Facebook has created a corpus of content in a very different way than most sites do.
Reflecting on MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter, among other crowd sourced websites that grew to massive scale, each one of them was open to the community at large and available for search engine optimization and crawling. By catering to a unique audience need, and slowly building the user base, driving additional traffic through organic and marketing channels, these sites grew to the behemoths they are today.
On the other hand, Facebook started closed – only to Harvard, then only to Ivy League schools, then to other colleges. Only a small volume of users could create content and only select bits of information were displayed to select subsets of users (friends). As this content grew, keeping it safe from the crawlers of search engines seemed essential to the service.
Having unique access to proprietary data unavailable anywhere else of course implies having an extraordinary asset. Providing search and filtering across this corpus has and continues to be a key focus for the company.
Over time, Facebook has been opening up the data contained inside the network. The first attempt, Beacon, was a public relations catastrophe. In retrospect, the product was ahead of its time or more accurately, ahead of the cultural shift that needed to occur for users to accede to public sharing of data.
As Twitter grew in popularity over the past few months, it brought with it a culture of openness for sharing data and relationships by making all this data public. Pushing Facebook along, both by educating the user base and by forcing feature parity, additional Facebook data has been made public.
There’s a public stream, public profiles, and fan pages. Once a walled garden, over time Facebook user data is being spilled into the public sphere in a way once unimaginable to its user base.
Why did this mechanism work for Facebook while an approach of openness worked for many others sites?
I believe it has something to do with the culture that Facebook has created where identity, true identity, is paramount. No other consumer sites have been able to inculcate a set of values into their user base of trusting a large site with true identity and a replication of pre-existing and extant real world relationships viewable in the public sphere.
Over time, openness wins. Openness has defeated the walled gardens of AOL, Microsoft and others time and again. Facebook is clearly moving in this direction. But to reach the top, they chose (or were guided by the industry to) a very different path of protectionism before openness, and one that defined their culture.