Facebook jumps into and out of the news like a Jack-in-the-box who's had too much caffeine, but this last week has seen an unusual amount of officially announced Facebook tweaks, as well as a bit of saber rattling regarding its future plans. Something is up in Zuckerberg's blue-hued social network.
The biggest change Facebook made this week was a long-awaited overhaul to its deplorably (and legally criticized) complex privacy settings: From now on, users have much more granular control over what they share with whom when they update their statuses, because you can choose how private to make each and every update.
This is being hailed as a great move, because it means users no longer have to navigate through Facebook's obscure privacy settings screens—requiring a flurry of clicks to adjust how open or closed your Facebook profile is. The company has even made it easy, within a click of the mouse or two, to preview what your profile looks like to different people.
Historically, however, Facebook has been cavalier and aggressive in pushing to redefine privacy online—with its social network in the fore. By enabling a per-update privacy maneuver, Facebook is most definitely tempting users to post much more content to the entire network rather than to their trusted friends only. Without having to adjust their "global" security settings all the time, more carefree users could start sharing their photos with everyone.
At some point, perhaps Facebook will pull a signature switcheroo, and make its new system "default:all" so users have to select privacy for every status update.
Meanwhile, Google+ is hailed for having numerous features Facebook "should have" but doesn't, including better privacy management. Facebook is not under serious threat from Google+ now, but this kind of PR is bad for it. Google+ is being used to drive Google's future real-time search capabilities, as well.
Meanwhile, Twitter's about to get a boost through deep integration in Apple's iOS 5 upgrade, which may grab some social network attention away from Facebook because the iPhone is the world's most popular single brand of smartphone. By boosting its privacy, and enabling a potentially more public sharing mode, Facebook is trying to keep its customers and future sweet.
There's also the matter of the FCC. Ahead of its hotly anticipated IPO, Facebook probably wants to look like it's acting in the best interests of its consumers—and boosting the granularity of privacy controls is one easy way to do this.
Facebook tried to buy Instagram, but was rebuffed. So it's trying an "if you can't join 'em, beat 'em" trick and is offering effects filters for photos shared through it rather than a separate app like Hipstamatic or Instagram.
What's going on here is that there's a booming social sharing meme going on that's outside of Facebook's controls. It likes to think of itself as a repository and sharing vehicle for photos and videos—and it is—but Instagram and other apps are innovating and having their own social activities organized around images, and sometimes mediated through Twitter. If Facebook can grab some of this limelight, then it may tempt some smartphone users to use Facebook's system rather than a rival's. That helps Facebook keep more eyes-on-ads.
Facebook's director of corporate development Vaughan Smith gave an interview this week in which he stated that the company was in the mood to make about 20 acquisitions this year—seven more than its current figure, which includes names like Push Pop Press. That's double the number for 2010, and 20 times more than 2009's figure. The most recent feature spin-off from an acquisition is Facebook's own group messaging service on iPhones and Androids, which comes from the tech of a firm called Beluga that it bought in February and is a rival to instant messaging features that others have planned, such as Apple's iMessage.
One big market for Facebook, which really could dramatically alter its user numbers, is China. For now Facebook simply cannot penetrate this market, as its open discussion frameworks would permit Chinese citizens to have the kinds of discussions the government would prefer that they didn't (they're even squeezing locally approved Twitter clones on this matter). Nevertheless, it's known that Facebook is in negotiations to try to launch a China product.
These plans were dealt a nasty blow this week when Microsoft inked a deal between its MSN and RenRen, which is China's rough equivalent of Facebook. It may influence Facebook's future plans to get millions more users logged into its massive database and bolted into its revenue generating streams.
Facebook also revealed details for its upcoming F8 Developer's conference. It's happening September 22nd, and Facebook is promsing "exciting product announcements that enable a new class of social apps." Since 2010's conference saw the arrival of its Open Graph API and the "like" button, this could be very big news.
So I Said Hey, What's Going On?
Picking through the threads here, it's possible to draw one conclusion: Facebook is growing up. As it approaches IPO it'll have to demonstrate a little more level-headedness, a little bit more responsible corporate governance, a growth plan, a less legally dubious attitude to personal privacy erosion and so on. This doesn't jibe with Mark Zuckerberg's shy, but doggedly determined management style, nor his dismissive attitude toward privacy doomsayers.
Facebook's current investors, already making a profit from secondary market trading, may be behind this, grooming the entire business so that it can slip through a smooth and lucrative IPO and scale to new, geographic markets.