It may be a surprising question. Google, after all, is a search engine, Facebook a social network that by all appearances is the hot property over the past 12 months. The number of users is growing exponentially, and investors believe it is worth billions of dollars. But there is real evidence that Facebook is inadvertently losing its primary attribute– intimate social interaction– that truly differentiates it from the all-data driven promise of Google. It may seem counter-intuitive and will, take a little explaining, but it all became clear when reading Time Magazine’s Person of the Year cover story in December on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s erratic founder.
The gist of the difference between the world’s largest search engine and the world’s dominant social networking site goes something like this: When you look for information on Google, such as restaurant critiques, movie reviews, suggestions for vacation resorts, or anything else you can think of, you are getting the wisdom of strangers. When you seek that same information on Facebook, you are getting the recommendations from friends. The latter would seem to be more valuable for most people because it is from individuals with whom they have those types of relationships, and not from faceless (and often nameless) Internet personalities.
That’s just one example of the utility of Facebook. It is also much more of a place to have a dialogue with people with whom you have a relationship with– to see what they are up to, what they are reading, or how their families are doing, or just to look at their photographs. In other words, where Google is about broadcasting information, Facebook is about engaging in conversation with friends.
But look what’s happening on Facebook when it comes to having “friends.” The definition has changed– dramatically. In the off-line world, friends are people with whom you share experiences, spend quality social time, and interact with on a personal level. In the Facebook world, the meaning of the term “friend” goes far beyond that– it is anyone who hits the “accept” button.
My daugthers each have well over 800 friends on Facebook. In their off-line life, the number is a fraction of that. I have one colleague who has more than 3000 friends on Facebook. When he asks for movie recommendations, even from his Facebook friends, the response is no different in my mind than from a Google search– it is merely the opinion of strangers who happen to be friends by this new definition.
From a practical stand-point, there is no way he can follow the news feeds of those 3000 friends, not can he engage in any meaningful conversation. When he posts a status update, links to an article or video, talks about his weekend, he isn’t engaging in dialogue on a personal level with anyone. He is simply broadcasting his posts, hoping that, as with Google, people will see it. When online friends don’t really have the same attributes as off-line friends, the social networking component disappears.
What does this mean for communications professionals? For one, Facebook can be a great place to broadcast information far and wide. But it’s going to become a more difficult place to actually engage key audiences– be they consumers, customers, employees, policy makers, or just friends.