like this: “First there was Friendster but then everyone moved to MySpace. Then everyone moved to Facebook and Twitter… and where will everyone move next? Google+? Path?”

That narrative misses the big picture.

As a heavy user of the web, I regularly use maybe a dozen web services / tools with social affordances (e.g. profiles, status updates, comments, groups, private messages, photo sharing, live chat, Q&A, document sharing), including Gmail, Hacker News, Google Docs, Stack Overflow, Twitter, Google Groups, Google Sites, Second Life, Skype and Facebook.

I use maybe 30 other services / tools with social affordances, including Amazon.com, Etsy, github, Goodreads, the Behance Network, StumbleUpon, Tumblr, WordPress.com, Meetup.com, OSgrid, Bookcrossing, hunch, Elance, Nature Network, Disqus, Vimeo, deviantART, Ning, Flickr, Bookmooch, eBay and more.

I use each of those services for a different reason. They aren’t interchangeable. Each one serves its own niche. deviantART is for visual artists who want to share their latest drawings and 2D art. Goodreads is for book lovers. github is for software developers sharing code. Elance helps people find freelancers to do jobs (and freelancers to get jobs). 500px is for pro photographers to share their best photos.

What’s Facebook’s niche? You can do lots of things there… share photos, post status updates, join groups,  follow celebrities… But is there something Facebook is the best at, a feature they offer that no other service does better? Maybe it’s the best tool for finding relatives, old friends and colleagues with low effort, like a magic phone book? Maybe Facebook is like a big club, where almost everyone is a member so non-members feel social pressure to join (but the benefits of membership are unclear)?

As far as I can tell, Facebook is like a Swiss Army Knife. It can do many things, but nothing really well.

Aside 1: MySpace started as a niche site where indy bands could post their music and get discovered. They were awesome at that. Then they tried to become good at everything and lost their soul. Wanna hear a good joke? MySpace is currently owned by a company named “Specific Media LLC”.

Aside 2: Google+ is interesting because it augments a bunch of pre-existing stand-alone niche services / tools which are already best-in-class, like YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar. Facebook has nothing equivalent to those.

Photo Credits: The photo of the Swiss Army Knife is by IK’s World Trip on Flickr, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.