Facebook was oh-so-crucial in the mid-2000s, when not many people lived their lives online. Back before everyone had Flickr albums and LaLa accounts, Foursquare check-ins and geo-located tweets, there was one dimension to the "personal" Web: the Right Now, courtesy of email and IM. I was in college at one of the early Facebook schools during its rollout, so I acutely remember the appeal: amidst a dearth of personal online data, Facebook was a keyhole view into everyone else's lives.
Now we have a personal data glut. It's not so hard to find people's stuff -- blogs, photos, location -- and sometimes you might feel like you're inundated with it. But people still like Facebook (as I do) because it's an interpersonal agora and a home base. Somewhere where everyone is.
No, Google doesn't have anything like this. At least, they didn't until Buzz came out. With Buzz, it's pretty clear they're hoping Gmail will become your new inter-personal agora. If you have a Gmail account, you can easily understand why that's a good bet; most Gmailers I know leave Gmail open in their browsers at all times. Why? Its interaction design is so good that it's better than almost every mail client. Chances are, a lot of the people you care about are there, via email, Google Talk, and now Buzz, which integrates with Twitter, Picasa, YouTube and a few other services.
My colleague Erik Sherman rightly points out that Buzz doesn't integrate with all the services you use; for example, Tumblr and LinkedIn are absent, so it can never be a one-stop shop. Right? Well, sure. But if aggregation were the best thing about social networking, then why don't more people use killer aggregators like Fuser and FriendFeed? Why isn't everyone surfing about in Flock, the ultimate social Web browser? I'll tell you: it's because aggregation is complicated and it doesn't work very well. Most people don't care about having every last facet of their online life in one place.
If they did, Facebook wouldn't be the place for it. Its photo app sucks, for example; in fact, all its apps suck, perhaps with the exception of the Events app. People come to Facebook for two reasons: the first is voyeurism, by way of pictures and status updates. The second is to find people, the way they would have used the White Pages 20 years ago. Beyond that, Facebook does nothing. This was just fine a few years ago, when the main uses for the Internet were (in vaguely this order) porn, cat pictures, email, and basic fact-finding. But now even regular non-techies are getting things done online: they're collaborating, storing media, buying media, reading, writing, making art and communicating liberally. Much of this activity goes on in Google's sphere because of their excellent suite of apps: YouTube, Docs, Maps, Blogger and Google Voice, not to mention the actual search engine, which has now become hyper-local and personalized. My point is: if you're doing stuff online, you are probably already doing some of it in Google's backyard.
Think like Google for a moment. Your "online life" occurs on two axes. One is Media, or "who and what you do" online: your photos, documents, music, videos, friends' stuff, and so on. The other axis is Time/Space, aka "where and when," or the past, present, future, and of course, location. Where do these points meet? Google's goal is to make sure you can link it all together inside the Google world via Gmail, Picasa, Docs, YouTube, Gchat, Buzz, and Latitude. (Of course, the vanity in all of us also wants a static profile, and yes, Google lets you make one of those as well; mine is pictured above.)
What does Facebook do? Well, it's great for profiles, and for the here-and-now status updates, but that's about it; you can't even search into past updates. (Also of note: the only thing that Google lacks in the "who-what-when-where" department is "why." And that's why it just announced this week that it has acquired Q&A service Aardvark.)
People also like Facebook because it beautifully organizes everything it does in a nice layout. Google tools, by contrast, has sort-of awful visual design. But now go onto m.google.com, and you realize why; it's optimizing literally everything it does for mobile Internet. And well it should; the amount of traffic coming and going on the mobile Web in the U.S. is predicted to rise by 66-fold by 2013, according to Cisco Systems (CSCO).
Facebook knows that its true utility is almost nil, which is why it's reportedly planning "Project Titan," a webmail client to compete with Gmail. But it's a little late for Facebook to be getting serious in the Web apps game, don't you think?
Google hopes Buzz will be one of the final tools it needs to achieve parity with Facebook's functionality, rendering it redundant in peoples' lives. But here's what I'm not saying: that Facebook will get "killed," or Friendsterized, or lose its sway. With hundreds of millions of users and counting, that's a virtual impossibility, and Facebook has only barely tapped the developing countries. What Facebook risks losing is its cultural currency, the high regard of the top 1% of productivity-oriented Web users, otherwise known as the trend-setters. These are the people you ask when you want to know the best way to do something online. Lose them, and, well, the implications aren't good.
Want proof? How interesting do you find MySpace these days?