Many people talk about how Facebook is going right after Twitter. This is comical since the two social networks are barely in the same arena. Facebook raced ahead while Twitter stagnated on growth and struggled to expand beyond its core utility. Twitter is making money, but Facebook has resources to burn and it’s investing in all kinds of big ideas that could change not just the way we engage on the social platform, but how we live in the world.
The more I look at Facebook, the more I see another tech giant with global ambitions: Google.
Facebook is a social network. Except Facebook doesn’t see itself that way.
Facebook is a social network. Except Facebook doesn’t see itself that way. In a recent Bloomberg profile Facebook’s chief product guy Chris Cox calls Facebook “a medium.” It’s a content platform and, to a certain extent, a shaper of thoughts and ideas through the content it presents: “The medium is the message.”
Seen that way, Facebook is a far more fungible platform, capable of integrating into multiple parts of our lives and, perhaps, taking on those that might not seem like natural competitors.
As I listened to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg answer questions on their 2015 full-year earnings call on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think about the amount of runway this company has ahead of it. It’s still growing at a breakneck pace, countering the flat trajectory of U.S. and Canada growth with leaps from Asia, Europe and the “Rest of the World.” Two-thirds of those on Facebook, 1 billion people, check in every single day and Facebook is converting them, making mounds of advertising revenue. Last year advertising revenue (much of it from mobile) grew 57%.
Facebook is strong. And now I think it can take on Google (and others).
For Facebook, the key to success is not just getting users to visit Facebook once a day, dipping in and out of shared and native content, it’s getting them to stay and essentially live in Facebook’s world.
Facebook can’t achieve this goal without search.
Yes, there is a form of search in Facebook now. It looks at posts inside the network and does a decent job of revealing associated users and content, but there is, obviously, a vast world of information outside of Facebook that, for the most part, is Google’s purview.
I propose that Facebook add a global search as part of the search bar. Right now, that bar explicitly says “Search Facebook.” What if Facebook changed it to just “Search” and the results front-loaded Facebook content, but then also presented results of the Internet at large. Clicking on Search could start by presenting the option of searching either within or outside of Facebook.
Facebook could license Bing search results. The social network has a longstanding (and financial) friendship with Microsoft. Facebook could integrate Bing results. I know, Facebook dropped Bing a couple of years ago in favor of Graph Search, but it was mostly devoted to internal results. I want more. On the desktop, Facebook could even integrate the new Microsoft Edge Web browser engine so that Web search results could still be viewed within Facebook.
Facebook as both medium and platform.
The other option, my preference, is for Facebook to build its own search engine. Remember, they’re building some powerful artificial intelligence in Facebook’s labs that could be used to power a more heuristic search machine. As Zuckerberg said on Wednesday, their visual AI can “see a new image and answer questions about it.” That kind of intelligence can intuit a lot of information from graphical and text information indexed from the Web. If Facebook is smart, though, it will build a search engine that does not try to organize the world’s information, but instead triangulates with existing interests on Facebook. At least that’s how it could quickly build a search engine to start.
Facebook is already hard at work on a virtual assistant known, for now, as M. MIT’s Technology Review described it as able to handle “more complex queries than Siri.” So far, only a few hundred people have tried it out, but M seems to be able to tie together everything Facebook knows about you with Facebook’s effective Messenger tool and a lot of heuristic reasoning.
Virtual assistants like Facebook M seem to do best when they get to piggyback on a coveted piece of hardware.
Virtual assistants like Facebook M seem to do best when they get to piggyback on a coveted piece of hardware. Siri arrived with the iPhone 4S and Amazon Alexa rolled in on the cylindrical Echo. Google Now has, I think, achieved a little less notoriety because it’s not on a singular piece of hardware, but many third-party smartphones of varying capability. Some of them highlight Google Now, others seem to want to push it aside for their own smart software.
I know Facebook’s hardware track record is bad, but the market is now primed for this kind of product, and world domination requires some kind of physical instantiation. Maybe a small, dark-blue dome. In addition to answering questions about the weather and news and searching the web, Facebook M hardware will be a social citizen. You’ll be able to add text posts, have it read your newsfeed to you, comment and, yes, even like posts.
Facebook is already working with media companies to create native Facebook content. They’re probably having the most luck with video (Sandberg said 500 million are watching video on Facebook every day). What if Facebook went a step further? What if my hypothetical M-come includes an HDMI output for delivering Facebook content to your HDTV. A lot of it, initially, will be Facebook News Feed content, but users will also be able to select posts and native videos to play full-screen.
At some point, Facebook could add a content library similar to Google Play, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.
Facebook is already actively trying to connect the world to the Internet and, by extension, Facebook. Most of this activity is aimed at developing nations. Here in the U.S. (and Canada), Facebook could jump-start those stagnating growth numbers by offering a new connection option. I suggest Facebook Air.
Right now, Google Fiber connects fewer than 20 locations and it pretty much ignores the Midwest. Facebook could — assuming they cut through a ton of red tape — bring its connectivity drones to states like Colorado, Montana and South and North Dakota. If the drone idea doesn’t fly (a real possibility), Facebook could try Facebook Fiber, instead.
Okay, not all of these ideas are gems, but I am convinced that Facebook has a huge opportunity before it. It can take on Google, Amazon and maybe even the world if it takes the idea that it’s a medium seriously.