I spent the morning waiting for Norton to call and do the final fix on a dumb virus -- well, actually, it may be smart because it may still be here! -- that invaded my computer last night. In the meantime, I streamed Mark Zuckerberg's interview with John Battelle and Tim O'Reilly at this week's Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, which reminded me why so many of us want in on this technology thing, despite its lingering problems. If this virus thing is yin, the vision thing -- as outlined in this interview -- is yang.
It was probably the best interview I've ever seen with Zuckerberg, partly because Battelle and O'Reilly ask good questions, and also because the Facebook founder seems to be getting more comfortable in his own skin -- or getting more comfortable in his own skin when he's placed in front of hundreds of adoring fans. The situation seemed to elicit a real vision for the future from him, not just of social media, but of media and commerce, so let me tell you what he said, and you can continue the discussion in comments to give your own point of view.
The headline -- Facebook's current revenue source aside -- is that it doesn't have that much to do with advertising. In fact, the conversation turned away from advertising at just the point when it seemed like it was going straight for it; it happened when Battelle looked at where Facebook is today and saw it in just the way most of us would see it: as an ad network about to take over the world. Looking at the proliferation of Facebook Connect and "Like" buttons throughout the Web, Battelle said, "It strikes me that you're ready to distribute Facebook's business model off-domain ... and do a social-graph driven ad network." That's a pretty powerful thought when you consider that right now almost 25% of all display ads are now served within Facebook.
But Zuckerberg came back with something different. He started talking about the next five years, where he sees a transformation happening in virtually every content-driven vertical from news to movies, music to gaming (which is probably the furthest along of the ones mentioned). Not surprisingly, he sees them being rewritten around the rules of social media, and, without saying the "a" word, or even the "r" word (revenue), it's clear this is where he thinks the money-making opportunity is.
"Our view is that we should play a role in helping to reform and rethink all those industries, and we'll get value proportional to what we put in," he said. "In gaming we get some percentage of the value of those companies, largely through their transactions through buying ads and credits right now, but that's all because we're helping them. And, if we're helpful to other industries in building out what would be a good solution for e-commerce or something like that, then I think there will be some way to get value from that. But I don't think about exporting an ad system or anything like that."
Later on, when Battelle asked whether companies like Groupon or Gilt Groupe should worry about Facebook, Zuckerberg said, "No." Facebook sees its role as helping build out businesses using the social graph, not in building its own proprietary music services, crowdsourced deal platforms or anything similar. (Of course, where the line is gets difficult. You could argue that Facebook could have outsourced location to Foursquare and Gowalla, but it didn't.)
Was he big on the details of how this would create opportunity for Facebook? Other than letting the company make good on the goal we've all outlined for it -- of world domination? No. But I got the feeling he wasn't being clear because he doesn't know.
Still, it was a reminder that if we, as marketing people, think of Facebook as an advertising platform -- or a place to build a fan page for a brand -- we're looking at it too narrowly. Zuckerberg's vision is about a core, proven behavior: that people like experiences that have built-in social sauce. "They are a lot more engaging and are just more enjoyable for people to use." (Yeah, he had figures to back it up.)
So, while many of us focus on Facebook's advertising revenue -- which is estimated to come in at about $1.4 billion this year -- it could end up being a revenue stream that, while having its own merits, could be merely one that finances Facebook's future -- where other streams, that may not have even been thought of, may take precedence.
It's fitting that if you'd asked me what the column was going to be about two days ago, I would have said it was going to focus on Facebook's new non-email email. But, in the context of this interview, that suddenly seemed like a simple product announcement. Most of Zuckerberg's Web 2.0 remarks had to do with something much larger; how the social graph influences communications is only part of it.
This interview is long -- more than an hour -- but if you stream one video today, make it this one. Then comment below. Or, conversely, shoot your mouth off on what I wrote above.