I’ve been thinking about Facebook lately. The recent Instagram terms of service kerfluffle reinvigorated my thinking, and this week’s events have made it clear that Instagram is definitely operating as Facebook at this point.
I’m thinking that in many ways, Facebook has become the Walmart of the internet.
Walmart attempts to be the store with everything. Whether you need groceries, clothing, toys, or ammunition, your local Walmart has it. They won’t have as broad of a selection as a specialty store for any of these things, and the staff won’t be as knowledgeable, but they’ve got enough to get by.
Facebook attempts to be a self-contained version of the internet. They’ll let you send messages, chat in real-time, share photos, play games, buy things, and write lengthy notes/posts. None of these features offers the same breadth of options or flexibility as dedicated websites or apps that perform similar functions, and I wish you luck on getting any help if things go wrong, but they do have a basic set of tools to interact online.
Walmart has a reputation for moving into towns, building a big store, and offering good-enough goods at a lower price than local retailers, causing some of those local retailers to go out of business. Facebook has expanded into some new areas, offerering good-enough software that has made it difficult for some niche software players to compete.
Walmart restricts some material from being sold in its stores, with a history of only stocking “sanitized” media where offensive language or themes have been removed. Facebook has a history of restricting topics of discussion, at times drawing the ire of groups such as breastfeeding mothers when some photos have crossed Facebook’s line of acceptable content.
Walmart’s position in the retail world allows it to do as it pleases, with employees, consumers, and suppliers stuck with the results. When there’s a public relations flare-up about a particular move, Walmart will back down a bit, but not entirely, leaving customers in a worse position while still appearing to save face.
Facebook’s position in the social networking space allows it to do as it pleases, with users and advertisers trailing along as Facebook chooses the path. If there’s a big outcry about something, Facebook will back off slightly, leaving users with something worse than before but not quite as bad as originally feared. This week’s Instagram changes are a good example, where the most offensive language has been removed from the terms of service but users are still left in a position with more of their content and personal data being subject to uncontrollable third party use.
Small businesses close, suppliers lose control, and consumers lose choices as Walmart moves forward.
Users lose privacy of their information, Facebook becomes more intrusive across the web as developers depend on its API, and Facebook is able to force unpopular changes upon its users as it strives for increased revenue.
It’s Not All Negative
Walmart and Facebook aren’t entirely bad.
It seems that that Walmart has a “low prices regardless of what we have to do to get there” mantra, and low prices mean that lower-income families can often stretch a dollar farther by shopping at a Walmart store.
Facebook’s attempt to bring a wide range of internet services onto their virtual property means that less-tech-savvy users are able to participate in a broad set of online experiences without having to discover, set up, and learn a variety of distinct independent web services.
I know good people who work for Walmart and make interesting things such as Walmart’s new mobile in-store shopping app. I’ve met and talked with smart Facebook employees who do good things like contribute Facebook code back to open source projects.
There Are Alternatives
For most people, there are alternatives to shopping at Walmart. One can choose to patronize a local business or a different chain store that might engage in less aggressive practices. Low prices are often the only factor that might seemingly lock someone into Walmart.
Plenty of web services offer alternatives to Facebook. Whereas price locks a small number of folks to Walmart, the overwhelming percentage of internet users that are on Facebook is the lock-in factor for the big social network.
If you’re not among the demographic where Walmart’s prices or locations are the only option by which you can survive, there are choices. Many consumers actively refuse to patronize Walmart based on the business’ practices, even though those consumers might pay a few dollars more for their merchandise.
If your internet friends and associates know how to use computers beyond Facebook, there are choices. These choices often provide more privacy and control of your data. Independent blogging platforms, photo hosting services, game systems, and other such applications and utilities are available for your use, even though your ability to connect with others might require a bit more time or effort than if you’d chosen to use Facebook.
Much like retail customers can take a stand against Walmart’s business practices by shopping elsewhere, internet users can take a stand against Facebook’s business practices by choosing not to share their personal information, text, photos, and time on the website.
I’m fortunate in that I don’t feel dependent on Facebook’s services. I’ve maintained a personal profile there, and have a couple business pages setup for two arms of my photography ventures.
From a personal standpoint, I’m mostly connected with folks on Facebook that I already engage with in other places online: blog comments, Twitter, Google+, instant messages, or topical communities. There are a handful of folks who I follow on Facebook that to my knowledge don’t have any other meaningful internet presence. It’s these few connections that trouble me the most about my Facebook social graph… do I maintain these relationships with others purely at the whim of Mark Zuckerberg?
From a business angle, to my knowledge I’ve never booked a new client nor sold a print based on Facebook activity. I’ll admit that I haven’t expended a large amount of effort on Facebook marketing, but for the time invested I’ve seen far more benefit from other marketing activities. I do realize that ongoing Facebook presence holds some networking and marketing value even if I can’t directly trace a specific client or deal to Facebook.
I don’t agree with how Facebook conducts business, so I’m going to choose not to use their services. Tonight I’ll share this article over there and encourage folks to connect with me in other places. Over the next few days, I’ll delete my now-unused Instagram account (I’m continuing to share photography on Flickr and Google+). I’ll be reviewing my Facebook friends list to ensure that I’m following folks elsewhere. Once I’ve reviewed my connections, I’ll shut down my Facebook account.
There might be a vital reason why someone chooses to shop at Walmart or actively use Facebook and Instagram. Given that I don’t have any of those reasons, I’ll be patronizing outfits whom I can feel better about.