Last Tuesday I was at a They Might Be Giants concert in Dallas, and amidst the usual witty banter between the Johns, John Flansburgh asked the audience “So do you think we should get on this Facebook thing?” There were some strong boos and some strong yeas, but to my surprise the majority of the crowd remained silent, or merely chuckling at the question itself.
The truth is, Facebook isn’t something people associate with music (though Facebook is trying to change that with their partnership with iTunes). I guarantee there were multiple people in the audience turning to their friends and whispering “Isn’t that what MySpace is for?” Just like it might be weird to get a Facebook Friend request after taking a business meeting with someone, but it might be appropriate on LinkedIn. Each site is, when all the initial excitement wears off, a tool for a specific purpose.
MySpace is for entertainment. It allows full creativity in making your profile as ugly as you dare, and is a hub for up-and-coming musical and comedy acts to share their material and plug themselves. Gone are the days of promoters and street team managers—bands manage all that by messaging their MySpace “friends.” It used to also be for people, but that was only when people on the internet were a form of entertainment, rather than an extension of real life.
Now Facebook is for people. People being the majority of people who don’t go to the internet looking for new relationships necessarily, but just want to keep track of what their real life friends are up to. Therein lies the beauty of the Social Graph—Facebook is a tool for keeping track of real life friends. Facebook has thus focused on communication and photos.
LinkedIn has survived in the face of possibly the worst design in internet history (recently upgraded to workable) because ultimately it was a very good tool for keeping track of business contacts (it’s syncing to Outlook was a fan favorite). In fact, one could argue that the poor design and difficulty in navigation may have been something of a comfort to business people who often see computers that way in the first place. If Facebook or MySpace (or Google's Orkut) buys LinkedIn and tries to integrate it, they will need to focus on the business-specific aspects of the site and be sure not to alienate long-time users by taking the focus away from that functionality.
Look at some of the other big guns: Google’s homepage is famously simple, focusing entirely on its search tool; Craigslist does nothing but provide a tool for online classifieds; eBay went through a craze, but now gets most of its traffic from stores and most of its revenues from PayPal (a smart pickup when they were on top of the world), both tools for facilitating ecommerce between existing merchants and everyday consumers; YouTube won in video not because it was the best in a lot of ways, but because it was the easiest tool to share videos with friends.
In the end, every truly successful website will boil down to being a tool—the others will have their fads, but will die off relatively quickly if they don’t evolve into valuable tools. While we have a fascination with this internet thing as though it were in an infomercial on tv, in the long run it’s going to boil down to a new set of tools for humans to get around their everyday lives. But perhaps by then we’ll be entertaining ourselves by taking family vacations to Mars.