Facebook is the most popular social network on the internet. It's a million things to nearly a billion people, and while Facebook does a handful of things competently, it is truly great at next to nothing.
Note: To a large extent, you can also substitute Google(+) for Facebook throughout this post. I'm focusing on Facebook because it's The Social Network.
This issue is as old as business: Some companies succeed by doing one thing very well for a limited audience. Others succeed by doing a lot of things well enough for the largest possible audience.
Facebook is a a microblogging platform, a blogging platform, a photo-sharing platform, a location-sharing platform, a chat platform, an email client, a pseudo-music-sharing platform, a gaming platform, and so on. It's an incredibly powerful service. For many, Facebook isn't just a site on the internet; it's the internet.
And that's why you're locked into Facebook; that's why it's so hard to leave. You've invested so much, not just in sharing photos or posting links, but in the whole ecosystem.
Facebook does just about everything well enough. It's a full-fledged internet operating system. But like most operating systems, the stock applications aren't as good as the apps and services built by companies who are passionate about one thing.
It's why you use Chrome and Firefox instead of Internet Explorer and Safari. It's why you use VLC instead of Windows Media Player or QuickTime. And it's why I — and many of you, I'm sure — have built my social networks piecemeal, from individual social apps and services with a passion and vision specifically honed for what they do.
What I Use Instead Of Facebook
I don't use Facebook; I don't like it. But I am interested in interacting with the rest of the world social networks. And hey, it's easy to build your own Facebook, one really good app at a time! I use:
- Twitter for quick text updates, sharing links, and so on.
- Foursquare for sharing my location and meeting up with friends.
- Instagram for sharing photos. (Yes, Facebook bought Instagram. More on this below.)
- Rdio for sharing music and seeing what my friends are listening to. (Spotify is also excellent, but right now I prefer Rdio.)
- Lifehacker for . . . well . . . blogging. Obviously not everyone blogs here, but between Tumblr, WordPress and Blogger, anyone can find a place to go long-form if they wish.
These are the basic building blocks of my personal social network. They don't necessarily fill every feature gap that Facebook does, but they do everything I want to do socially on the internet — and nothing more. Neat, right?
The Benefits of Going Piecemeal
Here are two things I love about this approach:
- If, say, I decide Instagram has made some bad choices and all of a sudden totally sucks (a completely realistic but not necessarily inevitable possibility now that it has been acquired by Facebook), I can abandon Instagram and start using one of a million other photo-sharing services. If Facebook mucks up its photo sharing, I'm probably going to write a series of short, angry status updates, grit my teeth, and keep using Facebook.
- You can easily define your communities based on what you're sharing. On Rdio, for example, I specifically follow people whose musical habits I'm interested in. I may be interested in your listening habits but have no interest in the pictures you're sharing. I'll follow you on Rdio and not on Instagram. Handy.
- People who make just one thing tend to really care about it and have really great ideas about how to make it better. See the discussion above about stock apps.
This whole issue swings back to something we've talked about a couple of times before: the Unix philosophy, the core of which is the virtues of software that does one thing well. It's a fantastic idea that with applications well beyond software, and the more experience I have (with software, systems, people), the truer it rings.
It's not all sunshine and unicorns if you choose this route. Facebook has the audience no one else does. Your cousin from South Dakota posts all her baby pictures to Facebook; you will never see them on Instagram. (This may also be a pro, depending on how much you like your cousin.)
What's more, small(er) services are more likely to sell to big companies. It's a common outcome of creating a great app, and the result is that — as a user — you're back at square one. Some notable, relevant acquisitions:
- Last week, Google made a talent acquisition by purchasing Sparrow, the best email client anyone has made for the Mac in years. Sparrow will no longer release new features, which, in today's software world, effectively means Sparrow is dead. (It's hard to blame Sparrow too much — building a business in the App Store is tough going.)
- Earlier this year Facebook bought Instagram. So far, Facebook says it is planning to continue Instagram as a product distinct from Facebook. (Phew.) (For now.)
- In 2009, Apple bought Lala, a music store and playlist-sharing service. Lala promptly shut down.
- Google bought a Foursquare-like service called Dodgeball, which became Google Latitude, which next to no one cares about. The creator of Dodgeball later left Google and started Foursquare.
- Twitter purchased popular clients Tweetie and TweetDeck, resulting in next to no future developments.
- Yahoo bought Flickr in 2005 and quickly went about destroying it. Desperate Flickr loyalists are still begging for its return.
This list is far from exhaustive, but the point is: Choosing the little guy isn't a sure bet. The companies with the deep pockets often buy the relatively small, successful startups for buckets of money. It's hard to blame the people who made those apps for accepting the spoils, but it generally means you lose. (See Anil Dash's recent post on choosing the "Instagram of video" for a discussion on how to tell if an app will "sell out and shut down")
Still, it's good to vote with your ideals. Foursquare may never be able to "win" versus Facebook in terms of money and user base, but goddammit, it's far better at what it does.
You can, of course, use Facebook and any number of these services. Facebook isn't making anyone use any of their tools. If you're sufficiently happy with certain aspects of Facebook and not others, by all means, use what you like and supplement with other apps. Since I don't particularly like Facebook, I opt for a handful of other tools and avoid it altogether.
It's not that people who use Facebook instead of these (individually better) tools are dumb. It's that most people don't have time to be early adopters, to sign up for a bunch of different services, to curate their online experience. Facebook is the easy option, and it really is good enough. But if you decide you're no longer happy with good enough, there's a wonderful world of excellent apps waiting for you.