why facebook won’t last

I avoided Facebook for a long time.  Like many people, I think I thought of it as a slicker MySpace.  When I first saw it they even had a weird logo with a silhouette of a dubious-faced young man, and for some reason it creeped me out a little bit.

Once my lovely wife got going with it, however, it was really only a matter of time before she pulled me in.  Once I relented I realized why it’s so popular, and it’s probably safe to say that you probably have an account and don’t need me to explain what’s useful and fun about it.  Now, my wife and I are way more net-centric than many: I’m a web developer and she’s (among many other things) a web project manager.  But it’s not just people like us any more.

In the last six months or year it seems like it’s really taken off, not only in terms of the numbers of new users, but also in terms of how much use it’s gotten from people who don’t spend hours every day on the Net like I do.  For a lot of people, the Internet means Google, email, and Facebook.  And the web-centric community has gone absolutely gaga over it.  Dave Gibson from Propeller Media Works just said on the local radio show The Browser the other day that social networking sites like Facebook were going to be as big as email.  And Slate says “there is no longer any good reason to avoid Facebook”.  They even go so far as to compare it to anti-perspirant!

It’s extremely useful, it’s really fun, it’s got millions and millions of users, natch.  But I also think that it’s still entirely possible it’s a fad, and it will almost certainly face the same sort of rise and fall as MySpace, Friendster, and every other social network so far has experienced.

In Dave’s defense he elaborates a lot of the things that separate Facebook from MySpace, and he’s right.  Facebook is much better than MySpace ever was, and it fixes a lot of the things that were wrong about MySpace.  My intial feeling that Facebook was just a slicker MySpace was wrong.   Facebook is better, but it’s still probably going to fall harder. The history of the web is littered with glittering ascents followed by staggering falls.  Don’t forget that News Corp. paid $580 million for MySpace just a few short years ago, to much fanfare.  Despite the current hysteria (and my own time investment in it!) I see no reason why the same won’t happen again.  The web is built upon the flamed-out ashes of last year’s hot new thing, and that’s really been the only constant for the last fifteen years.

Why?

There are two reasons: Facebook apps and the fact that it’s a closed system.

The apps are a masterstroke and an Achilles heel at the same time.  They’re a masterstroke because they create a platform that encourages people to make cool stuff.  And if people make cool stuff, Facebook becomes more attractive, and more people join.  But it’s an Achilles heel at the same time because they create a platform that allows people to create useless crap.  And if people create useless crap and spam their friends with it, Facebook becomes less attractive, and more people leave.  Unfortunately the history of the web shows that so far spammers end up taking over sooner or later.

The fact that it’s a closed system is why it’ll never approach the usefulness of email or the cell phone.

The SMTP standard was first published in 1982, and through the collaborative work on many people, has evolved and matured so that it’s used by nearly every Internet user in the world on a daily basis.  No one owns the standard, and anyone who wants to implement the standard can write an email server or client, leading to a competitive ecosystem that’s led to a whole galaxy of ways to slice and dice email on nearly any internet-capable device.

I know less about the technical side of cell phones, but I know that there are communication standards that handset makers and service providers agree on in order to keep the lines open, and to be able to sell more products and services.  By working on open (or at least agreed-upon) standards, a competitive cellular ecosystem exists that means you can buy a used handset from someone on Ebay and have it activated with the network of your choice.

Now Facebook is cool, but when you really get down to it, it doesn’t really do anything that you can’t do other ways.  The only real utility that it has going for it is that everyone seems to be on it.

Within a couple of years someone will come up with a way of putting text and photos together in a way that’s just a little bit slicker, and then what will Facebook have?

8 Responses to “why facebook won’t last”

  1. April says:

    Very well written John. And I agree with you. When is it going to fall? When is everyone going to get sick of catching up with old friends from 20 years ago and then realize there was a reason they didn’t keep in touch with them after high school or college? It’s interesting and fun, and I am hooked, but longevity still remains to be seen. (And I am skeptical.)

  2. I have to disagree that it doesn’t really do anything that you can’t do in other ways. I never thought I would get sucked into Facebook but I have and I am so glad for it. As far as the reconnecting factor of Facebook goes there hasn’t been another service so far that has provided the same type of reach. Myspace was more about having lots of friends you don’t know. Facebook is more about having friends you do know. Reunion.com (now mylife.com) and classmates.com tried their best to become the reconnection site people would use. What stopped them? Their monthly fees. Everyone went to their site, registered their name, saw their friends had done the same but that is as far as you could go without paying a fee in order to access emails or even read messages. It was stupid and that is why everyone turned their backs. I personally don’t think Facebook even realized the untapped market of the 30 + generation who would use it they way they have to reconnect to the past. Facebook has been an amazing tool in my personal and business life. I agree that something “cooler” will probably come along sooner rather than later but I hope not too soon.

  3. Bradley Holt says:

    I agree with you 100% that open systems will eventually beat closed systems. Users will seek the innovation that comes out of free and open systems. I talked a little bit about this towards the end of my recent “Getting Semantic” blog post:

    http://bradley-holt.blogspot.com/2009/02/getting-semantic.html

    The basic idea is that there are open standards in the works that could make the “walled gardens” of existing social networking sites obsolete.

  4. Dave Gibson says:

    Hey John. Good points. Regarding “fad”. Facebook could easily get wiped out tomorrow by either the next more super awesome social XYZ or some more tragic pr screwup than they’ve already faced (how long until we learn this is all Chenney & Co). I’d argue though that social networks are here to stay. We are social beings.

    Regarding apps, they really got caught off guard by how developers and marketers went nuts. The redesign through the apps to the back of the bus in “boxes” though – reacting to the mega volume of app spam. 99% of apps really do suck. The app verification program (http://developers.facebook.com/verification.php) is designed to clean up this mess. We’ll see if it works, because I really don’t want to throw any stupid snowballs or shamrocks.

  5. jbgoode says:

    I agree with Dave and Kacey that social networking is an important function that’s going to continue.

    But Bradley is right that the next evolution is going to be to find ways to standardize the content itself so that there are better ways to make those connections. Now XFN, the standard the Bradley mentions, has been around for a while, and hasn’t really caught on too much yet, but I think the principle will still hold true in the long run, though I bet it’s going to take a while and we’ll see a few more super awesome social XYZ fads before people start seeing the benefit in something less proprietary.

    The app verification process seems like a good idea in theory is not going to cut it. First of all, it’s not mandatory, so spam-apps (spapps?) will still be part of FB. Secondly, it costs $375 to get verified, so it’s likely that only the bigger app developers will bother. And thirdly, you have to pay and go through the hassle every year.

    That’s just too big a barrier for most devs. So they will probably get low participation, the “verified app” badge won’t mean much, and so users won’t really care enough to look for it. Give them a couple of years…once super social XYZ v.2 comes out and they start bleeding users, they’ll start PAYING people $375 to develop apps.

  6. Dennis says:

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

  7. […] power of this open data is another example of why facebook won’t last as a walled garden. I don’t expect existing social networking sites to simply disappear. […]

  8. Steve says:

    Very well said, John. I’d like to add that Facebook’s insensitivity to it’s subscribers privacy may very well be its achilles heel. For years, most people have clicked through the Terms of Use Agreements without paying much attention for the simple reason that most software/web services included clauses that protected their companies, and were of little interest to the “end user”. Facebook is a pioneer of developing terms of use agreements that capitalize on their subscribers complacency. Its just a matter of time before the $h!+ hits the fan.

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