facebook's days are numbered

Posted on 2011-06-30 13:32

No, this isn't a Google+ story. First a little history...

Unless you were in an Ivy league school in early 2004 into 2005 or in high school for the 2006 school year, you probably hadn't even heard of facebook before 2007. Opening to the masses in late 2006 (much to the disappointment of those select and happy few groups mentioned above), facebook hoped to take on social media giant MySpace which had been the leader (and arguably the creator if you ignore friendster) of the space since 2004. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp bet on Myspace in 2005 to the tune of 580 million dollars and poured more money into it, opening UK and China based sites under the same brand. It wasn't until April of 2008 that Facebook finally overtook Myspace in popularity (according to Alexa ratings) and Myspace began its long, slow decline until Murdoch had to unload it recently for a "mere" 35 million.

The decline of Myspace wasn't surprising to me. My first Myspace related post was penned in November of 2006 (facebook had been open to the public for only a couple months prior but all my friends were using Myspace to share photos, etc. so I felt compelled to sign up) and that piece pretty well set the tone for all my Myspace posts to follow. I thought that Myspace, as a social platform truly and utterly sucked. I made it my mission to present the case for why Myspace wasn't worth the effort and I took a lot of flak from friends who were vested in it and saw value there. However, since most of the replies were made on Myspace, and I have long since deleted my account, the comments of those nay sayers are now lost to history.

For a time, Myspace was all that new or casual internet users knew how to use to do those things folks generally seem want to do online including:

  • share pictures
  • post jokes, pithy comments, and anecdotes
  • enjoy a sense of community
  • discuss hobbies with other enthusiasts
  • discover new artists / musicans / porn
  • be voyeurs of other people's lives

Most of this stuff could be done in other ways on the internet long before Myspace came along, but for one critical difference: unless you were in one of the early facebook groups, not everyone you knew was doing it the same way. Add to that the fact that before 2007 not everyone you knew was even online, but by the time facebook debuted that had largely changed - even your most luddite of friends had a computer or an internet enabled mobile phone by then. Facebook had a lot more going for it than just critical user-mass, it was better coded and used more recent web technologies. It was easier to use and wasn't fouled by Rupert Murdoch's corporate stench. Facebook worked like a lot of the best web sites of the time - and was itself perhaps the best example of what the "web 2.0" was going to look like.

Facebook certainly won't fail any time soon for the reasons Myspace failed, so why do I say its days are numbered? Because eventually someone is going to come up with something else and it'll be better and everyone will start using that instead. That is my whole point in a nut shell, but feel free to read on if you're interested in what I think are important aspects of a new system to look for.

The kids will leave and find something cooler to do

Its may be too simplistic to suggest that new paradigms on the web are driven by young people and the young just want to do their own thing. While I think that may be true, it won't make Facebook any less useful to folks for the purposes I listed above so that isn't enough of a reason to trumpet the end of facebook. Young folks like to get together and hang and do cool things that mom and dad don't understand. Mom and Dad not only get facebook, they may even force their kids to hand over their account passwords. Facebook is getting less cool with each mom or grandma that signs up. Forget the privacy issues, which may be adequately solved by groups in facebook - the fact that older folks use a service at all is enough of a reason for many young folks to shun it. Again, this isn't enough reason to plan a funeral for facebook - but its a factor. So to begin with the only aspect to look for is "anything different" from Facebook (Change is the only constant).

Real functional problems to be solved

I think there are more fundamental, functional problems (which are not necessarily Facebook's problems), that when solved, will usher in the next big thing and unless Facebook is the one to solve them - Facebook's days are certainly numbered because everyone's eyeballs will go elsewhere. What kind of functional (or structural) improvements could possibly be made to a service as easy to use as facebook, and why not assume that Facebook will just implement those changes and retain dominance? Facebook has shown many times over that they are generally unconcerned with some of the following points and I suspect that they would run counter to their business model so I don't expect to see any changes like this from them.

A unified contact database owned by the user

Email has survived pretty well unchanged since its inception and might even be considered an early form of "social network" in its own right. Its a fairly rudimentary service but suffers from some of the same problems I see in social networking sites generally. Although Email != Outlook (email is NOT synonymous with Outlook), if you're an Outlook user you may know what I mean, though any mobile phone user will grasp the problem immediately as well. If you email a lot you probably maintain an address book of folks that you frequently email, thats a lot like your "friends list" on facebook but they aren't the same database. Changes made in one are not reflected in the other. You might even group your contacts together in your address book to more easily interact with more than one person at a time like you can do in "facebook groups", or put extra information into the address book like phone numbers and addresses for easier reference when you need to call someone (here's where your email client generally beats facebook by the way). Facebook has a contacts list, but while it will show you their phone number in a big ugly list it mostly just serves as a table of contents for your friend's facebook pages. Yes, you can integrate your smart phone's address book with Facebook contacts which is some kind of convergence but its pretty limited.

The brilliance of a facebook-like contact list (if it was better, portable, and more open) is that theoretically your contacts could maintain their own information and thus, your workload of contact management is reduced - everybody wins! But in reality, your contacts may decide NOT to share critical information like phone numbers or addresses or not share them with YOU specifically on the service (for privacy concerns that may have nothing to do with you at all). Or, your contacts may not be as diligent about (or interested in) updating this information as you might be, and so your facebook-like-address-book-that-doesnt-really-exist-in-a-decent-form would be a pathetic information garden compared to one you could cultivate by constantly "watering and weeding" on your own.

Heavy email users become vested in their email client (the program used to send email) because of the time they put into learning how it works, and the client's access to a database of contact information is powerful. Instead of a client running on a desktop or a mobile phone, you might use an online service like gmail or yahoo or egad, even AOL which all provide a similar functionality but accessible totally from the "cloud". Facebook can't be everything to everyone. Many people need to be able to send and receive email and it usually is (at least for now) totally separate and segregated from social networks (though Google tried with Buzz and Wave and Facebook is trying with messaging). All of the time you put into your personal address book of choice doesn't pay off when you're on facebook. Social networks like facebook are in the business of wheedling your personal information out of you so they can harness that for monetary gain. They might make it easy to put information in, but they generally make it very difficult to get out. Facebook's exporter, for instance doesn't include email addresses which makes it pretty useless. A unified database of personal contact information which will run on any platform, is easily accessible and can be queried when composing email, posting on facebook, or just for reference doesn't exist because there is no universally accepted standard for maintaining this kind of information. It can be hacked together if you're interested, but an elegant solution to this problem might draw some eyeballs.

I think what I'm looking for, really, is an open standard social networking protocol which could be used to share certain types of information in a standard way allowing greater portability for your social data. There is an attempt to create such a system based on open standards called Diaspora. Its really alpha stage code at this point, but if you're interested in checking it out, friend me! there. An open standard for social networking would make it possible for competing social networks to actually compete (right now the one with the biggest number of users wins since users only use services that all their friends are on).

Unified messaging and commenting ...and the content you create should be yours and should be exportable when you leave.

When you send an email you have to be connected to a service which provides transport for your messages. If you decide to change your service provider (lets say you move from Verizon to Cable) you may have to change your email address (unless you're already using a third party like google's gmail). Depending on how you have been using email, switching to a new system might mean losing all the contacts in your address book! In years past whenever you bought a new type of cell phone you'd end up struggling with getting your contacts over, and most folks would just give up and key them back in, but your old text messages and recent calls list? Oh that was definitely all gone. Folks who have used AOL for email and decide they want to begin using their new Verizon FIOS email system instead basically can't take their mail with them. Some feel so tied to the old system that they maintain the account indefinitely while struggling to get folks to use their new address. Yahoo and Google support POP so you can extract the mail, but Yahoo charges for the privilege of keeping your old mail using this method! Most of these services use any trick in the book to make it difficult for you to move away from them. So your own messages which you wrote and received from your own contacts are locked inside a system that doesn't want you to take them out, or offers limited means for doing so. Most systems claim that anything you post instantly becomes the property of the system. While ownership of content hasn't been a big enough reason for a mass exodus from Facebook, a system that offers more than just portability of content, but actually grants ownership to users would be pretty compelling to some. Google has been fairly good about portability in this regard, ironically the ease with which I can up and leave them is one of the big reasons I stay with them. That said, you might need some help from dataliberation.org. I like the idea of Disqus for commenting, but haven't had good luck integrating it on my own site - and since the comments are hosted elsewhere I don't have them in my database backup.

Today's online social networks are high on the creep factor

Today's online experience may involve posting in forums on many different sites depending on a user's interests. A user can authenticate with every site manually, do so with an OpenID (which basically just proves they have an account elsewhere), or a site can host a discussion forum used on many sites (like Disqus or now, facebook connect). A user might use instant messaging, IRC chat, join mailing lists, send social network messages or tweets in addition to basic email. Yet its still too easy to impersonate someone in any of these venues. There is a rising awareness of identity theft, and the recent LulzSec rampage highlights how insecure most systems remain, but public ire hasn't risen to the level where users demand better authentication and identity checking.

Whenever anything happens in the news the first thing the police, the media, and nosy folks like me do is dig up the perps facebook page. In a matter of minutes anyone can compile a list of your real world friends and their approximate locations (and so, their exact locations can be pretty quickly determined as well). In the case of a serious and infamous crime its possible that vigilante real world justice could be meted out to the wrong person, or to the friends and family of the wrong person based on 5 minutes of online research. Even if you have your entire account locked down, not all of your friends may and you have no control over their public information about you other than asking them to remove it. If something isn't overtly private (a picture of you in a group of others where you are not even "tagged") you really have no good case for asking them to remove it at all - but now with facial recognition you're ID'd anyway!

A motivated person can easily put together a false identity online (supplemented with similar accounts on other services), and using information gleaned through phishing attempts or even quick survey investigations as described above create an online persona that would be trusted by one person enough to "friend" which allows access to more information about the target (friend of friend) which can be used to improve the quality of the ruse. Creepy doesn't begin to describe the situation. These aren't Facebook's problems, per se, but a system that provides a mechanism to ensure that the user is actually who they say they are, or at least makes it harder to impersonate someone they aren't would be desirable to some, anathema to others. It would be a game changer either way.

Better access to old content

One pet peeve of mine (not a big process problem) is how limited I am when using sites like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter. Granted, I'm used to having the ability to change whatever I want on my own sites, adding queries to present data in a different way or blocks of information as I see fit - but the utter lack of any functionality like this in social networking is weird. Wouldn't users like to be able to re-arrange their pages, present the information differently from everyone else, personalize it a bit? Here I focus on only one aspect though - old content. As you post things on facebook, the older posts move down-page until they are eventually moved off the page entirely and are unlikely to ever be seen again - much like tweets on twitter. This forced obsolescence of perfectly good content is bothersome to me. There should be a way to refer or list older posts, or to link to them in some way. On this site there are links to "related posts" at the end of every post - while its done programmatically, having a link to an older post which has to do with a similar subject keeps that old content relevant. I also do that through the use of "tags" or simply by category, but none of this is possible on facebook for some reason. This is a simple addition of functionality that could be easily implemented in facebook, so I think there may be some business reason why they haven't done this yet.

Facebook's days are numbered, but who can reckon the number of the beast?