Is Facebook “like air” yet?

June 29, 2010

In April, Facebook launched of a set of “social plug-ins” that let anyone put tools Facebook’s comment box and “Like” button on websites outside of Facebook. Just three weeks after these social plug-in tools were launched, more than 100,000 sites had installed the tools.

It was huge news in the worlds of technology and marketing. Not because it was the next big step for the social-networking giant. Not because it presented potentially huge privacy concerns for users of the service that has previously danced all over both sides of the line that separates respect for privacy from abusing users’ trust. And not because it gave geeks and marketers fun new toys to tinker with.

It was huge because it marked what was arguably the biggest stride to date toward what Charlene Li, a social media marketing analyst formerly with Forrester Research, described as a future in which online “social networks will be like air.” That is, the people and entities we’re connected to online and the things they share will surround us and be taken for granted — like air. Their presence will be the norm, not the exception. And if you think our social networks aren’t as crucial to our survival as air, ask the nearest psychology major about Maslow’s hierarchy.

Ubiquitous social networks are different from “everyone uses Facebook, dude.” It means tools for being social are built in to places you already are, things you’re already doing. You don’t have to go somewhere to be social. Before Facebook’s announcement, I would read news on cnn.com and visit facebook.com to see what my friends were reading and sharing. Today, I visit cnn.com and see the big feature story, a list of latest-news headlines and a list of headlines for CNN articles my friends (as defined by the connections I’ve made on Facebook) have read and liked.

On levi.com, the clothing maker shows me how many friends and which friends like the jeans I’m looking at. The social-fueled site also reminds me about my friends’ upcoming birthdays and any Levi products they might like — just in case I’m inspired to pick out a gift. I don’t need to go anywhere or do anything to take advantage of these social elements. With Facebook’s recent developments, my friends are always with me. And the potential uses for this social ubiquity are limitless.

This puts two crucial and very different methods for information gathering and filtering side by side: I see stories or products deemed relevant or significant by a well-informed and -trained professional gatekeeper alongside items my friends deemed interesting, entertaining, shocking or otherwise worthy of sharing. And of course, my friends likely share at least some of my interests and certainly capture my attention more easily than some anonymous editor.

Friends, in the “real world” and online (which, of course, isn’t real, right?), make everything better. When I see a funny YouTube video, my first inclination is to share it with friends. When I’m moved by a great song, I want my friends to have an opportunity to experience the feeling, too. When my kid does something cute or funny (daily!), I want my friends and family to share in the fun. When one of my friends writes a compelling blog post, I like to do him or her the favor of helping spread the word as much as possible. These “social plug-ins” from Facebook will make that impulse easier and more natural to act upon, arguably more so than any other development since the advent of Facebook itself.

So what does this mean for companies trying to communicate effectively in this social media-obsessed landscape? Think about ways in which you can create things — products, videos, events, blog posts, experiences — people want to share with their friends. Better yet, what can you do to honestly make people want to be friends with you? I’ll spare you the clich├ęs about this being the era of conversational marketing or that “content is king” and so on, but I will tell you this: If people don’t like you, you’re going to have trouble liking your results.