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Facebook as a platform: Social giant’s fractured future

A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, May 2, 2013.

DADO RUVIC/REUTERS

For years, it seemed like Facebook had one simple goal: to have its network become everything to everyone. So why now are we seeing the massive social network splinter into a collection of smaller, seemingly disconnected pieces?

After all, when it comes to your smartphone, Facebook is quickly becoming a collection of smaller apps: There's Instagram for your photos; Messenger (and soon, Whatsapp), will be the only place for your messages and voice calls; there's the slickly designed Paper app for social news; and at least for now, there's the regular old app for everything else (and maybe someday an app for banking). Suddenly what was one is now many.

Why the change? Simply, everything, from how we behave, to how we connect with different friends, to the type of application we want, changes on mobile. So instead of being the one-size-fits-all app for everyone, it seems Facebook has realized that the way to win mobile is to offer a suite of apps – all the while becoming the advertising backbone for the mobile web.

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At the root of this change is that mantra of the digital age: if you don't cannibalize your own business, somebody else will. Facebook has seen apps like Snapchat and Whatsapp amass huge mobile followings, all of which stems from the fact that, as analyst Benedict Evans puts it, mobile is eating the world. As such, the social network has to find a way to react.

If that's true, though, simply moving a desktop experience over to a phone won't work. As Ryan Tate at Wired has pointed out, what we want in mobile isn't one monster social network, but small, snack-sized apps: one for messaging, one for pictures, one for fitness, one for shopping and so on. The nature of mobile itself demands that Facebook "unbundle" itself because a smartphone lends itself to smaller, packaged experiences rather one big app for everything we do.

Though it might seem like Facebook is diluting itself by splintering off into parts, the opposite is likely true. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook is set to launch its own mobile ad network (possibly Wednesday, at its F8 developer conference). That means when you sign into Facebook's many apps using your single Facebook ID, the whole process will be underpinned by the only real way web services make money in the digital age: by serving ads that come from tracking user behaviour across a variety of apps, rather than just that one main, blue one.

Yet, almost inadvertently, that approach solves another problem for Zuckerberg's network. Right now, unless you're picky about groups and lists, most of what we post to Facebook gets seen by family, friends, and co-workers alike, a situation at odds with how we actually socialize and split up our time and attention.

Google once tried to react to this by creating circles in Google+ – and quickly found out that people aren't willing to put that much time into organizing their social lives. Yet if you look at mobile, the behaviour is quite different. You might have some friends on Instagram, others on Snapchat, and yet other groups on Whatsapp – and might have none of them overlap. And if Facebook's new approach is to segment off functions into apps, it also almost accidentally carves out social circles according to how we connect with them – simply because we build different contact lists for different mobile apps. The problem of dividing up social circles according to our differing relations gets serendipitously solved.

Of course, that's not to say that Facebook will be successful in the attempt. When it comes to making mobile apps, Facebook has yet to really land a hit. Android start-screen app Facebook Home fizzled, and it looks like Paper is following the same path. The only real success the company has had in mobile apps is Instagram, which Facebook has left almost totally untouched after it purchased it in 2012.

All the same, it seems like Facebook is taking the right steps. Mobile is not the same as the Web, and demands its own approach. And in finding a way for people to separate out their friend groups – all while uniting its apps with a bespoke ad network – perhaps Facebook can, for better or worse, be as dominant in mobile as it already on the web.

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