I don't like to be negative about other people's startups, but when I told Howard that I didn't get Acebucks, the company that he, Peter Thiel, Mark Pincus and James Altucher funded, he wrote back...
"You hate it? I like haters"
I don't *totally* hate it, but I do think a conversation about it would be interesting, because it touches upon a lot of interesting topics, like virtual economies, the Facebook platform, platforms in general, etc.... plus, I'm not sure I see the promise of this. I say that given that smart people have already invested in it, so who cares what I think, right?
When I first heard about Acebucks, one of my first thoughts was "Why isn't Facebook doing this?" It seems natural that a place that supports gifting and various forms of profile bling would want to make micropayments go as smoothly as possible. Letting someone else handle that would be like the government privatizing the Treasury and the US Mint. It's almost ludicris IF the governing body sees currency as a major cog in the engine of their society. Certainly Linden Labs sees it as integral to their economy and strategic to their business to run the currency, as does Habbo and Cyworld. Why not Facebook?
Here are a few possible explanations of why Facebook might not do this itself:
1) Facebook sees itself as a network of webpages, not an immersive virtual world. Note the comparisons I made where currencies are big businesses for social spaces. Those spaces are a lot more like our typical definition of virtual worlds thanFacebook is. They are places to play, to build, to be someone else. Facebook is where I connect as the real me to real other people that I actually know. There's not a lot of "virtual" in that definition, and what that means is that you lack the organic elements that create value in the first place. The concept of land ownership and the ability to build things in Second Life are the elements native to the system. Because these take scarce resources, you create the concept of value and the need for currency.
Acebooks has the unenviable task of needing to do the job of going out and encouraging the development of scarcity, like multilevel games and virtual items to create the need for currency in the first place. When step one of your business plan is create the need for yourself, that's not going to be easy. Not only that, one thing that a lot of people don't seem to understand about virtual currencies is that they only make sense when everyone else is just as immersed in the system as you are. If you buy a sword that cuts through anything in Warcraft, everyone you encounter can see and respect the value of that. If you buy a picture of a sword in Facebook, people see a picture of a sword which might be cool, but they don't know you spent 1000 Acebucks on it, nor they they really care, because they're not into the games needed to be played to win Acebucks.
Taking what works in Warcraft, Second Life, and Habbo to Facebook doesn't necessarily guarantee success. These are all unique communities with their own norms.
2) Facebook doesn't want to be Microsoft and just eat the successful people who build on its platform. In the 90's, if you made Windows software, there was always the fear that Microsoft would ride up from beneath you in the stack and swallow you whole. This made for a very uneasy relationship. Perhaps Facebook is just trying to be as developer friendly as possible, and even when people build applications that should absolutely be a critical piece of their business, they're just going to let it fly, and not make a big stink over their success. That would certainly make it a more attractive place to develop.
3) Maybe Acebucks is just built to flip and Facebook is just waiting to see if it gets any market adoption before it trades some hyperhyped Facebook stock and a little cash for it. Facebook has more than enough things to worry about without going off into some kind of currency experiment before it will spend any mental resources and management bandwidth on this. They could just let the Acebook folks test the currency idea to see if it will fly, sort of like outsourced R&D. This would be pretty smart on their part and pretty smart on the part of Acebucks so long as their financing was done at a valuation conducive to the flip.
Either way, I'm just uncomfortable with the idea of a startup built on a platform that could just shut it off or compete against it. You could say that about any app, but few other apps are on missions so critical to revenue generation like micropayments. I doubt Facebook would want to build its own version of Zombies, but a virtual currency might hit too close to home. I suppose with Facebook investor Thiel on board, they'd know a little something about what Facebook's strategy is here. His presence makes this seem a lot more like outsourced R&D on Facebook's part and, in my mind, supports the built to flip possibility.