How connected is your company to the internet?
It seems like kind of a silly question. Every internet startup is part of the internet tautologically — we’re long past the days where AOL and other private services ruled the roost.
Yet the question still has some merit, albeit in a less explicit way — nowadays, the more meaningful inquiry has become: “Do your users feel your site is part of the larger internet, or do they feel isolated from it?”
Google, amusingly, is an example of both potential answers. Web search is naturally and fundamentally bound up with the internet, as virtually every click takes you away from google. A property like GMail, by contrast, encourages people to live in the product, consuming explicitly. Users like this model, too — ergo, the repeated calls for GMail to integrate products like Reader and Voice into a single experience.
Certainly, both approaches have their own advantages. A closed network like GMail or Facebook allows the potential creation of network effects, protecting products against upstart competitors by virtue of insularity, while an integrated product like websearch links its fortunes to a ship much larger than itself. Google web search’s success is contingent on the rise and fall of the internet’s overall fortunes, while Facebook’s failure would mean little to the larger internet as a whole.
Consider the traditional Facebook user experience (previous to the current redesigns); most of the actions performed on Facebook lead the user back to engaging on Facebook more. Searching for friends, looking at updates, using apps and playing games — they all wholly exist in Facebook’s microcosm. Even in its ad networks, I’ve heard anecdotally that many of the most successful campaigns being run on Facebook have other Facebook pages as landing pages (ultimately, this may be part of the reason social networks have had such a difficult time monetizing).
Clearly, Facebook recognized that this fundamental issue was connected to the failures of some of their earlier attempts to connect with the outside internet (for example, Beacon). This may partially explain Facebook’s move away from platform and towards connect, as well as the UI’s evolution to a more twitter-like model. By encouraging people to participate off-site and to view Facebook less as an island, they can hopefully retain their already-constructed network effects while hitching themselves to the larger internet’s success.
Where, then, to make of twitter? By conscious design or fortunate coincidence, twitter’s design allows it to bridge this gap. Certainly, it retains some of the internet-island characteristics that Facebook has — your entire social network is captured and retained on twitter. This may be a wise decisions — so far we have yet to see meaningful distributed/federated identity services.
At the same time, twitter *feels* more like a part of the internet. Two factors, in my opinion, enhance this feeling: First, by focusing on separating the service from presentation and enabling third-party twitter apps, users do not feel like every action necessarily contains them within the service. Second, one of Twitter’s primary uses has become for sharing links (something facebook has attempted to do numerous times, and may only now be starting to succeed).
Can you build a profitable business out of an island? Absolutely. Everyone from AOL to Apple has shown that if you create an service that links only to itself, you can still make money by charging for that service, provided it’s unique and valuable enough. However, I have yet to see models emerge that allow services to isolate themselves without charging — Facebook is starting to reach profitability, but there’s no doubt it’s been a tortuous path for them to get there considering their size and addictiveness.
Does this mean, then, twitter will be more successful at monetizing than Facebook has? Possibly — in light of the extra $100M they raised today, it seems there are many who believe so. Regardless, this is a question every internet product needs to ask itself — are you in the internet, or are you alone?