If you worried you were spending too much time on Facebook, the leading social network website is inviting you to spend even more.
In a launch that resembled both a Hollywood Oscars telecast and an arduous graduate school lecture, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced updates to the site that will introduce real-time media streaming and motivate users to upload more personal content than usual in scrapbook form.
With Mr. Zuckerberg and other presenters dressed in T-shirts and sneakers, the event was designed to reference the company’s origins as an insurgent Silicon Valley startup. But in describing new features that resemble those of competitors like Google and Twitter, it revealed the company’s inherent insecurities as the Internet’s top dog.
Now with 750 million users, the company is “a juggernaut,” says Anthony Rotolo, a professor in the school of information studies at Syracuse University. “They’re not worried about getting new users, it’s almost impossible for them not to attract new users as they continue to grow. They’re worried about losing users."
Zuckerberg often took a breathless tone in describing the new functions, which were projected behind him on the stage at the company’s annual developer conference held at the San Francisco Design Center. The announcement and nearly two-hour presentation was streamed online and, at one point, was being viewed by more than 85,000 people.
One new feature, Timeline, allows users to aggregate information from their past and curate it into year-by-year allotments made accessible on their profile, Zuckerberg asked viewers to “imagine expressing the story of your life … and all the important and meaningful things in your life highlighted right there.”
Another feature, Ticker, seeks to replicate the success of Twitter by acting as a news feed, broadcasting any user's activity on the site in real time.
In preparation for Thursday’s announcement, the company spent more than a year rounding up partnerships with more than a dozen media outlets, including music-streaming services Rhapsody and Spotify; news outlets such as The Washington Post, Yahoo! News, and The Economist; the movie rental service Netflix; and at least one motion picture studio, Warner Bros.
On Thursday, Zuckerberg showed how the new user pages will make it easier for these partners to create apps that create “frictionless experiences” for users accessing their content. For example, a user can watch "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" on Facebook. At the same time, the Ticker will let all the user's friends know – and allow them join, so all can watch the movie at the same time.
In short, Facebook is seeking an advantage over its competition by providing users an all-in-one platform to stream and share content. For its partners, working with Facebook provides an impressive and new distribution network in the era of declining music sales and readership.
The new features can be perceived as reacting to recent threats from Google+, the software giant’s new social-network platform, and the surging popularity of Twitter. Both social networks target weaknesses of Facebook. Beyond Ticker's similarities to Twitter, the curated features of Timeline are similar to the organizational components of Google+.
Hyun Yeul Lee, a professor of communication at Boston University. called Google+ “a wakeup call for Facebook” in that its design “made a clear statement of being about identity” opposed to how Facebook makes users “vicariously live through” the personal updates of others.
Ms. Lee says success of the new features “will depend on usability and how much control the user has, or feel like they have,” which have been a continuing problem for Facebook users following recent privacy concerns.
A spokesperson for Facebook said no representative would be available to the media to answer questions regarding Thursday’s announcement.
Zuckerberg did not say how users will be charged for the new media content, if at all. However, the strategy follows the steps the company has been slowing making to tailor media content according to individual profile information, which has led many to worry the company is sacrificing user privacy to make money.
On Tuesday, eMarketer, a market-research company analyzing the digital market based in New York City, forecast that Facebook’s worldwide ad revenues will jump 104 percent by the end 2011 to $3.8 billion compared with the previous year.
“Facebook was born out of the user community’s expectation of operating your own private social network. But for a while now, Facebook has been moving in the direction of encouraging more public sharing of information and trying to encourage the user to think of it as a central hub of content and how they experience the web. They really want to socialize everything we do online,” says Professor Rotolo of Syracuse.
Zuckerberg said the new features are expected to become available to Facebook users in “the next few weeks.”