Tech

The Day Facebook Rejoined The Internet

Facebook’s most important realization: it can’t replace the entire internet.

This afternoon, Facebook announced embedded posts, which will allow anyone to take public Facebook posts and paste them into other parts of the internet. You’ll be able to embed a Facebook post on a blog in the same way you can embed a tweet, a Vine, or, for that matter, a YouTube video.

Technically, it’s a small feature. But in the context of the company’s history, the decision to begin embedding posts across the internet is a tacit admission of something larger: Facebook is not a replacement for the internet, just a powerful piece of it.

It may sound silly, but for a while, Facebook’s ambitions were both astonishing and yet somehow plausible: its staggering user base, its all-encompassing Open Graph, its authentication across thousands of sites with Facebook Connect, and even some interesting attempts to start a Netflix-ish video rental service. Facebook wasn’t just trying to colonize the internet, but trying to be your entire internet experience. Some, such as media agency AKQA’s chairman Tom Bedecarre, even came out and said it. “For large marketers, Facebook is becoming the web,” he told CNN in 2011.

You can hear the scope of Facebook’s ambitions in Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post announcing Facebook Connect in December 2008:

Facebook Connect makes it easier for you to take your online identity with you all over the Web, share what you do online with your friends and stay updated on what they’re doing. You won’t have to create separate accounts for every website, just use your Facebook login wherever Connect is available.

You can hear it again last year’s Facebook’s S-1 IPO filing: “There are more than two billion global Internet users, according to an industry source, and we aim to connect all of them.”

You can even hear it, faintly, in this strange and unsettling ad campaign:

In fact, much of Facebook’s growth around the world has come as a direct result of a carefully crafted campaign to persuade developing nations that Facebook is the internet, as Chris Mims pointed out last year. Through the implementation of programs like Facebook Zero, a free, text-based phone app that was designed not only as a gateway to Facebook, but as a way to visualize Facebook as the internet:

The fact is that Facebook has made a compelling argument to operators, which is ‘You should give Facebook away [to consumers] for free,’” says Eagle. “I don’t know how Facebook is making that case, but if I were Facebook, the argument I’d make is that Facebook is one of the most addictive things on the internet. If you have someone try out Facebook for the first time, it might lead them to want to try the rest of the web, and a lot of these other services they can charge for.”

The way Facebook Zero works is perfectly suited to convincing people who have never touched the internet to give it a try. First, there’s the inherent vitality of social networks–once your friends are on them, you’ll want to sign up too. And Facebook Zero makes it easy to invite friends who aren’t yet on the service, via text message. Once a user is hooked, the carrier has an opportunity to sell data services on top of Facebook Zero: loading text is free, but if you want to see pictures, you’ll pay the usual fees for data. The same goes for any external links a user follows while they’re browsing Facebook.

Judging by the map above, which was making the rounds today on Twitter, Facebook has had considerable success extending its reach. But Facebook’s plan was to extend its reach at the expense of the rest of the internet. Instead, it has grown alongside the new, app-centric internet — the internet it was supposed to own, to take over.

With this small announcement, Facebook has taken another step toward conceding its fate. Back in March, the company announced it would be selling retargeted ads through its exchange for placement in the once sacrosanct News Feed — essentially, an admission that the site is willing to set aside old practices to make some money. Today’s announcement, while it has less to do with monetization, feels similar. Even with 1.1 billion users, Facebook is and will always be under tremendous pressure to grow. To do that, they’ll need to go where the people are and — with so many powerful networks and sites in place — that place is not necessarily Facebook. Not by default.

Facebook’s great embeddening probably won’t change much for the average internet user (consider this question: How many places could a Facebook post be embedded that don’t already have Facebook buttons?).

Facebook is tearing down a wall that most users happily climb every day. But it’s still possible that an embeddable Facebook will result in quicker, easier, and more frequent Facebook interactions. It probably also means you’ll be seeing more Facebook posts in your everyday browsing.

More than anything else though, it’s a subtle acknowledgement that the company — while still a juggernaut — never quite achieved that vice grip on your browsing experience. In some ways, it’s a rare bit of humility from a powerful company. And that’s rarely a bad thing.

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