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Facebook As Storyteller

By - September 25, 2011

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(image) Recently I was in conversation with a senior executive at a major Internet company, discussing the role of the news cycle in our industry. We were both bemoaning the loss of consistent “second day” story telling – where a smart journalist steps back, does some reporting, asks a few intelligent questions of the right sources, and writes a longer form piece about what a particular piece of news really means.

Instead, we have a scrum of sites that seem relentlessly engaged in an instant news cycle, pouncing on every tidbit of news in a race to be first with the story. And sure, each of these sites also publish smart second-day analysis, but it gets lost in the thirty to fifty new stories which are posted each day. I bet if someone created a venn diagram of the major industry news sites by topic, the overlap would far outweigh the unique on any given day (or even hour).

This is all throat clearing to say that with the Facebook story last week, I am sensing a bit more of a “pause and consider” cycle developing. Sure, everyone jumped on the new Timeline and Open Graph news, but by day two, I noticed a lot more thought pieces, and most of them were either negative in tone, or sarcastic (or both.) Exmples include:

Can Facebook Become the Web? (Fortune)

The Facebook Timeline is the nearest thing I’ve seen to a digital identity (and it’s creepy as hell) (benwerd)

Dazed and Confused? Welcome to the Club (PC)

Facebook Just Shifted From Scale to Engagement (AdAge)

Facebook’s terrible plan to get us to share everything we do on the Web. (Slate)

@ F8: Zuckerberg Wants Users’ Whole Lives, But To What End? (PC)

Analysis of F8, Timeline, Ticker and Open Graph (Chris Saad)

All of life has been utterly (Dan Lyon)

Now, I am not endorsing all these pieces as perfect second day posts, but collectively, they do give us a fairly good sense of the issues raised by Facebook’s big news.

I’d like to add one more thought. Perhaps this might be called a “second week” post, given it’s been four or five days since the big news. In any case, the thing I find most interesting about the new approach to sharing and publishing on Facebook lies in what Mark Zuckerberg said his new product would deliver: “The story of your life.”

Now, long time readers know where I stand when it comes to telling the “story of your life.” I’m firmly in the camp that believes that story belongs to you, and should be told on your own domain, your own terms, and with a very, very clear understanding of who owns that story (that’d be you.) And this applies to brands as well: Your brand story should not be located or dependent on any third party platform. That’s the point of the web – anyone can publish, and no one has rights over what you publish (unless, of course, you break established law).

It was our inherent desire to tell “stories of our lives” that led to the explosion of blogging ten or so years ago. And crafting a rich narrative is just that, a craft (some elevate it to art). Yet Facebook’s new timeline, combined with the promiscuous sharing features of the Open Graph and some clever algorithms, promises to build a rich narrative timeline of your life, one that is rife with personal pictures, shared media objects (music, movies, publications), and lord knows what else (meals, trips, hookups – anything that might be recorded and shared digitally).

Now, I don’t find much wrong with this – most folks won’t spend their days obsessing over their timelines so as to present a perfectly crafted media experience. I’m guessing Facebook is counting on the vast majority of its users continuing to do what they’ve always done with Facebook’s curation of their data – ignore it, for the most part, and let the company’s internal algorithms manage the flow.

But our culture has always had a small percentage of folks who are native storytellers, people who do, in fact, obsess over each narrative they find worthy of relating. And to those people (which include media companies and brands falling over themselves to integrate with Open Graph), I once again make this recommendation: Don’t invest your time, or your narrative exertions, building your stories on top of the Facebook platform. Make them elsewhere, and then, sure, import them in if that’s what works for you. But individual stories, and brand stories, should be born and nurtured out in the Independent Web.

I’ve got plenty of philosophical reasons for saying this, which I wont’ get into in this post (some are here). But allow me to relate a more economic argument: At present, there’s no way for our story tellers to make money directly from Facebook for the favor of crafting engaging narratives on top of the company’s platform. And from what I can divine, Facebook plans to make a fair amount of money selling advertising next to these new timeline profiles. As they get richer and more multi-media, so will the advertisements. Do you think Facebook intends to cut its 800 million narrative agents into those advertising dollars? I didn’t think so.

Which is just fine, for most folks – for people who don’t see the “stories of their lives” as a way to make a living. But if crafting narrative is your business, or even just a hobby that brings in grocery money, I’d counsel staying on the open web. (BTW, crafting narratives is *every* brand’s business.) For you, Facebook is a wonderful distribution and community building platform. But it shouldn’t be where you build your house.

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5 thoughts on “Facebook As Storyteller

  1. Clint says:

    Nice post, John, and looking forward to Web 2.0 Summit:

    Like Facebook, Google also makes money from its consumers, but no one suggests it share any of that loot with users.

    Isn’t it enough that Facebook provide a publishing platform for users’ content? Not everyone wants to build a blog and ask users to subscribe to their life’s story and updates.

    Why would the rules be different for FB? Should all of the Websites who make big coin from ads cut their users some of the cash.

    Maybe offer them virtual currency for games and other products?

  2. sugarleg says:

    nicely stated John, I almost feel like I just finished a good therapy session by reading this! you articulated my personal anxiety about feeling constrained and used by the FB platform to tell my stories. much happier with a blog and using FB to share those posts. I will not be filling out my Timeline with my life for FB’s financial gain.

  3. Jade says:

    Whats going to happen to facebook when they start charging for it?

  4. A wonderful reminder, both about second-day reflection and about controlling your content.

    So few people see themselves as storytellers or value the narratives they create. For most people I know, taking the extra step of creating a blog (even a free, generic one) gets lost in the immediacy of Facebook, both in terms of setup (just sign up for an account!) and feedback (look, all my friends and family are already here!).

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