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Justin Webb: The Bank of the Internet

Column By Justin Webb on May 25, 2010

In this article I’m going to talk about Facebook’s latest iteration of their privacy policy and what that may ultimately mean for the internet and, specifically, MMO gamers. To do so, I’m going to refer to Jeff Jarvis’ distinction of “a” public versus “the” public; link to a pretty diagram; and to an article in the New York Times. The United States Constitution will be mentioned. Facebook’s attempt to become the Bank of the Internet will be alluded to. And a war between Google and Facebook will be hinted at. At the end of the article is shameless plug.
 
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Recently, Facebook updated their privacy policies making it extremely difficult to keep private stuff private. An article in the New York Times estimates that you now need to navigate through “50 settings with more than 170 options” to manage all your Facebook privacy options. And that the privacy policy itself is a staggering 5830 words long, 1300 more than the US Constitution.
 
Jeff Jarvis summarized these recent changes in an article at buzzmachine.com, clarifying the distinction between “a” public (a small group that you define) and “the” public (everyone on the internet). Here are some choice snippets:
 
“Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion.”
 
In Facebook, we get to create our publics. In Twitter, we decide which publics to join. But neither is the public sphere; neither entails publishing to everyone. Yet Facebook is pushing us more and more to publish to everyone and when it does, we lose control of our publics.”
 
Twitter is all about publishing to “a” public. When you tweet something, your 140 characters only get seen by your followers, who are a select group of individuals that you can manage. Conversely, when you write a blog, it goes out to “the” public – everyone can see it if they can find it. When Facebook first started, it was all about creating “a” personal public. Over time, the details about your account have become less and less private and more and more public. Matt McKeon has an excellent graphic here that shows that progression.
 


Big Brother is watching

Now many of us don’t really care about what happens on Facebook (or our private information) and not everyone agrees with Jeff Jarvis. We’re MMO gamers! Whether you like it or not, Facebook is a social-networking juggernaut with tremendous momentum. Odds are, your Mom has a Facebook account. It has become endemic among “casual” gamers, with a current user base of over 400 million users. For many many people, Facebook is the internet. If Facebook’s privacy options become “standard” and trickle down as “best practices”, the implications for other online game services are a bit scary.
 
For example, similarly to your Twitter followers, your WoW guild is also “a” public -- when you gchat, only members of your guild hear you. If Blizzard ever follows Facebook’s lead, suddenly all your gchats would become available to “the” public, along with all your personal information. And that information could then be sold on to third parties so that you could be targeted by advertisements. Of course, this would never happen. Incidentally, this happens all the time on Facebook.
 
 “But that won’t affect me. I play WoW. It’s not on Facebook.” Of course, that’s right ... for now.
 
In the meantime, Facebook is maneuvering itself to become the payment method of the internet through the use of Facebook Credits (which are currently in beta). These credits are bought directly from Facebook and are then used to pay for virtual things in any Facebook app. It’s a way for Facebook to get a slice of the Zynga pie – well all the pies actually. In addition, Facebook Connect is a feature that allows you to login to third-party shopping sites using your Facebook credentials … in exchange for your personal information. Facebook then knows where you like to spend money, and on what. If you join the dots, one of the scary conclusions is that third-party Facebook Connect retail partners will soon accept Facebook credits as payment. It’s a genius idea – truly one-stop shopping, without having to create separate accounts for each retailer you visit. At that point,
 
Facebook will have become the Bank of the Internet.
 
Back to WoW -- it isn’t going to be around forever. There is a growing trend in MMO gaming to become streaming-client-based or browser-based. MMO publishers want this – they would much rather have you play instantly than have to download a gargantuan executable on launch day. While the MMO dinosaurs still rule the gaming landscape, the MMO mammals are coming. And they will be quick and agile and browser based:
 
The next MMO that “out-WoWs WoW” the way WoW “out-Everquested Everquest” will make a fortune, possibly in Facebook credits.
 
The current best candidate for a quality browser-based MMO client is the Unity Engine. Right now, Unity can do some amazing things (for example, Tiger Woods Online, Need for Speed World, FusionFall, etc.) but it doesn’t quite have the guts to handle an MMO. Moore’s Law should take care of that.
 
What’s interesting is what Google is up to.
 
Last week, Google announced that Unity would be included as standard in their Chrome browser. They also announced the opening of the Chrome Web Store “later in the year”. In addition to the Chrome OS (coming sometime in the second half of 2010), Google has also been quietly building a super-fast fiber-optic network. The whole Chrome platform sounds like some stiff competition for Apple, and, if it all integrates nicely together, competition for Facebook too. Google doesn’t want you using Facebook credits to buy stuff, they want to sell you apps that do the same thing on Chrome. It’s ON!
 
Ultimately, very soon, technology will be at a point where it will be possible to play an MMO in a browser – my money’s on Chrome ... or in Facebook running on Chrome. And, at that time, Facebook will have a massive captive player base and its own currency. Being able to tap into that market and precisely target gamers with advertisements will be very appealing to Unity MMO developers. Or devs might go the Chrome route and bypass Facebook altogether. Will it result in MMOs that we want to play? Who knows? But it’s gonna happen.
 
Two years, tops.
 
Shameless Plug: My favorite ex-Mythic employee is currently the Featured Gamer of the Week at ForceDisconnect.com. She’d love your vote.

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