Does Facebook’s new ‘subscribe’ button go too far?

Here’s a surprise. Facebook is copying Twitter. Again.

But this time, they might be going too far — for their own good.

Today the company announced the imminent arrival of a button that will let users track public feeds from any Facebook user, even if that user is not a Facebook friend. The button will appear next to the “Poke” and “Message” buttons on users’ profiles as soon as Wednesday, though users will have to opt in for the button’s features to apply to them.

Other sites (Twitter, cough, cough) call this feature “follow.” But that would be too honest. On Facebook, you “subscribe.”

OK. To be fair, subscribe does several things Twitter’s “follow” does not. You can choose to see only people’s photo updates, for instance. Or just the updates Facebook deems “important.” Twitter’s never moved fast on filters (or much else, for that matter). So Facebook’s got ‘em there.

A big concern in reaction to this news so far is privacy. Because this is Facebook, and that’s how it goes.

I worry about Facebook’s nature.

Facebook was built on “friending.” And it’s taken them far. 750 million users far. But as the social Web built up around them, a foundation of a different sort proved just as strong — “following.” Contrary to early expectations, the “friending” Facebook and the “following” Twitter have not destroyed each other. They’ve coexisted. On my TV, at my hair salon, even at my deli counter, there they are, “Follow us on Twitter!” and “Find us on Facebook!” — as harmonious as sky and royal blue.

For years Facebook  has successfully adapted Twitter-like features (the reply, the retweet, the linked content) to its News Feed but has failed to make a dent in Twitter’s growth. Why? Because it’s never gone for the jugular — the friendless “follow” feature itself.

Now, it has.

Guzman

I can’t blame them. So far, at least, social platform success has relied on eyeballs and time. Facebook needs us hooked, and streams of new content are the stronger drug. As addicting as Facebook is already, their “walled garden” of friend connections — their foundation — holds them back.

“Embrace and extend” can mean greater success for ambitious companies whose competitors are creeping on their turf. It can also mean disaster. Lust too much after someone else’s moxie and you risk losing your own.

Will the subscribe button bring down Facebook? Of course not. They’re not stupid. Besides, their filtering features might add a bit of awesome to one of the most familiar network growth models in the social Web.

But with that button, Facebook for the first time is reaching not just for branches, but roots.

Seven years is a ripe old age in social media to be digging that deep.

Mónica Guzmán is a Seattle journalist and community strategist who consults for startups and media and can usually be found tweeting away at @moniguzman. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

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