Facebook's China Syndrome

Facebook may (or may not) be opening up a social network inside the Great Firewall. It's going to happen eventually. And when they do, they'll live to regret it.

If certain news reports are to be believed, then Mark Zuckerberg is about to have his whole “sharing is the new social norm” philosophy put to the test by as many 1.3 billion beta testers.

Chinese news sources report that Facebook is partnering with China search king Baidu to build a social network inside the Great Firewall. Here’s a wonderfully Google-mistranslated summary of the story on DoNews:

According to the disclosure of inside information Baidu, Facebook has signed a cooperation agreement with Baidu in the future the two sides will work together to create a new site, and Facebook will take the formal entry into China.

The source said, Facebook and Baidu will not be established in cooperation with the Facebook.com website to get through, but will create a new SNS site, but now the time to launch the site has not been determined.

The reason that the new social net “will not be established in cooperation with the Facebook.com website” is that the Facebook.com website is currently banned in China.  Damn, hate it when that happens.

Just to be fair, a new competing rumor is circulating that Facebook is not necessarily partnering with Baidu to “take the formal entry into China.”

[ See also: That new Facebook friend might just be a spy ]

Both of these stories come from unnamed “inside” sources, which means they have a more or less equal chance of being true. Facebook’s official response is no more illuminating:

“We are currently studying and learning about China, as part of evaluating any possible approaches that could benefit our users, developers and advertisers,” Palo Alto, California- based Facebook said in an e-mailed statement.

My translation of that statement: We might be making a deal in China, and we might not – but in either case we certainly aren’t going to tell you.

Here’s why this deal makes no sense.

The premise of Facebook is that you share information with your “social graph” (a term I really despise, by the way). The premise of China is that you only share information the Chinese government wants you to share, or you end up sharing a cell with those Falun Gong types and pesky human rights protestors.

So the kind of unfettered sharing Mark Z. probably dreams about when he lays his head down at night is going to be closely monitored and heavily censored – that, or a treasure trove for Chinese security personnel. Which means I cannot see the Chinese version of Facebook taking off in quite the same way it has elsewhere.

Here’s why this deal will probably happen anyway, at some point.

Facebook is in the same position Google was in a few years back – anxious to get into a nascent market that’s several times larger than the US market before somebody else gets there first.

So, like Google, it’s going to face a tough choice: Ignore a market that’s poised to explode, or swallow their principles and dive in feet first. I think Facebook will do the latter, and eventually live to regret it, the way Google and Yahoo and other American Web companies have, thanks largely to the policies coming out of Beijing.

Just my humble opinion.

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