Facebook as Tastemaker

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook, the Web’s biggest social network, is where you go to see what your friends are up to. Now it wants to be a force that shapes what you watch, hear, read and buy.

The company announced new features here on Thursday that could unleash a torrent of updates about what you and your Facebook friends are doing online: Frank is watching “The Hangover,” Jane is listening to Jay-Z, Mark is running a race wearing Nike sneakers, and so forth. That in turn, Facebook and its dozens of partner companies hope, will influence what Frank and Jane and Mark’s friends consume.

Facebook, in short, aims not to be a Web site you spend a lot of time on, but something that defines your online — and increasingly offline — life.

“We think it’s an important next step to help tell the story of your life,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, who introduced the new features at the company’s annual conference for developers. He called what Facebook was doing an effort to “rethink some industries.”

Facebook’s moves sharpen the battle lines between the social networking giant and Google, the search giant, because Facebook is trying to change the way people find what they want online. Searching the Web is still the way most people discover content — whether it is news, information about wedding photographers or Swiss chard recipes. Facebook is trying to change that: in effect, friends will direct other friends to content. Google has its own social network product in Google+, but it is far behind Facebook.

“This is two big rivals getting into each others’ backyards,” said Sean Corcoran, an analyst with Forrester Research. “It changes the game for what social networks have been doing. What Facebook is saying is, we are your life online, and also how you discover and share.”

Facebook is not becoming a purveyor of media products, like Apple or Amazon.com. Rather, it is teaming up with companies that distribute music, movies, information and games in positioning itself to become the conduit where news and entertainment is found and consumed. Its new partners include Netflix and Hulu for video, Spotify for music, The Washington Post and Yahoo for news, Ticketmaster for concert tickets and a host of food, travel and consumer brands.

For companies that distribute news and entertainment, a partnership with Facebook can draw eyeballs and subscribers, though it still remains unclear exactly how much more revenue a Facebook friend recommendation can generate. Music industry analysts said the new Facebook offerings stand to improve the prospects of new media companies like the music service Spotify, which already has two million users worldwide. But they also pose a challenge to the biggest music seller of all: iTunes from Apple, which has added social features that have gained little traction.

For Facebook, the potential payoff is huge, especially as it seeks to make itself more valuable in advance of a possible public offering. A new feature called Timeline lets users post information about their past, like weddings and big vacations. And everywhere on the site, users will be able to more precisely signal what they are reading, watching, hearing or eating. This will let Facebook reap even more valuable data than it does now about its users’ habits and desires, which in turn can be used to sell more fine-tuned advertising.

How users will react to the new features remains to be seen. The site’s evolution could make it easier for them to decide how to spend their time and money. But it could also potentially allow them to shut out alternative viewpoints and information that is not being shared among their set of friends.

And not everyone wants to rely on their friends to shape their cultural discoveries. “Some of my friends have pretty awful taste in music,” said Alexander White, whose Colorado-based Next Big Sound tracks social media responses for artists and record labels. “It’s one filter. Its not the be-all, end-all.” – Nytimes