Still basking in the afterglow of Facebook’s long overdue social, or “graph search” announcement, I couldn’t help but reflect on an old saying of my high school guidance counselor: “generalists don’t get anywhere in life. If you want to succeed, you have to specialize.” In my youth, I took this advice to heart as I plodded along to obtain an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s in mediaeval history. It was only after crafting the thesis of my future Phd, “The Extent to Which the Carolingian Conception of Milites Christi Influenced that of the Franco Normans of the First Crusade,” that I took a hard moment to reflect on the sagacity of my guidance counselor’s advice. Shortly thereafter, I jumped ship back to America, and well, the rest is history. That experience taught me two things: 1) Sometimes questioning the conventional wisdom is necessary, 2) Perhaps the being a generalist isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the old saying, “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” isn’t meant to be a disparaging epitaph, but rather a guiding, aphorism.
As I write this, I can’t help but wonder if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn’t in fact a generalist for all seasons. After all, the boy wonder excelled at Classics in high school, claiming on his college application to be able to read and write French, Hebrew, Latin and Greek (by the way, these are great languages for a mediaevalist; perhaps another career option on the horizon for Zuck?). His uncommon mastery of the ancient West has been pithily corroborated by none other than Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who noted that Zuckerberg was "really into Greek odysseys and all that stuff", recalling how he once quoted lines from the Roman epic poem Aeneid, by Virgil, during a Facebook product conference.
Perhaps the road to success is paved by the specialists but trod upon by the generalists after all.
GENERALIST IN CHIEF
I was thinking about this very question when trying to digest the implications of Facebook’s recent announcement of its “graph search” search engine. An article in the Wall Street Journal positioned the move as a potential threat to other tech industry Titans such as LinkedIn, Amazon, Yelp, and of course, Google.
The Journal's argument got me thinking: Can Facebook, with its huge army of active social users, provide all of the online services that are most relevant to their daily lives? Can they be everything to everybody? Can Facebook (and by implication, Zuck) become the Internet’s Generalist in Chief?
Any attempt to answer this begs some more fundamental questions: How, or by what process, do Internet users (many of whom are Facebook users) tend to search for their daily wants and needs? Assuming Facebook was able (a very open question at this point) to adequately provide all of these services, would most people opt for its solution over others? If so, how do we define “adequate?” In other words, would Facebook have to be as good as or better than its specialist rivals in each online service element, or would the majority of us opt for the convenience its comprehensive services regardless? In the end, when it comes to online services, which is more important, efficiency or excellence?
“I’LL TAKE THE FACEBOOK BUNDLE”
For those who do not yet see the path for Facebook to at least try and be everything to everybody, here is a very brief and simplified (by no means comprehensive) review of some of their current or pending product offerings:
Facebook Graph Search, Facebook Gifts, Facebook Ads and Sponsored Stories, Facebook Exchange, Facebook Timeline, Facebook Events, Facebook Groups, Facebook Dropbox, Facebook Mobile Apps, Facebook Mobile Texts, Facebook Apps/App Store, Facebook Pages, Facebook Offers, Facebook News Feed, Facebook Check-In, Facebook Sharing (photos, videos, places).
Some of these offerings are focusing on improving the internal user experience on Facebook, but many others are not. For example, Facebook Gifts ostensibly competes with ecommerce sites such as Amazon; Its Timeline and Newsfeed are modeled after elements of Pinterest and Twitter; the Facebook Ad suite of services, ranging from Sponsored Stories to Exchange, is focused on taking market share from Google; Check-ins mirror Foursquare’s primary service; Graph Search is likely to compete with Google+’s social search, as well as social mobile services like Yelp. I could go on; I think you get the point.
Granted, the concept of bundling online services is becoming increasingly prevalent among the top tech players - think Amazon Local deals or Twitter’s Sponsored Tweets. The key difference is that none of these companies - not even-Google - can boast a one-billion-strong social network, roughly half of whom are daily active users who access the service via mobile. Given that the future of the Internet is social, local, mobile (SoLoMo), this is a critical point.
Which brings us back to our unanswered questions, the principal of which is, can Facebook become the online Generalist in Chief, the one Generalist to rule them all, or will its ambitions be dashed by the individual acumen of its specialist competitors? I don’t have the answers; I suppose only time will tell.
This much I will say: I would personally never bet against a man who can quote Virgil at his own company’s tech conference.
Just one generalist’s opinion…