Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Is the Facebook tide really turning?

It’s been hard to avoid the increasing number of negative Facebook stories in recent months. The company’s less than successful IPO obviously colours a lot of the press at the moment, but there has been a steady stream of stories …

Wed, Jun 6, 2012, 12:53

   

It’s been hard to avoid the increasing number of negative Facebook stories in recent months. The company’s less than successful IPO obviously colours a lot of the press at the moment, but there has been a steady stream of stories that must be making Facebook observers raise their eyebrows higher and higher as 2012 progresses. Their advertising isn’t as effective as you’d think so they’re gunning for mobile advertising. Their stock price has fluctuated that bit too much. Sean Parker is concentrating on Airtime. Should Facebook reach out for a new generation of users by allowing under 13s to join? No need to press the panic button just yet, but you’d have to wonder how well Zuckerberg is sleeping these days (probably on a pile of money, in fairness.)

There seems to be a grumbling sentiment that the tide is turning, and you could pull any number of articles together (like I’ve done above) to colour such a trend. But is this really the case? Or is this just the trajectory that the media has chosen to write into Facebook’s story arc? Company becomes successful -> company goes into decline is a narrative we’ve seen repeated with social networks, MySpace and Bebo being the two obvious ones, but Facebook broke all of the rules with its dramatic expanse, so why wouldn’t it break that trajectory too? Or, is there a risk that the intense scrutiny Facebook is always under could result in it being talked into dodgy territory?

When I spoke to Damien Mulley about the IPO back in January, he commented very sensibly on how Facebook’s continued expansion would become increasingly difficult as it reached saturation point. Facebook would now try to squeeze value out of its current users and hold on to them. But how easy is it to hold on to your customers in social network land? Facebook’s value is of course its massive network, but social networks, for all their efficiency at embedding themselves into people’s lives, don’t actually have a good record at enforcing the ultimate brand loyalty that’s necessary in order to hold on to people for more than a few years. Facebook’s real advantage is that nothing has come along that’s as good as it at what it does. Instead, supplementary social networks have cropped up doing just elements of Facebook better than Facebook does, like Twitter and Instagram. Facebook’s rather dramatic purchase of the latter shows it acknowledges that in order to survive, it needs to consume the tools that fracture its elements and offer efficient micro services. If Facebook didn’t gobble these up, pretty soon many people would be using one app for their photos, another for their status updates and another for geo-location stuff, and their use of Facebook itself would take a back seat. Social network users and first movers like new toys, and with no company brave enough (or dumb enough) to take Facebook on at everything it does, there’s going to be a continuous flow of those who will cannibalise or mimic its elements and capitalise on their novelty factor to gain users.

For all of Facebook’s integration into our lives, the sentiment that surrounds the network has gone from one of curiosity (something that makes people try it out), to necessity (something that makes people join because all of their peers are joining), to a complete embed (people migrating entire parts of their lives and identities onto the network), to habitual use, and then, eventually to less infrequent use, boredom, and worse case scenario, irritation with the service that leads people to delete their accounts. Being addicted to Facebook – like anything – isn’t actually a useful customer experience, because addiction, while resulting maximum usage, is eventually something people want to halt. While installing timer software that stops you using Facebook after a certain period, or promising yourself that you’ll only check it once a day are results of how successful Facebook is as an entity, it’s also a behaviour with negative connotations. The real online success stories with longevity are services that are necessary but not addictive – like Google or WordPress. They do what you want without sapping too much time or adjusting your actual behaviour. Until something better comes along, of course.

Facebook has certainly changed an awful lot since its inception, but essentially it hasn’t evolved beyond what it has always promised to do. One of the problems it is now facing is that its familiarity breeds contempt. For many people, Facebook has become a static holding page for their online identities, something to dip in and out of instead of something that’s constantly live in the background, as it was for most people at the beginning of their use.

Nothing is to big too fail, yet Facebook obviously isn’t in imminent danger. The problem is, when something is so giant, it’s hard for it to adapt quickly. It could be argued that Facebook has become akin to a massive aircraft carrier trying to slowly turn, while zippy little boats and planes buzz around it utilising its huge network for their own means. Of course any decline in Facebook also presents huge ramifications for companies such as Zynga which have been made by Facebook, in the same way that an oxpecker is pretty much lost without a rhino to hang out with.

I remember speaking to Michael and Xochi Birch at the height of Bebo’s success. At the time, they seemed adamant that they wouldn’t sell Bebo, having done so with another much smaller network, Ringo, previously. They had also set up Birthday Alarm in 2001, a service that had 100 million users at its peak. Of course, the Birch twosome saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, and made an extremely astute decision to sell Bebo to AOL in March 2008 for $850 million. That value is laughable now. Two years later, AOL sold it on to Criterion Capital Partners for less than $10 million. There are probably no two people with better insight on the fluctuations of social networks than Michael and Xochi Birch, which makes Michael’s very simple Facebook prophecy last year that what goes up must come down even more pertinent. They were the lucky ones. The question now, is how lucky is Facebook feeling?

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