This week Facebook spent $2 billion on Oculus VR, the 75-person company behind the virtual reality googles that have become a video game phenomenon over the last two years. Mark Zuckerberg described Oculus as a communication platform whose mission is to “enable the impossible.” Why a company that insists on being a medium for social exchange should be interested in the impossible is unclear, unless we accept the implication that socializing itself is becoming an impossibility. Following the pattern of Facebook’s recent acquisitions, from the messaging service WhatsApp to the data analysis company SportStream, it seems Facebook has been trying to build a toolset to gather commercial data from non-commercial interactions. In the spirit of helping Facebook accept that it’s a profit platform steered by social whim and not a catalyst for digital intimacy, here are a few predictions for which companies it might acquire next in its quest to enable the impossible.
While Oculus Rift began as a Kickstarter, a newer and even more personal form of crowdfunding emerged in 2013 with Patreon. The fundraising platform focuses on individuals rather than small companies, asking its users to setup recurring monthly payments to an artist, writer, designer, musician, or videographer to collectively pay them a partial salary. Patreon is less than a year old but already averages more than 2 million page views per month with more than 10,000 “creators” already promoting their work through the service. Directly asking for money from social acquaintances has always been an awkward and sometimes embarrassing undertaking, but Facebook has already become a personal branding and promotion tool for millions of people, from writers posting their own stories to small business owners sending out invitations to like their new page.
Facebook’s various schemes for making money on promoted posts and advertising have been mostly one-way, essentially skimming money from their users in exchange for wider visibility. It would only be decent if Facebook afforded its users a way to raise money for their own work without having to refer paying supporters to external tools to actually complete the transactions. If Facebook is a genuinely social platform, it should accept that significant amounts of socializing center on friends helping friends make a way in the world. Incorporating Patreon’s financial support system into Facebook might seem like an overly crude incursion on the quirky comments and cute baby photos party we have come to expect from the social network, but it would be a structural show of good-faith to its users, opening an avenue for them to make material gains from Facebook at the same time as Facebook makes material gains from them.
What matters in the long run is not the pursuit of miracles but a slow embrace of the mundane parts of our lives, from which there can be no escape. Facebook will probably continue to chase those companies it perceives as enabling the impossible, but it would be of better service to its users if instead it focused on achieving the possible and shared the benefits with those it claims it serves.
The Internet is for shopping, and Facebook’s long-term money plan has always hinged on using social data to better channel shoppers to right sorts of sellers. Yet, advertisements and promotions on Facebook are instantly identifiable and generally unwelcome intrusions in one’s Timeline. Groupon has long excelled at transforming advertising into social behavior, which is what shopping always defined shopping as a way to leave the house, travel somewhere new, talk to new people and discover new things. Groupon is a rapidly maturing company and the market excitement over it has died down and turned deeply critical in recent years, yet the company still generates hundreds of millions in quarterly revenue and could be given new life by being incorporated into Facebook, with group outings and one-day specials driven by Facebook tags and Timeline posts instead of cumbersome email threads and fragmented text messages chains.
More importantly, Groupon’s services have flourished as more of its business has shifted to its mobile phone app instead of a browser interface. Quartz’s Chris Mims’ noted Facebook’s fortunes have gone the opposite way, with steady profits from its browser form but struggling to make money from its otherwise popular mobile app. As more and more of Facebook’s users shifts to casual computing devices like tablets and mobile phones it would benefit from both a stable and proven technology for making mobile advertisements tolerable, while also providing a new feature that shortens the distance between consumer and seller, which could make its advertising business even more effective.
When Facebook attempted to build an operating system for phones last year it was clear the company’s long-term goal was to go beyond pure social interaction and encapsulate all in-roads into a person’s life, from business calls to app sales. Home was greeted with either skepticism or indifference from reviewers but it opened the door to a future in which Facebook is not a social oasis that one escapes to during downtime, but an encapsulating digital environment that one never leaves. One of the major impediments to achieving this goal is the severe limitations to the types of files Facebook allows its users to create and share through it, keeping things limited to photos, plain text, and web links.
Open Office isn’t exactly an entity that could be acquired, but partnering with the non-profit group or creating a similar bundle of productivity software built by licensing its applications could help Facebook become more viable as its own sort of operating system, structured around people and relationships instead of folders and control panels. Opening up Timeline to work with a wider array of content could greatly improve social play and experimentation, while creating a reasonable foundation for Facebook getting its users to stay logged in while writing TPS reports and building PowerPoint decks.
None of these options are quite as tantalizing as virtual reality goggles or wild encounters with the digital impossible. But even virtual reality will become boring if it becomes as ubiquitous as other revolutionary technologies like the car or iPhones. What matters in the long run is not the pursuit of miracles but a slow embrace of the mundane parts of our lives, from which there can be no escape. Facebook will probably continue to chase those companies it perceives as enabling the impossible, but it would be of better service to its users if instead it focused on achieving the possible and shared the benefits with those it claims it serves.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.