John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist, recently was talking with Michael Arrington, from TechCrunch, about the extraordinary growth happening around companies connected to the social network, particularly through Facebook. Doerr has called this "The Third Wave", distinguishing it from personal computers and the Internet as waves one and two.
While I agree with the idea that social networks allow extraordinary leverage for the marketing of games (Zynga) and shopping (Groupon), I think that there is a deeper trend underneath the success of these startups. Basically, Facebook allows people to actually move a meaningful portion of their lives online. Until recently, for most people, using the Internet was an occasional activity, useful in a limited context, a tool that takes its place among many other technology-driven tools in the context of a complete life, but the combination of Facebook, widely available network bandwidth and highly-functional mobile devices has allowed normal (non-techie) people to shift their Internet usage to become a fundamental area of action for their lives. By creating connections with the workplace, friends and family, physical stores and other locations, non-commercial interests, pictures and journals and all the other components that lend our lives richness and complexity, the new Internet-based tools are getting energy from the basic drives of human beings.
This is exactly the point where we should be very careful. These trends can either lead us towards more mindless consumerism and meaningless social and economic activities or they can help reinforce the best parts of our communities and our world. It should be worrying to us that the drivers for this change are companies that involve such very large amounts of money; that they are tied to global consumer-based corporations that, at root, are only interested in selling more products to more people.
Hopefully, the "Third Wave" will not just be another engine that makes the wealthy of the world even wealthier at the expense of everyone else. Our communities, and our own lives, are the most precious resources that we have, and we should not blindly link them so deeply to corporations. The "Third Wave" could be the point at which networks, and technology, start being used more for the good of people everywhere. At the very least, each user of Facebook should receive a dividend check for their contribution to creating advertising opportunities for Facebook and its partners.
More to come...