THE BLOG

Facebook News - One Step Closer to Facebook Media Inc?

02/04/2015 08:28 BST | Updated 01/06/2015 10:59 BST

Once upon a time, there was a social network called Facebook. Everyone loved it because you could keep in touch with your friends and post photos to satisfy Aunty Mary that you weren't dead or something. Then one day, Facebook grew up, got rich and changed into a terrifying entity looking for a kill. Eventually, it found the perfect victim: the media.

Currently, if you want to read a news story while in Facebook, you need to effectively leave Facebook to read it. But according to those who know these things, Facebook is currently developing a new interface which will host news stories from the world's media within Facebook itself. No more clicking on a really slow link (why are those links to websites outside of Facebook so very slow I wonder!) that takes you out of the cosy confines of Facebook and into the harsh, scary world of a real newspaper's website. Under the new tech, newspapers will publish direct to Facebook.

Evidently, the New York Times and others are reasonably keen on this idea, which at face value makes me worry about their sanity. Yes there will be ad revenue for them on Facebook but the bulk of their online revenue will, you would think, always come from ad revenue on their own site. And the charges they can level to advertisers are set by the click-through-rate on their own sites not on Facebook. Less clicks, less cash.

But it's the bigger picture that terrifies me the most. Let's look at the background and try and extrapolate the nightmare scenario. First, according to their Annual Report, in 2013 there were 1.5bn computer-based internet users and 3bn mobile internet users on the planet. Facebook's number one strategy in this report is to 'someday connect all of these people'. Yes, if it was up to them, every human with access to the internet on the planet earth would have a Facebook account. This shows the scale of their ambition. And the unique blandness of their Annual Report - no photos, no colour, just facts - demonstrates not only their supreme confidence, despite a large chunk devoted to business risks, but also just how much they care about whether you like them or their strategies.

Facebook is all about growing user numbers. And again, according to their Annual Report, the number one business threat to this growth is if: 'users increasingly engage with other products or activities'. And in the world of Facebook, it appears that 'other products' includes news media websites.

Facebook has never really shown any interest in news. They are interested in sharing pictures of kittens and compiling the world's largest data repository. But they're not interested in news. And then suddenly, they are interested. This in itself is scary - especially if you happen to own a newspaper anywhere on the planet.

But why do I find this all so terrifying? After all, I have a Facebook account. I use it - less than I used to but I'm still on there. I think Facebook is one of the greatest business and social success stories ever and on balance I wouldn't want to live in a world that hadn't invented a Facebook. It helps billions of people keep in touch in an increasingly disparate world and has delivered incalculable amounts of happiness. All good. What I do find incredibly frightening is where we go from here.

In the olden days, many people connected to the internet via AOL. AOL had the reputation for serving you up their own version of the internet; a sanitised, AOL-prioritised cut of what was available or accessible via any other search engine. Moving this theme on, think about the accusations levelled at China. They allow internet access but only to what they want you to see. They've put a wrapper around the internet and what you get in China is the Chinese government's version of the world. You can see where I'm going with this!

If Facebook sign deals with, say, 10 of the world's largest media organisations, millions of people may feel there's never a reason to leave the confines of Facebook. That means the news they see will be the news that Facebook allows to be published. And there is a danger that for many people, life may become the world according to Facebook; two truths - one outside Facebook, one inside Facebook. From that point, it's not inconceivable to imagine Facebook Media Inc - a global corporation that owns and controls the world's news.

This might all seem a bit farfetched. But remember, Facebook are very ambitious. They have a lot of talent and a lot of cash. They also have a lot of data - and data is the oil of the 21st Century and beyond. Data is worth more to governments than all the money in the world.

If you're sceptical, I understand. But if you want real sci-fi thinking to put some perspective on this, roll on 30 years. Mark Zuckerberg will be just 60 years of age; in business, at his peak. By then we'll have gone way beyond the Internet of Things and onto the Internet of Everything; every object will be connected to the internet and data will control pretty much every single thing. By then, if Facebook's ultimate ambitions play out, it's possible that you won't need a passport or any ID online or offline. You'll just need a Facebook account - and not having one just won't be a legally valid option. So if you think Facebook Media Inc is impossible, then think again.