Facebook is leaking.
For years it was a semi-private network for a person’s friends and family, but now through such features as the “Like” button and hashtags it has started to trickle out onto the broader Web. The latest drip is the recently introduced ability to embed public Facebook posts elsewhere on the Web, which is one more sign that the social network is set to leave its enclave and flood the entire Internet.
It’s less an issue of innovation than it is about keeping up. As Mat Honan at Wired argues, Facebook’s hand has been forced. Twitter has become home to breaking news and celebrity updates, while sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed have attracted huge, loyal audiences with compelling content and communities. Facebook thus finds itself in a bind. It must get itself out onto the unpredictable, serendipitous terrain of the open Web where users will discover new things – but must also find a way to monetize its users leaving the comfort of the Facebook news feed.
So it is with this problem in mind that Facebook has started its trial of embedded posts which will see public posts appearing at first on the pages of CNN, The Huffington Post, Mashable and others. Readers on those sites can like or share public posts from celebrities, brands or other media outlets, rather than having to log in to the traditional web client of dedicated mobile app.
It would be wrong, however, to think that this simply represents Facebook’s attempt to move from a walled garden to a public forum, from closed to open. Instead, the social network is putting out the appearance of openness in order to centralize itself as the default platform for the social web.
In a sense, Facebook is a bit like the Matrix from the movie of the same name. We commonly think that any system that seeks to control people does so by repressing them – by telling them what they can and can’t do – and that’s how we’ve always thought of the closed nature of Facebook. But just as Neo was part of the system in the sci-fi classic, choice is an essential part of making people feel like they’re free. By letting users both see and move public posts outside of Facebook, the network is making itself appear more open and more accessible, letting both ordinary people and media put the service outside the familiar blue and white frame of its website and apps.
What is really happening, however, is a kind of head fake. When Facebook moves public posts onto the larger open web that code adds its tracking software to those of other services, and it learns more about its users’ activities. Likes, hashtags, embedded posts – these are all branches meant to feed data and user activity back to the main trunk of the social network: your news feed as it’s found in regular old Facebook. By seeming to be less limiting in where you can share your posts, the service is in fact surreptitiously becoming more and more inescapable.
In pragmatic terms, that capacity to know users better is something many of us may actually find useful. If on a gossip website I “like” the statuses of actors in TV shows I watch, Facebook might let me know when a new season of my latest guilty indulgence is about to start. That’s genuinely helpful. At the same time, however, that faux-openness is unfortunately symbolic of how most free services on the social web work now: they give off the impression of acting in your interest so that, simultaneously, they can track your movements and sell things to you.
The best and worst of the open web has always been how broad it is, how uncontrolled and limitless. The freedom is great, but it’s also overwhelming and hard to get a handle on. For that reason, having a default place on the Web to call your own can provide a way to cut through the noise, and Facebook’s constant efforts to trace and then tailor and individual’s experience is certainly a compelling solution to information glut and the problem of discovery.
One wishes, however, that in Facebook’s rush to solve both its own and its users’ problems, it weren’t so intent on anchoring us to the service wherever we go – and that like Neo’s eventual triumph in The Matrix, there were a way to break the cycle of a system that looks like it’s setting us free, but instead keeps pulling us back in.