Watching the Facebook Vanity URL gold rush tonight reminds me of the 1st online account I ever had with a public service: I had an AOL account. In that walled garden in the early 90s, everyone felt like friends and it was easy to use the resources AOL made available to you to find new and innovative content. Until AOL dragged its feet and started to make sure that the content in its borders was monetizable, ad-supported, and … kinda boring.
Enter the new kid on the walled garden block: Facebook. By allowing users to register usernames as vanity urls (and making sure that journalists and other public figures got the jump on the process to claim their own valuable names first), Facebook has staked its claim that the vanity subdomain (e.g. http://www.facebook.com/aplusk) is more valuable than the domain name (or the Twitter name). While they haven’t solidified that point yet (I don’t think anyone is searching for their news yet at http://www.facebook.com/nyt), they may have hit on an aspect of human behavior that will make the Facebook Land Grab something of a milestone for the internet: Laziness.
Browser makers long ago allowed you to type in “Facebook” rather than “http://www.facebook.com” or the IP address octet that makes up the address where the computer(s) serving that application are actually located. Developers and program managers did that because people are basically lazy, and adding a way of accessing URLs that was easier broadened the reach of the web from the geeky to the mainstream. It also opened the door to creative wordplay with URLs (celebrated with the .tv domain) and made it much easier to do stuff on the web. Facebook developers are using their intuition that we are lazy to build a web architecture that doesn’t require us to leave FB in order to get most things done on the web. FB is a hub of activity that is commanding market share from other forms of internet communication. Have you gotten a personal email lately that didn’t come from Facebook or Twiiter? These services have both forced my email volume down in favor of the shared model they champion.
What do the changes of the Vanity URL Land Grab mean for Facebook? Three things:
- Facebook has created a competitive advantage — identity plumbing that can be used by hundreds of millions of users to authenticate themselves and their friends to anyone who wants to know. It’s true that these people can use usernames and passwords from other services, but increasingly all anyone will want to use is Facebook Connect (or Twitter oAuth);
- Now that there is a critical mass of users who can be authenticated, Facebook can use this community for other purposes (micropayments come to mind, or other forms of 3rd party escrow or brokered access);
- Tie in a simple set of templates to the FB architecture and FB could almost immediately begin selling ad-on services == revenue == business model. Surely some company will pay for a social networking architecture that has all the capabilities of Facebook but is co-branded or private-label branded as “collaboration software”
The advantage of having a walled garden is the ability to keep the users in and the wolves out. By leveraging the Facebook platform, Facebook has itself built a template for building mini-walled gardens for people and businesses, using the vanity url as the first step towards that larger goal. Now one wonders what they might do with the mobile space.