I had the pleasure a few days ago of writing a piece for Wired magazine’s Opinion site on How Facebook Killed the Virtual World (which you can feel free to go and read, if you haven’t already — I’ll wait here). It garnered a predictable raft of reactions from virtual world fans. With a title like that, how could it not? But one comment in particular sparked some additional thoughts. Ramzi Yakob wrote:
To be honest, I don’t see how Facebook bears any relevance to MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. You’re effectively arguing that a CHANNEL has the ability to replace CONTENT… which it can’t. The ability to use Facebook as a channel for games isn’t something I’d dispute – whether or not it has the ability to disrupt multi-billion dollar ventures that produce very high quality content is completely ridiculous.
There are some interesting semantic things going on here. I’m not arguing that a channel can “replace” great content. But I am arguing that channels have a great deal of influence in determining what content we consume. And by extension, I’d say that content on its own merits doesn’t have as much power — and that its power wanes as channels mature. This is the “build it and they will come” fallacy of Internet services: it almost never works that way. You have to put an enormous amount of effort into getting your content, no matter how great it is, in front of the people who may want it. And this is something Facebook facilitates very well — so well, in fact, that it is likely having an impact on our patterns of consuming even expensively produced, high-quality content like top-shelf MMORPGs and the like.
I say “likely” because it’s tough to measure, but there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence. And there are definitely plenty of (moderately) happy Facebook investors and newly minted Facebook millionaires who stand very firmly behind the idea (as I do) that Facebook can disrupt enormous and established industries that trade in high-quality content. Spotify (for which a Facebook account is necessary) is a great example of this, as are all the marketing campaigns on all the Facebook pages for all the movies, TV shows, games, and consumer products you’re buying every day.
Below the jump is the response I originally made to Ramzi’s comment:
I don’t think Facebook has won the entire Internet. But channels are very powerful when it comes to determining the content that gets consumed, and both Facebook and the iPhone are great examples of this — just in terms of their ability to drive consumers to games, let alone in other ways. In most cases, that power more than matches the power of content to draw attention based on its merits alone. Think about producing a $30 million MMORPG and *not* doing a marketing campaign on Facebook — hard to imagine. Facebook, Steam, Apple’s app store: When the portal becomes more powerful than the content it provides, the portal has won a significant battle. We’re just hitting that point now with those portals. There will always be the Minecrafts, but those will also always trend as pirate radio has: toward increasing marginalization as the channel technology matures. What saves us from complete homogenization / cable-TV-ization is the evolution of channel technology and the rise of new channels. Hm, I smell a new post coming on… (And yes, before you ask, my name *is* Marshall McLuhan.)
On top of all that, there are, as I point out in the article, more and more graphically intensive (i.e., “high-quality”) games to be found on Facebook, including the pretty fun Uberstrike (pictured above), among others. Facebook as a generalized portal for Internet content — a capital-C Channel — is rapidly maturing. It’s hard to tell where it ends up, but one branch of its evolution will see it leverage technologies like HTML5 and Unity to create more and more compelling experiences that are available within Facebook itself — and in some cases, only within Facebook. So yes, there is a sense in which the Channel can replace the Content, at least insofar as the channel has the power to determine what content gets consumed.