Let's start the column with a multiple choice question, which you can answer on your own. Here it is:
I'm glad Facebook exists because:
a) It helped
Egyptians speak their minds and overthrow a dictator.
b) It kept me up to speed on whether or not Lindsay Lohan was going to read the Top Ten list on David Letterman last night. (She didn't.)
c) It's helping me make oodles of money because the brand I represent has so many Facebook "Likes."
d) It has allowed me to reconnect with my 81-year-old uncle.
e) All of the above.
f) I'm not on Facebook, and I point and laugh at people who are.
Why do I ask? Because Facebook is at the center of what can only be called a media profundity. Even as those of us in the business figure out how to market brands on Facebook, and also use it to catch up with our uncles and the latest gossip, it is also proving game-changing in ways that are exponentially more significant than, say, whether or not Oreos this week set the world record for Facebook "Likes." (It did, for 24 hours, only to be out-liked by Lil' Wayne.)
When and where else, I've asked myself in the last few weeks, has a media property been an ad revenue juggernaut that can also foment a revolution? And what does that say about Facebook, as opposed to all of the other media properties that have come before it?
The truth is that even Facebook is looking for a suitable answer to that question. In a story this week, headlined, "Facebook Officials Keep Quiet on Its Role in Revolts," unidentified execs told The New York Times about its challenges: "Facebook does not want to be seen as picking sides for fear that some countries -- like Syria, where it just gained a foothold -- would impose restrictions on its use or more closely monitor users."
God, it's hard to make money and rally the people at the same time. But seriously, what Facebook -- and the rest of us -- are grappling with is what it means to be a platform that can truly be all things to all people. In fact, if the volume of corporate Facebook pages is any indication, it is also arguably all things to all entities. To an extent, I borrow this idea from Lou Kerner, the Wedbush Securities social media analyst who speaks of Facebook as the "second Internet." If I understand the concept correctly, he sees Facebook as a layer of audience, interaction and currency that more and more often sits on top of the first Internet -- which had plenty of content, but wasn't very social.
Now, with Facebook (and, yes, other social platforms), the Internet is becoming a layer cake. There is the layer of platforms and content that have formed the Internet for more than a decade, and now there's this whole extra layer, where people share content, both from the first Internet and the hard-drive of their digital devices. Or they use the second Internet to get in touch with friends, interact with brands -- and tell like-minded souls the location of their anti-government protest.
Before Facebook, we would've assigned that roster of responsibilities to entire platforms, not to one media company. The U.S. mail might have served many of those functions. Or the telephone. Or TV. But if I look for an equivalency in power involving only one media property, I can't find it, except possibly in state-run media, which, of course, is inherently not social. Something tells me Kim Jong-il doesn't have much need for Facebook.
Yes, this is different, because now, only one property -- 600 million people strong -- is performing almost the entire repertoire of human communication at once. So what does this means for brands? It should never mean targeting camping gear to protesters who refuse to leave their city's central square, though, inevitably, some lines between commerce and community will be crossed.
Instead, it highlights something that the best brands have always done, and that is to respect the media property in which you're doing business. It's just that on Facebook, this is heightened. While you should never show an ad for Viagra on Nickelodeon, on Facebook, advertisers have to respect that it's a loose collection of micro-communities, in some of which advertisers might be welcomed, and others where they might not.
And the last few weeks are also a reminder of Facebook's power. Well, duh. If so-called new Coke --- the brand's disastrous attempt to reformulate itself in the 1980s -- were to happen today, the revolt over it wouldn't spawn a revolution -- or one would hope. But Facebook (and Twitter) would have served as the hubs of consumer outrage. This means that Facebook isn't just a media property, or a potent ad platform. It's a place where people express their love of Oreos (and Lil Wayne), while a couple of clicks away, people are using it to change the trajectory of their countries and their lives. And don't you forget it.