Ignore all the rubbish about “serendipitous experiences” that Mark Zuckerberg wants you to have. Forget about his notion of “frictionless sharing”. The first iterations of sharing content or experiences seamlessly on Facebook are all wrong (witness the horrible real-time “ticker” that does not sit comfortably above “chat”).
But, Facebook got one thing very, very right. Its Timeline was the single biggest innovation in social media over the past few months. Sure, the New New Twitter changes everything, but the two spaces are conceptually so far apart that you cannot really compare them.
Plus the numbers don’t lie: Facebook has 800 million active users. The word “active” is important here (it easily has over a billion registered users). Twitter, by contrast, has 200-million registered accounts, but at last count, roughly half of those were active. So, 800 million versus 100-odd million… And, Facebook is easier to “get” than Twitter. Most mainstream users still struggle to understand or appreciate Twitter (even after its made conscious efforts to “un-geek” the platform).
Everyone gets Facebook Timeline. It’s a chronicled history of your life. Of events that happened. Of moments. Of experiences. Of interactions.
There’s an element of curation and creation that feels so different to “setting up” one’s profile on other services. You want to keep adding to your timeline (or is that Timeline?). You want to fix the dates on those dodgy photos that were added in 2008 but are actually from 1998!
For Facebook, Timeline represents far more than just a prettier profile for you, the user. It dramatically increases the “cost” (or ease) of switching. Think how easy it was for most users with MySpace accounts to flip over to Facebook. “Zuck” knows that this is one of the biggest risks facing Facebook today. What happens when the next big thing gets traction? Facebook cannot afford to make it easy for users to switch. Why do you think it’s made it so difficult for you to download a copy of your data?
More importantly, Timeline allows Facebook to start building up a history of its users that predates its worldwide launch in 2006 (where you no longer had to be a university or high school student in the US). The service really gained traction in 2008/2009, so Facebook realistically only contains three years’ worth of its users’ digital experiences/photos/interactions. Now it can grow that data and the social graph. Why else do you think its asking you how you know someone at every turn?
Out of the other established players (LinkedIn, Foursquare, etc.) no one really moved the needle. Google+ was a massive peg in the ground and we may yet see real innovation out of the Googleplex in 2012, especially when it gets useful APIs working on Google+.
In the music space, Spotify, Pandora and Rdio have made owning music irrelevant and forced iTunes into the cloud. But these aren’t yet mainstream platforms (Spotify will get there with Facebook Music).
Microsoft, Yahoo! and Apple are still absent in the social media space. Apple’s Ping is the social network that never was. Microsoft is fiddling around with something called so.cl and Yahoo! doesn’t know what it wants to do.
One to watch for 2012? Path. It has nailed the timeline. And it offers real-time sharing that Facebook can only dream of displaying and aggregating as elegantly.