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Facebook and its followers

Editorial

With its new version, the company may lead users and media firms somewhere they don't want to go.

September 23, 2011

Give Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg points for ambition. The company is rolling out a new version of its popular social network that seeks to be the hub of everything its users do online. If Zuckerberg's gambit succeeds, Facebook would attain an even more dominant position among social networks. It would also amass a storehouse of knowledge about its users large enough to rival Google's. The implications for users and media companies, however, are not so promising.

Launched to help college students connect to one another, Facebook has evolved into a place where up to half a billion people gather each day, often for hours at a time, to share pictures, links and commentary. The network has become a powerful platform for marketers and, increasingly, application developers, particularly those writing games that let friends interact through the Net.

On Thursday, Zuckerberg unveiled two new features that encourage users to provide even more information about themselves to Facebook — for example, by automatically posting links on Facebook to the songs they're playing from an online jukebox or the TV shows they're watching on Hulu. The point is to help people discover media and services by seeing what their friends and acquaintances are doing.

Photos: The many faces of Facebook

That's a powerful model, and it mirrors the role friends play in helping people discover things offline. But sharing all that information with Facebook has a downside for consumers too, considering the company's troubling track record of unilaterally deciding to put consumers' personal data to new and unexpected uses. The automatic link-posting function effectively tracks what Facebook users do with online media and services even when they're not connected directly to the social network. Who knows what uses the company might find for that information?

For media companies, meanwhile, Facebook's move means that millions of people could start alerting their friends about the songs, shows and other content they consume online. But if those friends can't play any of that material, the value of that promotion will evaporate; instead, they'll gravitate toward content they can play. The pressure will thus grow on media companies to make more content available online, and to make at least some of it available for free. That's not necessarily the direction the movie studios, publishers and other content providers want to go. But if Facebook leads half a billion people down that road, media companies may have to follow.

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